Wild Turkey Management: Arkansas Style

The Natural State has a healthy turkey population, but it hasn't always been that way. Successful management has been key to our great hunting.

By Jim Spencer

I remember well the first wild turkey I ever saw - two of them, actually. The year would have been about 1952 or 1953. A barefoot kid at Crockett's Bluff on the lower White River in southeast Arkansas, I was barely big enough to clamber up on the running board of the pickup to gaze at the two big, rumpled birds in the bed of the truck. One was a longbeard and the other a jake, but, of course, I didn't know the terminology then; I only knew that one was big and the other bigger. But even in the depths of my ignorance, I knew that I was looking at trophy animals.

What I didn't know at the time was that I was looking at survivors of a holocaust.

In pre-settlement days, wild turkeys were unbelievably abundant in the vast hardwood forest that blanketed most of Arkansas. Turkey bones are among the most common animal remains in the kitchen middens of American Indians, proving that turkeys were a common and important part of their diet.

The writings of the early explorers bear further witness to the abundance of wild turkeys. Frederick Gerstaeker, who wandered through the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks in the mid-1700s, claimed that, from daylight till nearly noon for two solid months during the spring, the woods were in a constant uproar from the incessant gobbling of turkeys.

On a more personal level, the yellowed journal of my great-great-great-great Grandfather Poynter also has passages referring to turkeys. Grandpa Poynter was a courier for the Confederate Army in the White River bottoms of eastern Arkansas, and he wrote in his crabbed, back-slanted hand of how he fed himself on wild turkeys without firing his gun and alerting Yankee soldiers: "In the evenin, the turks would fly up, and a fellowe sittin quite could hear them for a ways. Come dark, I take a club and a torch in to the roost tree, and could nock one out more times than not." Maybe Grandpa had trouble spelling the King's English, but he provided a graphic picture of turkey abundance in the 1860s.

Four decades of Arkansas biologists' trapping and relocating more than 5,000 turkeys brought us the hunting we enjoy now. Photo by Jim Spencer

But we brought these superabundant turkeys nearly to extinction, and we did it pretty quickly. The open stands of mature mast-bearing trees provided ideal turkey habitat, but when man came along something had to give. That "something" was the very warp and weft of the land itself, and the settlers started converting those vast forests to towns and pastures and farms and roads. It was what Mississippi novelist William Faulkner was talking about in "The Bear," when he referred to " . . . the doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with axes and plows."

Puny the early settlers may have been; ineffective and lazy they were not. Faulkner's wilderness truly was doomed. Swarms of settlers followed close behind the trailblazers and trappers, and plumes of smoke began to rise here and there as pioneers laboriously hacked tiny holes in the unending forest canopy. Many of the early settlers died, from scarlet fever, yellow fever, malaria and a dozen other diseases, or from accident or Indian attack. Others were defeated by the land and went back East. But a dozen new wagons rumbled in for every one that left, and the holes in the doomed wilderness grew larger and more numerous.

The result was inevitable. The abundance of wildlife with which Arkansas and the rest of the New World was blessed began to disappear. The biggest game went first - bison, elk, black bear - and then the wolves, cougars, deer . . . and then, Grandpa Poynter's "turks."

By the early 1900s, turkeys were a thing of the past in most of Arkansas, and by the 1930s they'd been exterminated from all but the most remote reaches of the central Ouachitas, from the piney woods of north Grant and Saline counties and from a few hard-to-reach portions of the lower White River and Mississippi River bottoms. The total Arkansas turkey population by the beginning of World War II was no more than 7,000 to 8,000 turkeys.

Arkansas was one of the few states that still had a turkey season - or any turkeys to set a season for, as far as that goes. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Arkansas and several other states (Pennsylvania, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana among them) tried to supplement wild turkey populations with semi-wild stock turkeys raised on game farms and released in what was thought to be suitable habitat. Most of these birds quickly disappeared down the throats of bobcats and foxes, and therefore caused no great harm. But a few of these genetically inferior birds, released in areas already populated with remnant flocks, survived long enough to interact and/or breed with the wild birds, and this mingling and jingling between the two populations weakened the genetic superiority of the wild stock and also infected them with such diseases as avian cholera and blackhead.

