Declining Turkey Numbers Cause for Concern in Southeast

In the last 15 to 20 years, declining turkey numbers in the Southeast have baffled wildlife biologists, hunters and others trying to figure it out.
Declining Turkey Numbers Cause for Concern in Southeast

In the last 15 to 20 years, declining turkey numbers in the Southeast have baffled wildlife biologists, hunters and others trying to figure it out.

It hasn't been in just one area or state, either. Declines have been noticeable throughout the region with no specific factor leading to the "Ah, ha!" moment. Baffling really is a good way to describe it because no one has been able to figure it out. Among the theories bandied about are weather, agricultural practices including use of chicken litter and possible disease, avian diseases, hunting pressure, predators such as coyotes and nest disturbing opossums and raccoons, and other possibilities.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hosted the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Southeast Wild Turkey Workshop at DeGray Lake Resort State Park’s lodge recently. Almost 100 biologists and administrators from 15 states convened to discuss their findings and learn from each other.

One sign impossible to miss is a decline in annual harvest numbers. Arkansas's 2018 season total, for example, was 7,885 turkeys reported for a 16-day season and the state's two-day youth hunt. Why was that bad? Because in 2017 the total was more than 10,000, and in 2003 it was more than 20,000.

“We’re not the only state that sees that,"AGFC biologist Jason Honey said in a press release. "Several other states are seeing the exact same issue that Arkansas has seen for the last seven, eight to 10 years."

Joy Sweeney, the turkey program coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, who attended the DeGray conference, said, “Our numbers statewide have just come out and we saw a fall-off, too.”

Data Shows Declines

After Arkansas's high of 20,000-plus birds in 2003, officials began seeing a decline in the state. Data collected through poult surveys and hunter harvest reports confirmed their suspicions. They weren't the only ones.

— Missouri harvests the most birds in the region, averaging 35,000 annually, but has seen a gradual decline much like Arkansas’s.
— On the other hand, West Tennessee’s harvest has been increasing, compared with the rest of the state, with substantial numbers of birds in a quadrant between Jackson and Nashville (Tennessee manages turkeys by dividing the state into four sections). The quadrant closest to Arkansas, however, is in decline.
— Mississippi harvest numbers appear to move up and down on a 2-3-year cycle, reports show.
— East Texas has closed multiple counties for turkey hunting and is currently in a major restocking effort.
— The six Oklahoma counties adjacent to Arkansas averaged a total of 428 turkeys harvested annually.

Going forward, it appears, management changes will have to be enacted following what appears to have been a population boom due to restoration efforts. That's tough for state agency officials, though, because it could mean season or bag limit changes that may not sit well with hunters.

“We’re managing turkeys while it’s still based on turkey expansion," said Honey, the AGFC biologist. "Now we have more of a stagnant population, and so, we as biologists really have to be mindful of that.

"The turkey expansion is done. You had that initial expansion after major reintroduction efforts, but once these populations begin to decline, they have to be managed differently. We as biologists, and being hunters, and the hunters out there, are both frustrated at the situation.”

Data Collection Changes

The workshop discussions revealed that one downfall to current research techniques is that each state has been collecting data differently, and finding each state’s reports has been difficult among SEAFWA members. It was decided at DeGray that researchers would forward their information into one central hub to be shared so “we can effectively learn from the information that’s been collected,” Honey said.

Five years ago, he said, the membership realized they were collecting brood surveys differently across the region and, through collaboration decided to collect it the same way. That’s why everyone at the workshop could note the disturbing trend in parts of the region of a serious drop in poults per hen, Honey noted.

For example, turkey hens typically lay 9-12 eggs during the breeding season. If there is a disturbance they will try to renest, but the later this happens, the more difficult it becomes because of drier conditions. Research at the workshop showed that across the Southeast region, a number below 1.8-2.0 poults per hen was considered poor reproduction.

In Arkansas, for example, the Ouachita National Forest totaled 1.2 poults per hen; the rest of the state was below 1.2 poults per hen. Similar low numbers are being seen in pockets throughout the Southeast. In fact, regions on either side of the Mississippi River from Missouri to the Louisiana gulf coast show a less-than-1.2 poults-per-hen estimates.

“Those reproduction numbers we’re seeing are influenced by many factors such as weather, predation and habitat," Honey said. "We are looking at what we can influence, such as habitat improvement.”

Problems with turkey production and harvest still vary from state to state. States take different approaches to collecting harvest data, which can vary the totals significantly. But, “every biologist in the room was concerned about what was going on,” Honey said.

Featured image: AGFC

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