Pennsylvania'™s 2008 Turkey Forecast

Pennsylvania'™s 2008 Turkey Forecast

Here's a look at what Keystone State turkey hunters can expect as the 2008 spring gobbler season approaches.(May 2008)

Pennsylvania's 2008 spring turkey hunters can look forward to good numbers of birds, with plenty of longbeards in the mix.
Photo by Steve Carpenteri.

For the past several years, Pennsylvania's wild turkey forecasts have merely been trends -- small dips or rises in a relatively stable population. On a statewide basis, it's been a long while since we could honestly call the Quaker State's wild turkey situation anything short of outstanding. We do have areas where the situation could be better, but steps are being taken to correct the problems.

HOW DO THINGS LOOK?
At worst, the outlook for the 2008 spring gobbler season is encouraging. Last year, conditions were generally good for recruitment of poults -- following a year when conditions maybe weren't good, but weren't bad, either. This spring, chances are promising of finding gobblers willing to respond to your calls.

Allowing for variability in weather conditions, which could change everything, the Pennsylvania Game & Fish prediction for the 2008 spring gobbler season is good to very good.

"In terms of the fall population, it was looking good because our recruitment from over the summer was pretty good," said Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's turkey biologist.

"Our summer brooding success was above average. In fact, it was better than the last three years."

Casalena, besides being the Game Commission's top gobbler biologist, is also an experienced and accomplished wild turkey hunter.

In 2006, summer recruitment was a little below average, but better than recruitment in the summer of 2005, and about the same as the summer before that. But these variations from average were not drastic. It's been a few years since nesting conditions caused any serious change in the wild turkey population.

"The last two years have shown an increase in summer brooding success," Casalena explained. "We had poor reproduction in 2003, but then 2004 was better. 2005 was all right -- a little bit below average. And 2006 and 2007 were about average.

"So if you look at 2006 and 2007 being about average, it means that the spring 2008 population will have about an average to a little bit above-average population of jakes and 2- year-old birds."

The best situation for hunters is to have a good proportion of 2-year-old gobblers in the population. This age group tends to be more aggressive. They respond better to hunters' calls than jakes and older gobblers. Jakes typically come in quietly, while 2- year-old gobblers do a lot of talking.

Older gobblers -- 3-year-olds for the most part, along with a few 4-year-old birds -- are educated and less likely to respond.

"They'll gobble, but they'll gobble pretty much just on the roost," Casalena said.

We shouldn't make too much fuss over the intelligence of birds with a brain about the size of a pencil eraser. However, they are capable of learning through experience. By the time they reach age 4, which relatively few gobblers do, they are very wary.

This spring, we do have a fair population of 3-year-old gobblers. These birds are real trophies. And any hunter who tags a 4-year-old gobbler has accomplished something rare.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has a system for recording exceptional wild turkeys. This system, explained in more detail on the NWTF Web site (at www.nwtf.org ), uses a formula that takes into account a gobbler's weight, the length of its beard and the length of its spurs.

Records for Pennsylvania wild turkeys, and those from other states, are listed on the Web site.

WINTER SURVIVAL
"In terms of the number of birds coming into this winter, we had an average to above-average fall population. Some areas, such as in the northeastern part of the state, had record reproduction. There were turkeys everywhere. There was also good reproduction in the south-central part of the state where we have now a two-week fall season."

In the South Central Region, the wild turkey population responded well when the fall season was cut back to two weeks.

In addition, good nesting conditions produced high recruitment, but that was just good luck.

Manipulating the fall season is one of the major tools the PGC uses to manage the wild turkey population. The fall season has the greatest effect on hens, which in turn determine spring reproduction. In wildlife management units where biologists have determined that the turkey population should be increased to keep more hens in the population, fall seasons are shortened or eliminated.

"In most of the state, we had an average to slightly above-average mast crop," Casalena said. "That means the birds had a good food supply. Nuts, of course, are important to them for overwintering because of their high protein and fat content."

