Wild Turkey Research at the NWTF Convention and Sport Show's Conservation Conference

Friday at the 43rd annual NWTF Convention and Sport Show’s Conservation Conference, various state wildlife agencies and universities presented details of conservation projects with the NWTF. The presentations were part of the conference’s Wild Turkey Research seminar.

Projects highlighted included survival and reproduction research, weather impacts on survival and productivity of the Eastern wild turkey in South Dakota, recent data on harvest declines in Tennessee, and current research and hunting season recommendations in the harvest-declining state of South Carolina.

Chad Lehman, South Dakota’s senior wildlife biologist, outlined the capture, banding and transmitter fitting of wild turkeys to better understand recent population declines, their causes and the effects of weather on populations in the state. Lehman and partners from the South Dakota Game and Fish Department, the Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Fund and the NWTF found that increased rain and snow negatively affect the survival of poults at the nesting age.

They also found that poult survival into adulthood was low for South Dakota. In addition, studies showed that survival of adult females is the main factor that determines how turkey population numbers respond to environmental events. While the decline causes are unclear, Lehman said he felt that poult survival in the nesting phase may be to blame.

Charles Ruth, big game program coordinator with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, addressed potential solutions to turkey population declines in the state. With 2015 harvest numbers down 40 percent from 2002, South Carolina hunters are eager to understand the cause. Ruth explained that although there are no definitive answers to this question, the state can do one major thing to try and fix the problem.

“The only thing we can manage from a regulatory standpoint is hunting [dates and seasons],” Ruth said.

While the state has made no official regulation changes through the legislature yet, SCDNR and partners Louisiana State University and the NWTF recommend that the legislature change the spring season to run from April 10 to May 16. They believe that this would allow for improved poult nesting survival and better adult gobbler population numbers.

University of Tennessee professor David Buehler spoke on a five-year study the University of Tennessee, the NWTF and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is conducting. The study, which is currently in year three, is looking to determine the causes of three-year harvest lows in Giles, Lawrence and Wayne counties. The researchers are examining population size counts, hunter surveys, habitat suitability, death surveillance reports and disease surveillance reports in both genders and all life stages of turkeys to come up with an answer on the declines. They are studying turkeys on two million total acres of combined private and public lands. While researchers need more data to find an answer, Buehler said the team is making every effort to come up with results and solutions for the good of hunters and the Tennessee wild turkey population.

“Every time I talk to turkey hunters, I learn something new about what motivates them and what makes them happy,” Buehler said. “That’s part of what we’re here for, is to try to find ways to make turkey hunters happy.”

– Heiler Meek

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