Turnaround Time

With Arkansas' wild turkey population in a tailspin, what exactly is being done to minimize the damage and improve the prospects for turkey hunters across the state? (February 2009)

On Jan. 3, 2008, I was sitting in a tree stand inside the Ozark National Forest, not all that far from my home in Red Lick.

Seeking to better brood production and gobbler carryover, the AGFC has implemented shorter, later spring turkey seasons. Photo by T.C. Flanigan.

It was about 8 a.m. when I heard a gobbler sound off about two benches below my position. A few seconds later another tom joined him, and for five minutes or so they carried on an animated discourse while I sat there hoping that they'd head on down the hill rather than come up where I was. I like seeing and hearing turkeys, but the sharp-eyed son-of-a-guns have ruined more than one deer hunt for me over the years. Luckily, they worked their way on around the side of the ridge and out of earshot.

I was sitting at home that night when it hit me: Those were the first turkeys that I'd heard during that entire deer season -- this in an area in which the big birds have been common for decades and seeing flocks of a dozen or more isn't that unusual. Or wasn't.

By now, most Arkansas hunters know that the quality of the turkey hunting is down in the Natural State. According to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission figures, we killed 9,724 birds during the 2008 season, down 12 percent from the 11,069 taken in 2007. By some accounts, as many as 400 harvested birds were actually left out of the 2008 figures, but even if you add those in, the number was still lower than in the preceding season. In fact, 2008 was lower than 2007, which was lower than 2006, which was'‚.'‚.'‚. well -- I think you get the picture! The fact is that our harvest numbers have declined annually since 2001.

As a result of this decline, the AGFC instituted a shorter season in 2005, and then followed that up by deleting even more days in 2007. The agency also opened the season later, in hopes that more hens would be bred before hunters hit the woods.

I don't know how well that last change worked from a management perspective, but I do know that the later opening date drastically cut down on the amount of gobbling in the areas I hunted. I have heard hunters from many other areas say the same thing, and since most of the serious gobbler chasers live to hear toms "sound off," hunter numbers fell off drastically after the first week or so. For the last decade, one particular National Forest Service road here in Johnson County would be lined with pickups and campers throughout the entire turkey season. But this past season I drove the entire five-mile length of that road during the second week of the season and saw not a single person other than a farmer tending his cows.

Unfortunately, those changes in season length may have come too late. According to the AGFC management staff, gobbler carryover began to decline when those longer and earlier seasons were first initiated back in 2001.

(Editor's Note: Two definitions are key to any discussion concerning turkeys. "Gobbler carryover" refers to mature birds that make it through from one season to the next. "Brood production" refers to the number of poults that are hatched and survive within any given year.)

According to AGFC turkey biologist Mike Widner, those initial changes to season length for 2005 and 2006 weren't enough to reverse the trend in poor gobbler carryover from previous seasons. Add that to the fact that brood surveys have indicated a decline in young turkey production over the last six years, and you begin to see how we got where we are.

So what's the AGFC doing about it? At the September 2008 commissioners' meeting, the "turkey team" recommended a season framework basically the same as 2008. Widner stated that "the best way to achieve long-term harvest goals is to utilize a short later season," adding that "the data we have strongly supports that conclusion." Widner went on to say that "it is going to take at least two years of good turkey brood production before we see a significant increase in turkey numbers and turkey harvest." Since the cold hard fact is that we haven't seen one good year yet, and early indications are that 2008 will be one of the lowest on record, it would seem prudent to try to figure out why lower brood production is occurring.

"The best way to achieve long-term harvest goals is to utilize a short later season'‚.'‚.'‚. The data we have strongly supports that conclusion. -- Mark Widner, AGFC turkey biologist

Likewise, the AGFC faces a contingent of hunters who oppose the implementation of any plan that decreases the number of hunting days on the calendar. Though it may be necessary in this case, many hunters promote the examination of alternative solutions before a shorter season is adopted. Among the issues that hunters seem to want resolved are the following:

First, I've been told that NFS burning during the spring has no significant impact on hens setting on nests, and that the good outweighs the bad. That may be true when your overall numbers are strong, but ours aren't.

Second, I've been told that the fall turkey season has no significant impact on turkey numbers. Cutting out this season was a proposal I've heard voiced at public meetings.

Third, I've been told that the effects of predation by both wild and domestic animals have in recent years posed no more of a significant problem than in the past.

And finally, I've been told that a two-bird limit -- instead of one -- is not significant, because only a relatively small number of hunters harvest more than one bird.

But if you take all of these factors and bundle them together, it's not hard to arrive at some conclusions about this protracted spate of poor brood production.

At press time, the AGFC was in the middle of its public input period for the 2009 season, though the agency's recommendations were presented to the AGFC commissioners on Sept. 18.

A public input meeting held in Russellville in early September was attended by a substantial number of the area's concerned hunters. Those individuals who spoke were virtually unanimous in their opinions that the season in this part of the state needed to be shortened even more than in 2008, and that the bag limit should be cut back to one bird. A few even stated that if it were necessary, they would support cutting out the season entirely for a year!

Tough solutions? Yes. But these are tough times for Arkansas turkey hunters, and it was refreshing to see that these hunters understood that and were willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the resource.

But their suggestions were seemingly ignored by the AGFC personnel in attendance, so heading into the 2009 season it seems that the AGFC is placing all its hopes for a turkey turnaround on shortened seasons and better weather.

It's possible that we may even see positive results this year, but if so the reason will have little to do with more effective management. Last year was one of the wettest springs in history here in Arkansas, and as a result vast parts of the eastern regions of the state were closed to turkey hunting entirely.

That means that in those areas, and to a lesser degree in some others, gobbler carryover will be improved, and more birds will be available to hunt in 2009.

But the other side of that coin is that if we don't do something about improving our poor brood production, the heyday of Arkansas turkey hunting may well continue to disappear in our rearview mirror.

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