The National Wild Turkey Federation’s 46th Annual Convention and Sport Show opened this morning in Nashville with a display of resolution and commitment to conservation and a serious look at immediate challenges facing America’s noble bird.
Following a parade of flags carried by state chapter presidents, NWTF Chief Executive Officer Rebecca Humphries spoke, alluding to the pandemic-curtailed gathering of 2021 and noting that reconvening in Nashville was akin to the “clear blue sky after a big storm.”
“In a time of discord in our country, conservation is something that can draw us together,” said Humphries.
Indicative of the commitment to that conservation, NWTF Foundation Chairman Heath Davis presented a check for $150,000, pointing out that this funding will be leveraged through partnerships and various grants to eventually represent some $2 million in beneficial work.
The morning’s signature speaker was Dr. Michael Chamberlain, Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Chamberlain, one of the nation’s pre-eminent wild turkey researchers, was introduced by Toxey Haas, founder and CEO of Mossy Oak.
Haas declared, “Hunting is a privilege we get to do if we do a good job at conservation,” adding the nonhunters sometimes don’t understand how true hunters love the creatures they are hunting and the commitment hunters make on behalf of those creatures. When it comes to figuring out what truly makes a difference in sustaining those creatures – like the wild turkey – research drives the train; otherwise (and we paraphrase) it’s possible to dedicate a lot of time, motion and money to areas that might not yield optimal results.
Chamberlain’s presentation was excerpted from a larger manuscript set to be presented this coming summer at the wild turkey symposium, a gathering held every few years that allows researchers to share findings and issues.
Declaring, “I was a turkey hunter before I was a scientist,” Chamberlain outlined some somber issues. Statistics are showing that since 2004, the year he said much of the turkey restoration effort wound down in the United States, turkey populations have declined by an estimated 16 percent. Total harvest rates are off 19 percent, with fall harvests dropping 31 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge of hunters last year but overall, since 2004, turkey hunter numbers have fallen an estimated 22 percent.
Poult-to-hen ratios, tracked across the southeastern United States have declined significantly. Almost 80 percent of turkey nests fail to produce a single poult living to maturity.
Something is amiss, Chamberlain said, “We’re not making turkeys.”
Chamberlain said the reasons why aren’t wholly apparent – yet. Research, though, is necking down the range of suspects. Habitat, predation, over-harvest and more. Outcomes at the local levels often reflect a combination of factors.
He said some states are moving to curb the situation, adjusting seasons and bag limits, often to the consternation of some hunters. He encouraged hunters to support research with the understanding the net desired outcomes do include maximized opportunity and harvest. But considerable work needs to be done, working across jurisdictions to assess turkey populations and the habitat where they live and updating the research and paradigms that managers use to set seasons and limits.
While he couldn’t offer any desired “silver bullet” to address turkey population declines, Chamberlain took the opportunity to underscore that all members of the conservation community must come together to improve the situation. He called for commitment – to the wild turkey and to research.
NWTF leaders are answering that call.