Restoring Wild Turkeys in East Texas

When things aren’t going as planned, it’s often best to reassess and regroup, change the approach and move forward. That’s what the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is doing to boost the population of Eastern wild turkeys.

From 1979 to 2003, TWPD brought an estimated 7,000 wild-captured Easterns into 58 counties in central and east Texas. Today, the Eastern turkey population numbers around 10,000. According to science-based wildlife management, this total does not mean success. The reason for the lackluster establishment can be attributed to a number of factors including poor survival and low production immediately following the stockings.

“We’re taking a new approach,” said Jason Hardin, upland game bird specialist for TWPD. “It’s based on a super stocking model designed by Roel R. Lopez and others.”

Super stocking consists of stocking a large number of wild turkeys (80 plus) into a single release site.

“The stocking consists of 20 males and 60 females and all efforts are made to stock an equal portion of juvenile and adult birds. We have found better survival with juvenile birds, which provides us with brood stock into the future. We see a higher nesting rate, and better nest success and poult survival with adult birds, which provides us with early recruitment into the newly established population,” said Hardin.

According to Lopez’s report, Restoration of the wild turkey in east Texas; simulation of alternative restocking strategies, survival decreased with the age class of hens released — 48 percent of post-release adult hen mortality occurred during the nesting season in contrast to 0 percent for juvenile hens. The report also found supplemental stockings of adult wild turkeys suffered a higher rate of mortality than the resident turkeys.

Eastern hens typically lay one egg per day on the ground in early April, until their clutches are complete with 10 to 12 eggs. Hens become extremely vulnerable to predation during incubation and post-hatch periods.

According to Hardin, it is important to assess the nesting habitat available for hens before they are released into these eastern regions of Texas.

“The key to sustainability is to evaluate the habitat to ensure it is suitable before stocking birds,” Hardin said. “Our goal is to stock large tracks of suitable habitat to ensure successful establishment. We focus on nesting and brood rearing cover, and overall useable space.”

TWPD places a high value on forested landscapes dotted with scattered openings averaging 5 acres to serve as brood habitat. The department would like to see open habitat constituting 7½ to 50 percent of the landscape.

TWPD conducted the first non-research stockings in 11 years this past winter on three sites that averaged approximately 13,000 acres each. With funding from the NWTF Texas State Chapter, along with monies from the Upland Gamebird Stamp Fund, TWPD stocked 247 birds from seven states into three sites in January, February and March. The state agency fitted approximately 100 birds with GPS units.

Hardin prefers GPS to VHF (very high frequency) technology.

“VHF revolutionized wildlife research,” he said. “Turkey management would not be where it is today without VHS technology and VHF still has a place in some wildlife research. However, after 30 years, technology has provided researchers with GPS, a much more powerful tool. Traditionally, our researchers might collect a VHF location on a bird once or twice a week. This was usually through triangulation, which meant the exact location was a guess within a few acres to perhaps many acres of potential habitat and habitat types. With GPS technology, we can often see what tree a bird is standing under or what bush a bird in nesting under. Rather than collecting one or two approximate locations a week, we collect one or two locations per hour.”

TPWD is interested in continuing stocking efforts with additional landowners, landowner cooperatives (multiple contiguous landowners working cooperatively to manage for wild turkeys at a scale greater than the individual property) and industry lands capable of providing quality turkey habitat on contiguous blocks, preferably thousands of acres at a time. Currently TWPD has funding for four super stockings between Sept. 1, 2014, and Aug. 31, 2015.

The NWTF anticipates future reports about the success of the super stocking program in Texas. Landowners interested in learning more can contact Hardin (Jason.Hardin@tpwd.texas.gov or 903-322-2770). They can also download a fact sheet on TWPD’s website (www.tpwd.state.tx.us). 

Eastern turkeys may be hunted only in the spring. Last year, 28 counties offered over-the-counter tags. Always check TWPD’s website for regulations and locations.  — Barbara Baird

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