Growing Our Own Gobblers

Growing Our Own Gobblers

We all know the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission works to improve the turkey flock on public land. But they also have other programs afoot to benefit turkeys and turkey hunters.

By Carolee Boyles

How many turkeys are on your land or hunting lease? No idea? What about last turkey season? How many birds did you see?

If you've spent any time hunting turkeys, you already know that the birds are incredibly hard to count. You can see tracks, find where the birds have dusted, and even pick up an occasional feather, but still never see the first bird or have any idea how many are really out there.

Turkeys are just as elusive when it comes to biologists monitoring them. Even though the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) has a strong turkey management program, no one really knows how many birds are in the state. For that reason the FWCC has undertaken a program to census our turkeys. This eventually will lead to more comprehensive habitat and turkey management statewide and, ultimately, a more stable population of turkeys for hunters to pursue.

Over the past several years, hunters and landowners from different places around the state have contacted the FWCC and reported that turkeys they've seen in their area in the past seem to have disappeared. In one area, Holmes County, biologists have been able to document a dearth of turkeys so severe that the FWCC closed the turkey season in the county entirely and developed a stocking and restoration program.

However, biologists have wondered whether the number of telephone calls they're received indicates a much larger problem statewide.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

"Our concern has been whether or not Holmes County really should be the priority, or whether there are other areas that are worse," says Larry Perrin, Florida turkey program coordinator for the FWCC. "We lack that kind of information on a statewide basis."

The last time the old Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission ran a statewide turkey survey was back in the mid-1970s. In those 30 years there's been a lot of development in the state and a lot of turkey habitat has disappeared.

"It's been a long time," Perrin says. "We don't know how many other areas we have that might be similar to Holmes County.

"We have a lot of people who think stocking is the answer and who keep asking us to stock some turkeys," Perrin adds. "We don't like to stock animals if we can help it. Our philosophy is that if an animal can occur there, it should already be there. We'd rather work on habitat management than on stocking."

If habitat evaluation hasn't been done, biologists don't know if stocking really helps an area or just puts birds in unsuitable habitat where they do poorly and eventually die.

In order to evaluate both the available habitat and the turkey population in Florida, the FWCC has undertaken a statewide assessment of the birds on both public and private land using modern technology.

"Initially, we contacted a lot of natural resource people in the state, including commission Law Enforcement people and biologists," Perrin notes. "We also contacted the Florida Chapter of the Wildlife Society, which is a professional society of wildlife biologists, and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF)."

Biologists sent out a notice about the assessment and asked for any information on where turkeys occur in Florida.

"We sent out county maps with colored pencils and directions about how to fill out the maps to about 1,500 different people," Perrin explains. "We got back around a thousand or so."

Once biologists collected all those maps, they compared them county by county to develop a clear picture of where birds are known to live.

"As you can imagine, it's complex," Perrin says. "We're using a computer system to digitize all the information. Where maps overlap, we have to kind of average the data out." By last November, biologists had a statewide map that showed where turkeys are in the state and where they're known to be absent.

However, biologists still had some areas for which they didn't have any data.

"We have several areas of the state for which we couldn't find anyone who's knowledgeable, so now we're going to find people who have information about areas that are a thousand acres or more," Perrin says. "We were only missing about 2 percent of Florida scattered throughout the state."

Biologists expect to have a complete assessment by this spring. Once they have all the data, an up-to-date habitat map of Florida will be produced.

"We can use satellite imagery and aerial photos and whatever else we need to produce a habitat map and create a model that tells the computer, 'This is habitat that turkeys like,' " Perrin notes. "That's going to take some time. The satellite information was done in the early 1990s, so it's a little bit dated, and some of the habitat has changed. So there will be some issues there that we have to address."

Once all of this is completed, biologists will overlay the habitat map on the turkey distribution map they've already developed.

"Areas where turkeys don't occur, but which the computer says are good turkey habitat, those are areas we want to look at," Perrin continues. "Those are the areas on which we may want to focus some attention, whether that's habitat management or stocking."

The intent of all of this is to keep state managers from being yanked from place to place looking for turkeys that may or may not be there. Also, this could avoid creating stocking programs where they aren't needed or where habitat conditions as they exist today are unsuitable for turkeys.

"All of this will put us light years ahead of where biologists were back in the 1970s," Perrin points out. "It just takes a lot of time because we're having to develop the ways to use the technology."

Once the FWCC has the methodology designed, the biologists hope to run a similar survey every five years or so.

"That would let us not only compare with the 1970s to see how things changed, but also to look at significant changes that occur over time and to track them."

With all of this information in hand, the FWCC may do both habitat management and som

e stocking of turkeys.

"Normally, habitat management is the answer," Perrin says. "However, if you get a situation where a fairly large area is isolated for one reason or another - such as Holmes County - it may take turkeys a long time to come back on their own."

In these cases, the FWCC may elect to speed up the process by stocking turkeys from another area.

"But for many areas, the answer may be just some prescribed burning," Perrin argues. "By opening up an area through burning, we may be encouraging turkeys to move in there on their own. The best way to approach all of this will be on a case-by-case basis."

