"If turkey populations are declining, why don’t states eliminate the killing of hens in the fall? If people are accidentally shooting hens in the spring, they probably do it in fall as well."- Jeff Jernigan, via email
Thanks for contacting Ask Dr. Tom with your question about declines in wild turkey populations and the effect of harvest management on turkey numbers. It is good to hear from wild turkey enthusiasts who share their questions and concerns with us. State agency biologists have been concerned about declines in wild turkey populations for a decade now, and there are ongoing studies to try to determine the causes. Current research focuses on habitat changes, causes of declining poult survival, current harvest strategies and disease as possible factors affecting turkey numbers. The bottom line is that what is affecting turkey numbers is a complex issue.
You raised an interesting point. Limiting harvest of wild turkeys, especially hens, is one of the few things managers can do in the short term to limit annual mortality. Habitat management projects can take years, and studies to isolate and reverse the causes of a population decline take time as well. So, biologists can and do carefully review current seasons and bag limits with an eye toward making changes to reduce hunting-related mortality. Some states have shortened fall hunting seasons for wild turkeys to increase the survival rates of hens while they study the causes of shrinking numbers of turkeys. Some have reduced spring bag limits and changed the timing of spring seasons.
Population declines are not limited to states with fall seasons in which hens may be taken. States like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi have either very limited or no fall seasons, yet their turkey populations are declining. Mostly, the harvest of hens in the fall is not a driving force in population changes. Carefully designed and conservatively managed fall seasons are usually not a limiting factor for wild turkeys, either. That said, wild turkey biologists have proposed shorter fall seasons in some states with strong fall hunting traditions in an effort to increase hen survival in the hope that those hens will successfully raise broods in the future. Meanwhile they are looking seriously at habitat quality and diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Lymphoproliferative Disease (LPDV) to learn what may be causing populations to level off or decline.
Turkey hunters and wild turkey biologists like me would like to see turkey numbers on the increase once again. The NWTF is a participant in these studies, providing funding and expertise to help state agencies. Thank you for your membership and your role in conservation and preserving our hunting tradition.