Report examines timing of spring seasons

In 2016, the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released a report by their wild turkey working group, detailing statistics and science-based recommendations surrounding wild turkey breeding and the timing of spring turkey seasons in the Southeastern U.S. This report is currently the most up-to-date of its kind, citing 67 scholarly journal articles. The information is also timely, given several Southeastern states have seen turkey harvest declines in recent years.

As hunters, we are sportsmen or women, as well as conservationists. The two go hand-in-hand, and to separate them would have dire consequences for our local environments and our world. SEAFWA’s wild turkey working group explained that while it strives for high hunter satisfaction with its season recommendations, it must also pay attention to the biological needs of turkeys to protect their survival. 

The group’s report addressed two major threats to the well-being of turkey populations in the southeast: illegal, out-of-season killing of hens and reduced dominant gobbler numbers at the beginning of the mating season.

An important factor that determines yearly turkey population numbers is the number of hens that survive from one year to the next. Biologists have found as hen harvest rates approach 10 percent of a state’s hen population, overall turkey populations sometimes decline in kind. Biologists also suggest contemporary research needs to take place to better understand possible implications, as the most current research is more than 20 years old. 

This means that any harvest of hens, in addition to what states allow in fall seasons, could be significant. It follows that states should try to curtail any accidental hen harvesting. Because hens that have laid eggs isolate themselves to their nests during nesting season, biologists believe that less accidental killing of hens would occur during this time.

Researchers have documented a considerable number of hen killings that occur outside of season regulations. While these killings are often unintentional, occurring when hunters intend to shoot a gobbler, it could be having a profound impact on populations in the Southeast. 

Hen nesting seasons vary based on state. Within each state, nesting times vary with weather and hen health. Many Southeastern states’ spring seasons open before their turkey populations’ average nesting season begins. SEAFWA’s wild turkey working group suggests that by altering opening dates until after nesting is occurring, states could cut down on the number of hens accidentally killed during the spring.  

Biologists have discovered that the more-dominant gobblers of a population often mate early in the season, and the less-dominant gobblers mate following this. Gobblers that are more dominant have the healthiest immune systems and most desirable characteristics for living in turkey habitats. These gobblers often produce the healthiest poults that are best adapted to their environments. Many Southeastern states’ spring hunting seasons begin early in the mating season, which allows hunters to kill the most dominant gobblers before breeding occurs. SEAFWA’s work group expressed concern that opening seasons during this time of the mating season may cause the health and defenses of their overall turkey populations to suffer. However, SEAFWA’s report also acknowledged that more research on this topic is needed.

Taking into account several variables, SEAFWA’s wild turkey working group endorsed two potential options for southeastern states.

The first option is for state agencies to delay spring seasons until the prime egg-laying period begins. The report espouses that this would both reduce the amount of hens killed in the spring and allow the majority of dominant gobblers to mate. In addition, hunters would still be able to hear a large amount of gobbling due to the fact that one chief wave of gobbling happens during this time. 

The second, more conservative option for state agencies to consider is pushing the onset of spring hunting season to the time that hens begin to sit on the eggs they have laid. This solution may produce dissatisfied hunters, as a later season may not permit them to hear as much gobbling, the report said.

SEAFWA’s work group urged Southeastern state agencies to consider suspending spring season openings until the average time when hens lay the most eggs. More research is needed to ascertain the current level of illegal hen killing and the effect of killing dominant gobblers early in the mating season may have on turkey populations. Until more research data is available, SEAFWA’s wild turkey working group believes following these recommendations could lead to healthier turkey populations and improved turkey numbers in states with harvest declines. 

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