On private land the biologists will provide technical assistance to landowners who want to improve turkey habitat on their property. Although the FWCC won't provide any financial assistance, private landowners may be able to find matching or grant funds through the Forest Stewardship Program or other wildlife management incentive programs that are available.

At the end of the day, the goal of the project is to assess the current state of turkeys in Florida, and to prioritize areas that may need, or would benefit from, more-specific and targeted management.

"We'd like to make sure that we maintain turkeys in all counties of the state, and to have suitable habitat occupied by turkeys," Perrin says. "Where we can, we'd like to make sure that turkeys are in their entire available habitat."

Even as biologists are counting turkeys statewide, they're pushing forward with two turkey restoration projects. One was previously mentioned in Holmes County in the Panhandle, and the other in the Everglades.

If you've followed the Holmes County project at all, you remember that residents started telling the state biologists back in the mid-1990s that their turkeys had disappeared. In 1997, the FWCC ran a survey of 29 bait sites in the county, during which they found no turkeys at all. Biologists then talked with hunters in Holmes and surrounding counties to see if they were willing to accept a closed season for a while as part of an effort to restore turkeys in the area.

The hunters were very willing, so in 1998 Holmes County was closed to turkey hunting. During the next two winters, beginning in the fall of 1998, biologists stocked the county with a total of 121 birds at eight different release sites.

For the past several years, the FWCC has continued to run September surveys at most of the original bait stations, looking for evidence that the turkeys have reproduced and spread.

In September of 2000, out of 28 remaining release stations, biologists were able to confirm turkeys at three of the sites. The next September, they recorded turkeys at seven of the sites. In September of 2002, they found turkeys at eight bait stations.

"We're going in the right direction," Perrin says, "and as we're talking to people. They say they're seeing turkeys more, and in places where they hadn't seen them before."

Just because they're not seeing turkeys at all the bait sites doesn't mean the birds aren't out there.

"We set up the bait stations in 1997, and we put them in places that we thought would be good to record turkeys," Perrin says. "To be scientific, we have to use those same bait sites. But the turkeys go where they want to go, and that's not necessarily where we set up the bait sites."

As a result, the bait stations may not show what's really out there.

"We actually have turkeys quite close to some of the bait sites," Perrin says. "If we could move the bait sites a quarter of a mile, we'd pick up turkeys."

The long and short of it is that biologists think the turkey population in Holmes County is doing better than statistics generated at the bait sites show.

"Overall, we're satisfied with what's going on," Perrin states. "Our goal remains to reopen the area to turkey hunting. We feel like we've completed the stocking and we're documenting reproduction. So we're hopeful that within five years of the last stocking we'll be able to open it up to hunting. But we'll let the data dictate when we do that."

In the Everglades, the situation is a bit less clear, and perhaps the effort there has been less successful. Back in January of 2000, the FWCC, in cooperation with the National Park Service (NPS) and the NWTF, released 29 birds into an area of rockland pines habitat where turkeys historically had lived but had been extirpated back in the 1950s. Ten of those birds were equipped with radios so biologists could track them, and all had tags that identified them as part of the released group of turkeys.

During the spring of 2000, biologists could not verify any reproduction in the new Everglades birds.

"That doesn't mean reproduction didn't take place," Perrin says. "It just means we weren't able to document it."

In the spring and summer of 2001, however, the NWTF used trail cameras to check on the birds at a number of bait stations. At several of the stations, the cameras caught images of turkeys that were not tagged. Biologists were certain that these were grown poults and not birds recruited from another population, because there's no other population close enough for the birds to come from.

"At one time there was a natural connection from other populations down to Everglades National Park," Perrin says. "But there's no longer a viable way for turkeys to get to that coastal ridge on their own. That's why we had to stock them in the first place."

In the spring of 2002, though, the situation became less clear. NWTF cameras caught no turkeys at the bait stations. However, observers did report seeing some birds at other locations. Apparently there are turkeys still down there, but no one really knows how many, or whether reproduction is continuing to take place.

Where does the project go from here?

"Everglades National Park has expressed some interest in releasing some more turkeys, and the commission is considering it," Perrin says. "We're really evaluating what's going on down there, and we really haven't made a decision yet about what to do in the future."

If a large predator base is causing a lot of mortality, more turkeys won't help solve the problem.

On many of the state's wildlife management areas (WMAs), the FWCC teams up with the NWTF to initiate projects for turkeys. One new restoration project that's coming up is on the Guana River WMA between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

"It's isolated, with the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Intracoastal Waterway on the west, and

development that's creating barriers on the north and south," Perrin says, in describing the public land. "Historically, this area has supported turkeys, but the turkeys apparently disappeared, in part due to over-hunting that we believe to have occurred when the state first bought the land, but before any safeguards could be put in place. At the same time, habitat started to degrade because there wasn't any prescribed burning taking place."

Now that the area is under good management, however, turkeys can't get back into it on their own. In December of 2002, biologists released a couple of dozen turkeys onto the Guana River WMA.

"We're hoping to restore that turkey population, and someday to be able to open it back up to turkey hunting," Perrin says.

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