From that point of view, the harshness of winter weather determines how the fall's wild turkey population will fare. Healthy hens coming out of a mild winter are more likely to produce good recruitment.

"I'm always looking at the health of the hen population for spring nesting success," Casalena said.

"Coming into the breeding season in good condition, hens will breed early, and the majority of the hens will breed the first year.

"In terms of gobblers, we have a lot of jakes out there. We have an average to above-average number of 2-year-olds, so it looks pretty good."

TROUBLE SPOTS
In a way, biologists must be fortunetellers. To keep hunters happy, which is no easy task, the Game Commission does its best to manage future populations.

Of course, this is done scientifically, not with a crystal ball. Research remains the key in making Pennsylvania one of the top states in the U.S. for hunting wild turkeys.

For several years, the Game Commission has experienced problems in one particular area of Pennsylvania -- WMU 1A near Micheaux State Forest. This wildlife management unit in the South Central Region ex

tends northward from the Maryland border through Adams, Franklin and Cumberland counties.

It contains only three state game lands. Micheaux State Forest is the major public land holding.

"Our population and harvest information has been telling us that the population is on an increasing trend," Casalena said, "for a couple of reasons. First of all, we closed the fall hunting season there, so you have more hens surviving into the next spring. We also lucked out with very successful breeding two years in a row. High reproduction with no fall harvest -- put those two together and then boom, you'll have an increase in population, especially because we also had easy winters."

Fall hunting seasons in WMU 5A will probably remain closed for at least another year. If things go well, hunters in that area may be able to hunt wild turkeys during the autumn for the first time in several years.

That initial fall season will almost certainly be abbreviated, but it is encouraging nonetheless. Even then, if it shows a negative effect on the population, it will be stopped again. This should give hunters more confidence that the state's wild turkey management system is proving to be responsive and effective.

More recently, problems have cropped up in WMU 2F. This wildlife management unit straddles the border of the Northwest Region and the North Central Region, primarily covering Allegheny National forest, but also extending southward to Interstate Route 80 and eastward to U.S. Route 219 in McKean County.

"In Wildlife Management Unit 2F, we reduced hunting opportunities to a two-week fall season last year," Casalena said. "This summer, we lucked out and had good brooding success. We'd been seeing a declining population trend in WMU 2F, and so we'll have a shorter fall season this year. If that is accompanied by good reproduction, those two factors will help us have a higher breeding population in the spring."

SCIENCE & LUCK
Luck -- and the weather -- plays a big part in the ups and downs of managing any wild turkey population.

Being ready to take advantage of good luck is largely the role of good science. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has long played a leading role in the study of wild turkeys. Good science determined that pen-raising turkeys was not the way to reestablish our gobbler population.

Good science used the trap-and-transfer system to reestablish wild turkeys throughout the Commonwealth, and elsewhere. The challenge continues.

"We have the Gobbler Harvest and Survival Rate Study that we're about halfway through," Casalena said. "That's a four-year, multi-state study primarily funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation.

"We're determining the actual harvest rate of jakes and adult gobblers in Pennsylvania," she explained. "We don't have actual harvest-rate information for our state, so we use harvest-rate information from other states in our population model.

"We've also been very broadly estimating our own turkey population, and now have the ability to have our own harvest-rate information for Pennsylvania.

"The other neat thing about this study is a cooperative study with New York and Ohio. We'll soon be able to compare our harvest rates with those states," Casalena concluded.

Turkey habitat in Ohio is very different from that of Pennsylvania. With the exception of southeast Ohio's Wayne National Forest, most of Ohio is open habitat with large fields and relatively small, scattered wood lots.

New York's wild turkey habitat in is quite similar to Pennsylvania's, but hunter density is much lower.

Casalena calls this an opportunity to develop some "great information for Pennsylvania." The study will be a tremendous help in managing Pennsylvania's wild turkeys. It will compare our gobbler harvests with other states', and we'll learn the percentage of gobblers being harvested.

