The Turkeys Of Arkansas: What's Ahead?

While last season's harvest was down from the previous season's, the long-term prognosis for turkeys seems good. Let's take a closer look -- one informed by the savvy of the Natural State's top turkey biologist.

Mark & Sue Werner

If you're one of the thousands of Arkansans who take to the woods this spring to hunt gobblers, you're no doubt suffering a raging case of turkey fever by now. You've probably been out to prowl around your hunting area a little, and you'll spend at least a few March mornings listening for gobbling activity.

But Arkansas is large, and things vary widely among the four physiographic regions. No matter how much pre-season scouting a hunter does, it's impossible to get a very accurate handle on turkey hunting prospects and conditions outside his immediate area. There's just not enough time to get the job done.

There's not enough time -- even if you're Brad Carner and it's your full-time job. His responsibility as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's turkey program coordinator is to monitor turkey populations and habitat conditions throughout the state and to use that information to make recommendations for future turkey seasons.

GATHERING THE FACTS

But since there's only one Brad Carner, and since much of his job keeps him in his office and out of the field, the AGFC tackles the problem by assigning the information-gathering chores to its little army of biologists and wildlife officers. From June through August, these field personnel keep records of the turkeys they see during the normal course of their duties. They tally gobblers and hens alike, as the gobbler:hen ratio is an important indicator for estimating gobbler carryover from the previous spring's hunting season.

But the most valuable sightings during this three-month survey period are of hens both with and without broods. It's hen sightings and average brood size and age that indicate the relative success or failure of the current year's hatch.

"When a biologist sees a hen with young birds, the biologist makes every effort to count the number of poults and estimate their age in weeks, using a chart printed on the brood survey form," Carner explained. "Sometimes that's not possible, but over the three-month period we'll gather enough sightings, poult counts and age estimates to work with."

For example, this year's sightings totaled 715 gobblers and 1,480 hens -- a decent sample size as wildlife management surveys go. It would be nice to have more, sure. However, with that many to work with, the margin of error is acceptably narrow.

All these data are funneled to Carner, who compiles them and then crunches the numbers on both a statewide and a regional basis. Through this process, he comes up with a set of indicators that can tell him the relative strength or weakness of the current year's hatch, the average hatch date, the ratio of jakes to longbeards in the current population, the proportion of gobblers in the total turkey population, and several other things. This information combines with mast surveys and other data to constitute the foundation on which Carner and his committee of fellow wildlife biologists build the turkey management and hunting season recommendations that they submit to the commissioners.

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY

It doesn't take a genius to realize that wildlife biologists and other conservationists in Arkansas and elsewhere have done a good job of managing wild turkeys over the past 50 to 60 years. Without going into detail (the details come in next month's issue in an article about the fall and rise of modern-day Arkansas turkey hunting), this grand spring sport is a born-again thing.

A look at the harvest figures proves the point: In 1940, the statewide turkey harvest was 153. In 1950 it was even lower, at 145, and things weren't a whole lot better in 1960, when the total was 566. But take a peek at the figures after that: 1970 -- 1,164; 1980 -- 6,704; 1990 -- 7,146; 2000 -- 17,603.

Seventy years ago, Arkansas turkeys were almost extinct. The surviving birds were restricted to a pitiful few small flocks hanging on in the most remote bottomland regions, with maybe a few birds in the most rugged parts of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Today, thanks to improved habitat, restocking efforts and an ever-growing base of knowledge about managing them, wild turkeys are present in all suitable habitat in the Natural State. Gobblers are legal game during the spring season in at least part of every county.

UNCONTROLLABLES

However, no matter how much wildlife biologists learn about managing turkey populations or how skillful they become at putting that knowledge to work, there are things beyond their control that can hurt turkey populations. Two of those things are weather and politics. Unfortunately, both have been in play in Arkansas in recent years.

The results showed up last spring. Despite excellent weather throughout most of the season all over the state, the kill for spring 2004 was 16,969. That sounds like a lot of birds, but it represents a significant turn in the wrong direction.

