Playing the role of Missouri’s spring turkey season prognosticator isn’t as easy as some might think. Trying to predict what might be takes a lot of research. To prognosticate means to predict according to present indications or signs. To accurately make such a forecast we must first take a look into the past to see what lies ahead.
Wild turkeys flourished in our state beyond comprehension prior to 1900, but overgrazing of livestock, market hunting, and loss of habitat caused the birds’ numbers to drop so dramatically that turkey season was closed in 1938. However, a grand restoration effort was managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation in cooperation with landowners and hunters. By trapping wild turkeys in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and relocating them to other parts of the state, wild turkeys re-established their population and the MDC was able to reopen spring turkey hunting in 1960.
The restoration effort was so successful that wild turkey numbers peaked in the 1980s to numbers guesstimated around 1 million wild turkeys at one point! However, those peak years are a thing of the past. The reduced numbers of turkey in the Show Me State is partly because of basic ecological principles that suggest once a wildlife population peaks it will drop to numbers that are more sustainable over a long period of time. But Missouri’s turkey population has seen serious declines over the past decade.
Aside from the natural order of population sustainability, other factors have played a key role in the decline of wild turkey numbers in Missouri in more recent years. Predation, disease and weather are factors affecting wild turkey populations too.
Right now our state’s turkey flock is very susceptible to all of those factors and as long as we see poor spring production of poults, high levels of predators, and diseases such as avian pox, we can expect numbers to remain low or continue in decline.
Turkey numbers in Missouri are still among some of the best in the nation, according to John Burk, National Wild Turkey Federation regional biologist.
“We currently have an estimated 280,000 turkeys in Missouri,” Burk said. “That number comes from the idea that we shoot about 15 percent of our turkey flock in the spring.”
Although nearly 300,000 birds, that’s a lot fewer than the half-million wild turkeys estimated to be here in 2008. Turkey numbers can increase, but for that to happen it would mean we would have to experience ideal weather conditions in the spring and summer so that nesting and brood rearing are above average to help build numbers back up. Unfortunately, we will probably never see those days that old-time turkey hunters like me experienced back in the 1970s and ’80s.
Let’s take a detailed look at what is effecting our turkey flock and where numbers are at their best.