That information will let biologists make adjustments in seasons and bag limits that should help maintain the great wild turkey hunting we've enjoyed for the past several years.

"If we see that we are actually low in terms of harvest rates, then we can increase our bag limits without harming the population," she noted.

This study consists of trapping turkeys during winter and leg-banding them. The percentage of tagged birds that get harvested provides an estimate of the percentage of all birds that are harvested. A minimum of 300 gobblers will be banded each winter. Last winter, that goal was exceeded.

Incentives are provided for hunters to report these bands. Some 150 of the bands offer a $100 reward.

At this point in the study, it is too early to draw any conclusions.

For the past few years, Pennsylvania's spring gobbler hunters have been able to purchase second turkey tags. That opportunity will continue. A few hunters suggested that this would bring about the demise of turkey hunting, but so far, the number of gobblers taken with second tags has been insignificant.

More recently, problems have cropped up in WMU 2F. This wildlife management unit straddles the border of the Northwest Region and the North Central Region, primarily covering Allegheny National forest, but also extending southward to Interstate Route 80 and eastward to U.S. Route 219 in McKean County.

"In Wildlife Management Unit 2F, we reduced hunting opportunities to a two-week fall season last year," Casalena said. "This summer, we lucked out and had good brooding success. We'd been seeing a declining population trend in WMU 2F, and so we'll have a shorter fall season this year. If that is accompanied by good reproduction, those two factors will help us have a higher breeding population in the spring."

SCIENCE & LUCK
Luck -- and the weather -- plays a big part in the ups and downs of managing any wild turkey population.

Being ready to take advantage of good luck is largely the role of good science. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has long played a leading role in the study of wild turkeys. Good science determined that pen-raising turkeys was not the way to reestablish our gobbler population.

Good science used the trap-and-transfer system to reestablish wild turkeys throughout the Commonwealth, and elsewhere. The challenge continues.

"We have the Gobbler Harvest and Survival Rate Study that we're about halfway through," Casalena said. "That's a four-year, multi-state study primarily funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation.

"We're determining the actual harvest rate of jakes and adult gobblers in

Pennsylvania," she explained. "We don't have actual harvest-rate information for our state, so we use harvest-rate information from other states in our population model.

"We've also been very broadly estimating our own turkey population, and now have the ability to have our own harvest-rate information for Pennsylvania.

"The other neat thing about this study is a cooperative study with New York and Ohio. We'll soon be able to compare our harvest rates with those states," Casalena concluded.

Turkey habitat in Ohio is very different from that of Pennsylvania. With the exception of southeast Ohio's Wayne National Forest, most of Ohio is open habitat with large fields and relatively small, scattered wood lots.

New York's wild turkey habitat in is quite similar to Pennsylvania's, but hunter density is much lower.

Casalena calls this an opportunity to develop some "great information for Pennsylvania." The study will be a tremendous help in managing Pennsylvania's wild turkeys. It will compare our gobbler harvests with other states', and we'll learn the percentage of gobblers being harvested.

That information will let biologists make adjustments in seasons and bag limits that should help maintain the great wild turkey hunting we've enjoyed for the past several years.

"If we see that we are actually low in terms of harvest rates, then we can increase our bag limits without harming the population," she noted.

This study consists of trapping turkeys during winter and leg-banding them. The percentage of tagged birds that get harvested provides an estimate of the percentage of all birds that are harvested. A minimum of 300 gobblers will be banded each winter. Last winter, that goal was exceeded.

Incentives are provided for hunters to report these bands. Some 150 of the bands offer a $100 reward.

At this point in the study, it is too early to draw any conclusions.

For the past few years, Pennsylvania's spring gobbler hunters have been able to purchase second turkey tags. That opportunity will continue. A few hunters suggested that this would bring about the demise of turkey hunting, but so far, the number of gobblers taken with second tags has been insignificant.

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