May 04, 2021
It started with localized grumbling. Turkey hunters weren't hearing as many gobbles—the benchmark for a successful morning in the spring woods—as normal. Then the harvest reports confirmed that hunters were killing fewer toms. With that came troubling observations from biologists, who were seeing fewer poults with hens during annual summer turkey brood counts.
Scattered reports from disgruntled hunters are nothing new for state-agency biologists, and the first accounts of downturns in turkey numbers were dismissed as gripes from the unsuccessful minority. But biologists trust nothing more than confirmed trends, and soon these sporadic observations started to merge. It wasn't just South Carolina's Piedmont or Alabama's Black Belt or New York's Finger Lakes. It was everywhere all at once. Something was happening with the nation's wild turkey flock.
I use the past tense to describe the dawning recognition, but I could just as easily refer to the present. While state agencies are now aware of the continental decline, it’s still very real and ongoing.
"I'm just one guy in one county, but I've been hunting spring turkeys pretty hard, and I started noticing fewer gobbles probably 10 to 12 years ago," says Doug Morris, who has hunted the same section of southern Illinois for 36 years. Morris thinks gobbling activity in the past eight years is about half of what it was 20 years ago.
Some of the decline may be perception based on inflated expectations. Decades of restoration, during which agencies released trapped turkeys into areas that had been devoid of birds for years, created abnormally high turkey densities. With that came unsustainably heady expectations among hunters that turkey populations would remain at those artificially high levels.
"After we went through the restoration era, populations grew like crazy, and we saw turkey flocks pioneering into new areas," notes Joel Pedersen, director of governmental affairs at the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Prior to taking his policy position, Pedersen—a certified wildlife biologist—helped state agencies manage turkey populations. "Once we hit carrying capacity, we saw an expected slump, but we weren't too concerned because we felt that declines could be explained by one or two years of poor hatches. One thing we know about turkeys is that they can rebound quickly with one or two years of favorable spring weather that results in good hatches."
But it soon became apparent that declines were the result of more than weather. Biologists went to work on reasons. Besides the obvious—poor weather during critical hatching windows, and inadequate nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat—it appears there may be one more factor at play: hunting season structures.
"There's been some interesting research on gobbling as related to breeding activity, and how hunting pressure affects both gobbling and breeding," says Pedersen. "Researchers are using acoustic signatures—basically recording devices—to listen for gobbles. They're comparing gobbling activity on unhunted lands, lightly hunted lands and heavily hunted lands. This is an oversimplification of some pretty complicated research, but researchers have seen an artificial peak in early March, but as soon as hunting seasons begin, gobbling falls off."
Why does that matter? It could be that hunters are killing the most vocal gobblers, which can also be the most successful breeders. In the most heavily hunted areas, that means juvenile toms—either jakes or 2-year-olds—are doing most of the breeding, and biologists have noted that the fecundity of these young gobblers is limited.
"In the most extreme cases, it could be that a percentage of hens aren't getting bred, so no matter how good the habitat or conducive the weather, that's a population problem," says Pedersen. He notes that in his home state of South Carolina, wildlife managers proposed postponing traditional season openers in the expectation that more hens would be bred prior to hunting season. Though the plan was based on the latest research into gobbling patterns, it met stiff resistance not only from the state legislature—which, at least in South Carolina, sets hunting regulations—but also from many die-hard turkey hunters.
In New York State, which also saw significant and steady turkey declines over the past two decades, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation recommended limiting fall harvest "to help curtail the population decline and carry more hens into the spring nesting season,” says Doug Little, director of conservation operations for the NWTF. “Prior to those changes, a significant portion of upstate New York was open to fall turkey hunting for seven weeks with a two-bird either-sex limit," he explains. "But after extensive research and outreach, there are now fewer fall hunting zones, and all are two weeks with a statewide one-bird either-sex limit in the fall."
Little notes that the significant change to season structures was unpopular, but the majority of turkey hunters supported the loss of fall opportunity in order to help the state’s turkey flock rebound. Hunter acceptance is a key component in efforts to help struggling populations. The recognition that we hunters might be part of the problem with the national turkey decline is an important start to what may be America's second great wild turkey restoration, says the NWTF's Pedersen.
"For a long time, we blamed the weather for poor hatches, but weather doesn’t explain this range-wide decline," maintains Pedersen. "Habitat conditions are certainly to blame for some of this, but we've done some extensive habitat work and are still seeing declines. I think it's now time to address the social part."
Pedersen says that means opening days and bag limits may have to be adjusted as we learn about which season structures provide hunters with good opportunity, while permitting an adequate number of mature gobblers to survive and produce the next generation of turkeys. Hunters may have to change their expectations and adapt for the benefit of turkey populations.
"We can’t be selfish in the short term if we want to protect the resource in the long term," Pedersen notes.
That's an easy choice for Doug Morris.
"I've been hunting through the good times and the bad times," he says. "I'd definitely take a break if it meant I could have those good times back again."