"The 2004 harvest was down 15 percent from 2003's record of 19,947," said Brad Carner. "The decrease was pretty evenly spread across the four major physiographic regions, ranging from 13.6 percent in the Ouachitas to 18 percent in the Gulf Coastal Plain."

Over the past three years, brood-survey data reveal below-average poult production, and it's almost certainly no coincidence that these last three years have also been marked by above-average rainfall during the nesting season (late April into early June). North Arkansas hunters in particular will remember the torrential 10-inch rainfall that came over a three-day period in mid-April last spring. That sort of rain certainly doesn't improve turkey nesting conditions, or the survival of early-hatched poults.

"Since AGFC started conducting brood surveys, the long-term average brood size has been 3.5 poults per hen," Carner said. "But for the past three years, the ratio has been well below that long-term average. In 2004, for the second consecutive year, the poult-per-hen ratio was only 1.7. That's 51 percent below the long-term average."

Of course, there's not much you can do about the weather except to provide habitat offering turkeys the best chance of finding cover suitable for keeping them out of the worst of the wet stuff and, thus, healthy. The trouble is that newly hatched poults don't start growing feathers that will shed water until they're a week to 10 days old. If a down-covered poult gets wet, that poult is a goner. Either wet, rainy weather or flooding during nesting and hatching season will be a make-or-break factor for successful turkey reproduction.

By analyzing the age of poults seen during the summer brood surveys and back-dating to determine the average hatching date, average onset of incubation date and average breeding date, Arkansas biologists have known since the 1980s that the onset of the peak period of turkey breeding occurs around April 10. Cooler-than-normal or warmer-than-normal springs may shift that date a few days in either direction, but since the onset of breeding is linked more to day length than to temperature and weather, annual variation is slight.

"Turkey brood survey data from 1992 through 2003 indicate that the peak breeding dates for turkeys in Arkansas lie between April 10-15," Carner wrote in a hand-out for a public meeting last September, "with 85 percent of all successful hens during that 12-year period being bred on or after April 10."

Furthermore, he stated, very little difference could be discerned in the timing of peak breeding dates in each of the four major physiographic regions. In his words: "(T)here is a negligible difference in peak breeding dates from north to south across the state."

That's why the opening day of Arkansas' spring turkey season was pushed farther into April in the mid-1980s. Biologists recommended the delay to give turkeys time to go about their reproductive business before hunting season arrived. It worked, and turkey populations -- not to mention annual turkey harvests -- increased dramatically from the late 1980s through 2003.

Despite that overwhelming body of data, the seven commissioners of the AGFC decided in 1999 to open spring turkey season earlier and lengthen the season as well -- from 24 days in 1998 to 39 days in 2004, counting the two-day youth hunt. Whether the commissioners made the change because of pressure from hunters or because of their own motives, the result was the same: Hunters were afield earlier in the breeding cycle, And, apparently, that's hurting both breeding activity and gobbler carryover from one year to the next. Granted, the earlier season opener didn't seem like a drastic measure, averaging only a week or so earlier than before 1999 -- but that particular week is critical in the breeding cycle.

RESULTS OF THE CHANGE

Carner is careful not to assign specific blame for the recent downturn in Arkansas turkey numbers and turkey harvest, but the fact is that it has been since 1999 that the downturn has occurred. The logic is simple and inescapable: If you start killing gobblers before they have a chance to mate with hens, you're hurting the turkey population.

"During the 2004 spring season, there were 9,214 turkeys harvested before April 10," Carner said. "For the past two seasons, the opening day for the spring turkey season has been the first Saturday in April. This falls well before peak breeding dates for turkeys statewide."

Remember the numbers? Eighty-five percent of the hens that nest successfully are bred on or after April 10. Last year, more than 9,000 gobblers were removed from the gene pool before April 10 -- well over 50 percent of the year's total kill.

There's no cause for panic; we're not running out of turkeys in Arkansas. Yes, the population and the harvest are both down, probably owing to a combination of the earlier season opener, the longer season length and the three recent years of below-average hatches. And this year the commissioners followed the advice of their turkey biologist and went back to the later season opener and shorter season -- April 9 through May 6 this year, a total of 28 days, plus a two-day youth hunt in selected zones.

