The COVID-19 effect on wild turkey populations

Note: Drs. Michael Chamberlain and Bret Collier, of the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, respectively, authored this column.

How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting wild turkeys has interested hunters and conservationists since the start of the 2020 turkey season. Many COVID-19 restrictions came just as wild turkey seasons were opening nationwide. Initial restrictions, such as social distancing, resulted in increased outdoor recreational activities, including hunting. A wave of hunters, old and new, hit the turkey woods with incredible zeal.

We expressed concern early last year about the potential for increased hunter numbers and their time spent hunting wild turkeys (hunter effort) to significantly increase harvest totals. Wild turkeys are the only gamebird in the contiguous United States hunted primarily before and during the onset of the breeding season. Those unexpected changes in hunting activity last year — hunter numbers and effort — may have immediate and potentially longer implications for wild turkey populations.

First, we base our concerns on what we see as well-documented, long-term declines in the estimated abundance and productivity of Eastern wild turkey populations across broad portions of their range. Several long-term studies show ongoing declines. Such declines significantly concern many state wildlife agencies. Science suggests these declines are at least partially driven by reduced annual production. Later dates of nest initiation, reduced nest success and poor brood survival are factors. These declines are likely driven by a combination of changes in land-use practices, predation, disease and the timing of spring harvest across the wild turkey’s range.

We are concerned that COVID-19’s impact on human behavior, especially increased hunter numbers and increased hunter effort, may impact current and future wild turkey populations across the species’ range.

Concerns for 2022 

As expected, many states recorded increases in both license sales and harvest. Since increased hunter effort drives harvest numbers, many states also saw record numbers of turkeys killed. Some states, though, saw fairly consistent harvest totals despite increased hunter effort. 

From a population biology standpoint, 2-year-old male wild turkeys typically make up the primary age class harvested each turkey season. Older turkeys comprise a smaller proportion of the harvest. Given the increased harvest observed in many states during 2020, we expected that male wild turkey abundance, based on carryover of unharvested males from 2020 and production during 2019, would decrease this year. However, if hunter effort remained high during spring 2021, we may not see a decline in 2021 harvest levels relative to 2020 because more male turkeys could be taken from smaller overall male population sizes.

A greater concern relates to the 2022 hunting season. The 2022 population will rely heavily on production that occurred in 2020. The increased 2020 harvest, coupled with the uptick in removal of males before and during breeding activities, may have consequences during 2022.    

While it’s exciting to see increases in outdoor-related recreational activities and interest in wild turkey hunting, hunters and managers should consider implications of increasing harvests.

In some areas, 2020’s increased harvest may contribute to resetting the baseline turkey population size. We are not producing as many turkeys as we did historically. Less production equates directly to fewer turkeys. We may find ourselves in a situation where increased harvest requires increased production for population sizes to remain constant.

Unfortunately, positive productivity trends over the long term are rare for most states within the Eastern wild turkey’s range. Effectively, it boils down to the question, “Can we produce our way out of increased harvests due to COVID?” Current data across numerous states suggest the answer is, “No.”    

The Ground Game

Land management activities, such as timber harvesting, prescribed fire or other beneficial “disturbances,” were discontinued or reduced in many areas during 2020. This was especially true of state and federal lands.

Wild turkeys are known to select areas disturbed within two years for nesting and brooding, so it’s possible that the lack of management may have pushed a suite of areas out of what is considered suitable for wild turkey reproductive activities. The impacts from these reductions in land management activities and the creation of desirable early successional vegetation will likely impact the situation for years.

The potential impacts of altered timing of various land management strategies warrants consideration. It is something we will actively monitor over the next several years to see if any significant changes occur in how turkeys use the habitat. Agencies and landowners can help by documenting the scope, scale and frequency of land management activities conducted during 2020.

Final Thoughts

While we share our observations and thoughts, we also note that science is far from exact. Many factors drive wild turkey population status across their range. Turkey conservation and management may be best served by the hunting and management community being thoughtful and proactive.

Untangling the pandemic’s effects on wild turkey populations will require time and information. Scientifically supported answers will be difficult for several years. Ultimately, we must ensure that the wild turkey management community has the flexibility and support needed to adjust harvest regulations and land management programs as appropriate so we ensure sustainable wild turkey populations for recreation and aesthetic purposes into the future. 

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