The 2015 Turkey Special

Poor hatches and declining turkey numbers seem to be the new in Georgia. What's going on with our turkeys?

Hunters across the state of Georgia are pacing the floor waiting for the opening bell to another turkey season. I have been consumed by “The Sickness” that is turkey hunting since the 1980s. It just never gets old for me, and as I approach three decades of turkey hunting in this great state, I can’t see that ever changing.

However, what I do see changing is the overall state of Georgia’s turkey population. I fear that I might have seen the good old days already, and that my children and grandchildren might never know turkey hunting in a way that the veterans of days’ past have known it.

“Around 1980, you could stand on just about any ridge in the turkey woods on a spring morning, and you were going to hear some birds” said Lynn Stanford, of Eatonton.

Lynn is a longtime friend, and with more than 40 years of experience in the turkey woods, he is one of the most respected and finest turkey hunters in the state. I asked Lynn if he was concerned about the future of the wild turkey and turkey hunting in Georgia, and his response was a very quick, “Yes!”

When I asked him what the difference between now and back then is, he said, “Two things come to mind right off the bat: overall turkey numbers and the lack of true management.”

I couldn’t agree more. I believe there is a combination of things that have given us reason for concern, and if something is not done, we might have reason to reach for the panic button in the all-too-near future. Last year a decline in turkey populations was noticed in nine states. Georgia was one of those states that saw a decline.

According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), more than 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat are lost each day. That equivocates to 2.2 million acres per year. That’s phenomenal, and it’s alarming.

Questions abound as to the reasons behind the decline in the numbers of turkeys here in Georgia. The blame is scattered from coyotes to poor hatches to loss of habitat.

Along with a decrease in the turkey population, Georgia’s turkey-harvest numbers declined in 2014. Last year’s 32,569 downed birds was a drop from the 35,000 turkeys that hunters took in 2013.

For me, the real eye opener from last season was that our jake harvest was the lowest since at least 2005. Last year an estimated 1,652 jakes were taken statewide, half the number when compared to the 3,300 jakes taken just one year earlier in 2013.

There is an argument out there that says fewer jakes are being killed these days because of hunter restraint. I don’t believe for a minute that fewer jakes were killed simply because there is that much more hunter restraint, at least not from one year to the next. I believe fewer jakes were killed because there were simply fewer jakes to be had. The numbers prove this, but I also hunt pretty much every day of turkey season, and the jakes aren’t there.

The news worsens. Poult-per-hen numbers were low again, suggesting that for the third straight year the reproduction, on average, across the state was dismal. This number is used to gauge the state’s nesting success.

If ever there was a year we needed a strong crop of jakes to begin to build the population back up after back-to-back poor reproductive years, it’d be now. However, that didn’t happen, and now we’re faced with three solid years of poor reproduction.

While the Ridge and Valley region appeared to have the state’s best hatching success, WRD’s Wild Turkey Project Coordinator Kevin Lowrey added that fewer personnel were available to conduct hatch surveys in that area of the state. Therefore, the results as a whole for the region may be deceiving.

Kevin did say that it’s pretty safe to say that from the Piedmont region north through the Blue Ridge Mountain and the Ridge and Valley regions, the hunting forecast is poor for the 2015 season.

Fair to good is the word in the Upper and Lower Coastal regions. Basically, it will likely be a season with some older birds and scattered jakes. This normally translates to quieter spring woods. It’s not the most exciting outlook for a season I’ve ever seen.

I’ve heard it suggested that lower reproduction numbers aren’t quite as worrisome as they appear because turkeys have filled the available habitat that is out there. This line of thinking leaves me scratching my head. I know people in various places of the state that have good turkey habitat, and they either rarely have birds or don’t have them at all. It’s almost like saying that the lower reproduction numbers in Georgia aren’t that big of a deal because we don’t have anywhere to put them anyway.

I simply have to disagree and tell you that I am alarmed. From looking at the data and giving you testimonial evidence from myself and a number of other turkey hunters, numbers are down.

Our neighboring state of Alabama shared my concern. They are worried about the turkey decline to the point that they are ready for action.

According to Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes, the declining turkey numbers in the state is a current hot topic.

“It’s a problem throughout the Southeast,” Sykes said. “It’s being talked about at every regional meeting I go to. Every state around us has a declining turkey population.”

Alabama has begun a comprehensive 5-year research program to find out why its turkey population is dwindling. It’s being labeled as the most comprehensive long-term study of the Eastern wild turkey in the history of the state.

“We have no data to explain this,” Sykes said. “We need to have some data to understand what’s going on.”

As Alabama takes action, it’s obvious to me that we have a noticeable problem. I believe Alabama should be commended for setting the table, and I would like to see Georgia become more proactive in searching for answers.