Arkansas is still a pretty good place to be if you're a turkey hunter, and with the return to more biologically sound season dates, it's going to get better. Here's a brief region-by-region rundown of what to expect this spring:

Delta: The 2004 hatch was hurt by flooding and heavy rain, and the brood survey data reveal a ratio of only 1.49 poults per hen, far below the long-term average of 3.5. The gobbler:hen ratio was low, at .42. (This means that during the survey period, 42 gobblers were seen for every 100 hens. A ratio of .50, or 50 gobblers per 100 hens, is the established minimum desirable figure.) The lower gobbler:hen ratio, of course, indicates a lower than desirable carryover of adult gobblers, which in turn points to excessive harvest, which in turn points to a season that is too early, too long, or both.

Still, there are bright spots in the delta forecast. Areas of higher bottomland, such as the sandy natural levees close to the Mississippi, Arkansas and other large rivers produced fair numbers of poults. Although the 2004 harvest of 1,384 represented an 18 percent decrease from 2003, the population is in much better shape in the delta than it was following the several wet springs of a decade ago. Hard-mast production was good last fall, and average health of the flock should be good.

Top prospects for delta hunters this year include White River National Wildlife Refuge, the lower portion of Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, St. Francis WMA and Bill Brewer/Scatter Creek WMA.

Gulf Coastal Plain: This region shows up with the worst poult-per-hen ratio in the state -- only 1.17 poults per hen observed. This is below the rate needed to sustain the turkey population, so GCP hunters can expect a smaller overall turkey population in the woods this spring.

Still, there's a very huntable turkey population throughout the piney-woods region. The 3,852 birds taken in the region last spring represented more than 22 percent of the statewide tally. Mast production was above average last fall, and the gobbler:hen ratio was .52, which is above the desired minimum. Hunters will hear turkeys where they expect to hear them in the GCP this spring, if not quite so many as they'd like.

Public hunting areas are fairly scarce in the GCP, but hunters can expect fair to good hunting on Poison Springs WMA and on the scattered but numerous acres of Casey Jones Leased Lands WMA. Don't forget: A $20 permit is required in addition to the regular license for hunting on Casey Jones.

Ouachitas: There's a little less gloom and doom here. The region showed the smallest decline from the 2003 harvest -- down only 13.6 percent with a tally of 3,489 birds. Mast production was generally good throughout the region, and although the gobbler:hen ratio was a few points shy of the desired level, it was not far off at .46. The poult-per-hen count was 2.21, the highest in the state, indicating a fair jake crop for this spring.

All in all, the Ouachita region has a lot more of the big birds (and fewer hunters) than it did in the 1970s, when it was the spot for hunting turkeys in Arkansas. It's a likely prospect for this spring. Little Rock will offer good hunting but will be the most crowded as a consequence of its proximity to Little Rock. Muddy Creek has a good turkey population and provides lots of roaming room on its 150,000 acres. And for those seeking solitude and rough country, Caney Creek WMA and its associated wilderness area is a good bet.

Ozarks: Always save the best for last. The poult:hen ratio was 1.72: not too

good. But that may be partly attributable to a cool, wet summer in 2004, which kept hens and broods off the roads and out of sight. Brood sightings went up considerably last fall in the Ozarks, but the survey period had ended by then. Average brood size in these late sightings was generally pretty big, eight to 10 poults per bunch, so reproduction may have been better than the brood-survey data indicate.

The gobbler:hen ratio is good, too: Last summer's survey yielded a ratio of .52 gobblers per hen. Combined with the late sightings of large broods, this indicates there should be decent numbers of adult and sub-adult gobblers on the Ozark benches this spring. A good to excellent hard-mast crop last fall should ensure that they're healthy and willing to gobble.

But even here in the region that yielded nearly 50 percent of the statewide harvest, things aren't as good for 2005 as they were for 2003 and, probably, 2004. The harvest was down 14 percent last year. Top prospects for public hunting are White Rock WMA, Piney Creeks WMA and Madison County WMA.

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