Things continued to look bleak for the bird that Benjamin Franklin once proposed, only half jokingly, as our national symbol.

But then came the Depression, and what was devastating for the works of man was a godsend for the struggling turkey population. Rural Arkansas lost a great deal of its human population as farmer after farmer went bust, abandoned his farm and moved on, either to find work in the cities or to start a new life on the West Coast.

The heavy hand this large rural population had been laying on the turkey population through illegal hunting and continued habitat destruction suddenly wasn't there any more. Abandoned farms began to revert to forest. Cutover forests began to establish a second growth of mast-bearing trees. And turkeys began to expand their ranges, although the expansion was barely perceptible at first. Squirrel hunters started seeing turkeys and turkey sign where none had been seen for a half-century.

The crisis was over. The birds were coming back.

Natural flock expansion was an unacceptably slow process, though. Before any significant range expansion could take place, a local turkey population had to grow until it saturated its existing range. Only then would population pressure force birds outward and into new territory. One or two bad hatches could reduce the population and set the whole process back to square one.

Looking for a solution, biologists borrowed a page from the book of waterfowl management. Waterfowl researchers in the 1940s developed the cannon net and used it to capture ducks and geese for

banding studies. Turkey biologists found the technique worked equally well on large gallinaceous birds with wattles under their chins.

Trapping and transplanting didn't hurt the original core turkey populations since the number of birds removed from any area was kept pretty small. But the standard release of two or three adult gobblers and 10 to 12 hens paid huge dividends in re-establishing turkeys to former, still-suitable habitats. Arkansas has been one of the leaders in this trap-and-transfer process, trapping and releasing more than 5,000 turkeys over a 40-year period that ended only a few years ago, when the state's turkey restocking program was declared essentially completed.

Today, Arkansas is once again well known as a good turkey hunting state. Arkansas contains approximately 52,000 square miles, more or less, and within that 52,000 square miles are an estimated 175,000 to 200,000 turkeys. Turkeys are once again common throughout the Ozarks and Ouachitas, and the piney woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain have abundant populations as well. Ironically, the Delta, which was the last real stronghold of turkeys in Arkansas during the lean years, has the smallest turkey population of any of the state's physiographic regions. This is because most of the good turkey habitat of the Delta is gone, converted from forest to farmland.

We've been setting new harvest records almost every spring for the past three decades, and this year's kill will probably exceed 20,000 gobblers. That's not bad, but where do we go from here? What does the future hold for the wild turkey in Arkansas?

One of the most pressing short-term situations for Arkansas turkeys involves the ongoing eruption of red oak borers in the Ozark Mountains. These bugs have already killed millions of red oaks and white oaks in the central Ozarks, and outbreaks are beginning to show up in the Ouachitas and on Crowley's Ridge. Foresters believe the epidemic is far from over, and will result in a shift from a predominantly oak-hickory forest to an ash-elm-maple type, which is not as good for wildlife. The only real question at this point is how much acreage will be affected. The figure is already above 300,000 acres.

"This is a serious situation," says Martin Blaney, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's forest habitat coordinator. "However, it's probably not going to reduce the turkey population much in the affected areas. Turkeys are adaptable birds, and they'll adjust. We just don't know how much of Arkansas is going to be affected."

Predators continue to be a problem for wild turkeys in Arkansas, particularly on turkey nests and young birds. However, that's nothing new. "Turkeys evolved in the presence of predators, and where habitat is good, they can deal with predation and still thrive," says Donny Harris, chief of wildlife for the AGFC. "Our job is to make sure that good habitat is available." It's when habitat is marginal that predators begin to have a serious impact.