Having said all that, Mother Nature does play a never-ending role in determining the number of turkeys on the ground. Brutal, untimely snow and ice, cold and heavy spring rains and summer droughts name a few of the events that will hurt turkey numbers. However, these things come in cycles, and turkey populations can rebound after these events.

Man, however, has had one of the most detrimental impacts on the status of wild turkey populations. It’s the affects of man that we often can’t recover from.

Habitat degradation at the hands of man has had a significant impact on the wild turkey. We simply can’t continue to lose 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat a day and replace it with shopping centers, neighborhoods or even pine plantations and expect the wild turkey to continue to thrive.

I’ve also seen man take a good wildlife-management tool and misuse it. Prescribed burns are a fantastic wildlife-management tool, provided they are conducted at the right time of the year. Not too many years ago it seemed that controlled burns were done in January and February and occasionally in early March. However, in recent years I’ve seen them being conducted as late as the end of April. I’ve witnessed this on several tracts of Oconee National Forest land I hunt in middle Georgia.

Prescribed burns in April guarantees that some turkey nests will burn. Some will say it is a fair trade off when you have created better habitat for the future. My concern is if we continue burning up turkey nests, especially during these poor years of reproduction, we’re not leaving enough seed on the ground.

I contacted several people with the U.S. Forest Service to inquire as to why controlled burns were being done so much later in the spring and why it is now deemed acceptable to do so. None of the people I talked to could give me an answer to either question. I did receive a 57-page document for reference based on the wild turkey nesting survival in the presence of fire during the growing season. Several people I left messages with chose not to return my calls. That’s interesting in itself.

I did get in touch with Tom Hughes, assistant vice president of Conservation and Science Technology with the NWTF. He said studies have been conducted on late-season burns during the growing period as opposed to burns conducted during the dormant period. He stated that they found most hens nest along the fringe of burn areas or farther off the edge and in riparian areas. As a result, there was a low number of nests destroyed by fire.

“I’m definitely not sold on late-season burns as to its effect on nesting wild turkeys,” he said. “Aerial burns in late season as opposed to ground-induced fires tend to burn more area the hens will nest in, too, and that’s a concern. We are definitely not sitting idle here at the NWTF, and I share your concerns on this subject as well.”

I’m thankful for watchdog groups like NWTF for watching our backs on issues like this. With their new Save The Habitat, Save The Hunt program, I’m convinced they will play a part in attempting to restore wild turkey populations to what they used to be.

However, the big question still remains: Why exactly are turkey numbers down? What steps are we taking to figure it out? What steps are going to be taken to solve the problem?

I don’t know those answers. But it does leave me asking more questions. These are simply my opinions, but they are questions that come to mind: Are we at a point we need to cut our limit back from three birds to two birds? Does the WMA turkey limit need to be dropped to just one bird? Is making it illegal to harvest a jake once you reach the age you are required to buy a license an answer? Why do we not have a tagging system in place? Is the punishment for the illegal killing of a turkey in Georgia stiff enough?

Do we look at other states and how they do it? Missouri has a three-week season and a one-bird-a-day limit for the entire season with a limit of one bird during the first week of the season. And, even though I don’t support half-day hunting, they do that, too. Missouri has one of the top turkey populations in the country, while having some of the best harvest numbers year in and year out. Their management practice is a good insurance policy for the seasons of poor hatches.

Some are reading this rolling their eyes. I understand my opinions may not be the correct solutions, but they are questions worth asking as we begin to talk about this problem and look at solutions. Alabama is ready to talk. Are we?

If we continue to ignore the numbers here in Georgia and continue to shrink the turkey habitat, the birds we love so dearly simply will not survive. I believe Georgia’s wild turkey is screaming for help. We need to listen, and we should never lose sight of the fact that we didn’t inherit the wild turkey from our fathers, but we are borrowing it from our children.

Poor Turkey Season Predicted

To gauge poult-hatching success, WRD biologists look at the “poults-per-hen” number in a survey conducted by DNR employees during the summer months. Reproductive levels around 2.0 poults per hen is a good hatch. Less than that would be fair to poor, and more than that would be good to excellent.

For the last three years, Georgia has seen poor turkey hatches.

Although the Ridge & Valley region saw the highest poults-per-hen number (1.7), it’s likely that those results are deceiving due to a low number of those participating in the survey. In fact, Kevin Lowrey with WRD said a poor hatch was likely seen from the Piedmont region north, while slightly better hatches were seen in the Upper and Lower Coastal Plain regions.

Turkey hunters are now beginning to ask, “What are the factors causing the poor reproduction years? What steps will be done to reverse the problem?”

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