Disease, however, can strike at almost any time, and under certain conditions can devastate a wild turkey population. Blackhead is one such disease that can devastate wild turkey populations in local areas. So far, we've mostly dodged this bullet in Arkansas, but man and nature can combine to set the stage for disaster. In drought conditions or when food is scarce, turkeys tend to gather in larger than normal numbers where food and/or water are available. This potential problem will continue to crop up in drought years or low-mast years, when hunters and landowners put out feeders for deer and other wildlife and turkeys gather and co-mingle in small spaces.

Poaching, of course, is an ongoing problem. But in Arkansas, even though quite a few illegal turkeys are taken through the year, we've reached a population density in most areas of the state that can sustain poaching losses and still maintain itself. Possible exceptions are in the delta, where turkey populations fluctuate drastically due to the effects of spring flooding on nesting success, and on Crowley's Ridge, where turkey populations are still sparse in some sections.

The season dates for this spring (April 5-May 11) mark a return to the longer seasons of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The AGFC reduced the length of the season and dropped the season limit from three birds to two in the mid-'80s, after biologists began to suspect that the growing number of turkey hunters and the resulting increase in hunting pressure was keeping the state's turkey population from growing at desired rates.

There are more turkeys in Arkansas now than in the mid-'80s, but there are also many more turkey hunters. Will this longer spring season have a negative effect?

"It shouldn't," Harris said. "More than 60 percent of the harvest in a typical season comes during the first week. By the end of a long season, there are actually very few hunters still in the woods."

Fall hunting has long been a source of considerable controversy in Arkansas. After several years with no fall gun season, the AGFC brought back an abbreviated October gun season in 2001. Apparently, few hunters took advantage of it. In the two years since the re-instatement of the fall gun season, Arkansas hunters have taken fewer than 1,000 turkeys. The vast majority of these were young birds from the previous spring's hatch.

"Young turkeys are the ones most likely to be taken either by hunters or predators," Harris said. "Our extremely low fall hunting pressure just doesn't have a measurable impact on the overall turkey population."

Another regulation that's generated a lot of conversation and controversy is the so-called "jake rule," now in place for four years. Under this restriction, hunters can take no more than one immature gobbler each spring. The theory, of course, is that by leaving these young gobblers in the population, we make sure there are more 2-year-olds in the woods each spring. This is a non-issue for many experienced turkey hunters, since they pass up young birds anyway, regardless of the regulations.

But is the jake rule having any effect? Maybe. Maybe not. In states that don't have a jake rule (Mississippi is currently the only other Southern state with a similar regulation), adult-to-juvenile ratios in the gobbler population are statistically identical to those of Arkansas and Mississippi. Basically, the jake rule does neither harm nor good.

If you'll permit a little personal observation from the author to creep in here, it's my opinion we're headed generally in the right direction with Arkansas wild turkey management. I killed my first bird in 1981, the spring following the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. Turkey populations were in a downward spiral that spring, and I was lucky to even hear a gobbler, much less kill one. But in the years since, there's been a phenomenal improvement. Today, even though I travel to four to six states each spring and have hunted spring turkeys from central Florida to upstate New York and from south Texas to South Dakota, my favorite turkey state is The Natural one.

There are still a few areas where

things could be better. Turkeys in the Delta need a little more help from private landowners, since the birds are mostly confined to the relatively narrow bands of hardwood timber along the major waterways. Crowley's Ridge birds also need a little more help in the form of private land enhancement and increased protection from poaching.

In the rest of the state, though, things look pretty rosy. The oak decline situation in the Ozarks and Ouachitas is a big question mark, but my bet is the turkeys will adapt to the change in forest type and keep right on keeping on.

Don't forget, this is a remarkably adaptable bird we're talking about here. The wild turkey took the worst we could throw at him for two solid centuries and still, when we gave him a chance, rebounded past wildlife biologists' wildest dreams.

Turkeys are here to stay, and depending on what sort of season you happen to have this year, that can be a happy thought . . . or a sad one.

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