2020 Turkey Special: No Rebound For Turkeys
Poult survival is still way below the glory years, and success rates continue to drop for hunters. There’s hope at a few improving WMAs.
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who loves turkey hunting. Today, he doesn’t hunt turkeys at all. When I asked him why he no longer hunted turkeys, he said, “I spend more time hunting for turkeys to hunt than I do hunting turkeys.”
I get it.
He told me how difficult it had become to locate a single gobbler on the public land near his house. He said the glory days in the turkey woods had seemingly slipped into a distant memory for him. My friend is not alone.
According to last month’s GON VOTES survey, essentially half (47%) of survey respondents said they’d be in favor of a reduction in the gobbler limit. Nearly half of respondents (47.3%) also voted for a future regulation that would prohibit the killing of jake turkeys to youth-only.
“The southeastern wild turkey decline is a complex issue, and I don’t believe there is a single factor that is to blame for the decline in our turkey populations,” said Emily Rushton, WRD’s wild turkey program coordinator.
As addressed in the pages of GON on a number of occasions already, there are all kinds of thoughts currently on the table regarding what has caused the decline in the Southeast. Several of those “pink elephant” items in recent years have been hunting pressure, predators and chicken litter spread on fields. While not one of those can receive the majority of the blame, Rushton did point to the state’s overall habitat as something to really be watching.
“I believe that landscape-level habitat changes are likely a large component,” said Rushton. “And with 93% of Georgia privately owned, it is a huge challenge to implement habitat changes on a large enough scale to improve statewide populations.”
The other 7% of lands are public properties, some of which are open to turkey hunting. Some of those public lands are even geared toward habitat management projects and practices that benefit wild turkeys. In other words, we have some public lands growing turkeys, and it appears to be working quite well. Take heed private-land guys.
“Factors we can control, such as harvest pressure, are being monitored closely to ensure that if we do need to, we can take steps to ensure a sustainable wild turkey population,” said Rushton.
Here’s my take-home message: When WRD puts their hands on a piece of property and manages it with turkeys in mind, they have proven that growing a good population of turkeys is absolutely attainable.
In 2019, Ohoopee Dunes WMA was No. 5 for hunter success (13%) among the state’s WMA turkey quota hunt areas. In fact, harvest last year rose 250% from the 2018 season.
“This property contains many unique habitats and non-game species, but management has also improved habitat for game species, such as wild turkey,” said Rushton. “A thinning was conducted last year on 1,200 acres of loblolly pine forests and 2,200 acres were prescribed burned last year. This improved nesting and brood-rearing habitat for turkeys.”
Joe Kurz and Blanton Creek WMAs are two middle Georgia examples of properties managed in a way that benefits wild turkeys.
“Joe Kurz WMA had a phenomenal harvest last year (23.5% hunter success),” said Rushton. “It has maintained a good population of birds, in part because of the habitat management, but also because quota hunts limit the hunting pressure on the property.
“Blanton Creek—another WMA that has quota hunts—has maintained a good population of birds and produces consistently high quality hunting opportunities.”
In addition to limiting hunting pressure, habitat projects take place on both these WMAs.
“We burned 540 acres on Blanton Creek and 360 on Joe Kurz during the 2018-19 burn season,” said Rushton. “We also conducted winter disking on both areas to promote annual forbs. Blanton had 15 acres and Joe Kurz had 5 acres winter disked. Blanton Creek had 120 acres of food plots and fallow fields/roadsides planted or maintained to promote forbs and bugging habitat. Joe Kurz had over 190 acres of food plots planted. Hardwood and invasive species control was done in fallow fields on Joe Kurz totaling over 100 acres.”
Looking at these recipes for success, we know that proper management can work at growing turkeys. However, when we’re looking at 93% of ownership in private tracts in our state, the big question is whether WRD needs to take regulation steps to turn the tides on our declining turkey population?
Next door in Alabama, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, an avid turkey hunter himself, said he is awaiting the final results of the five-year Auburn University turkey study that was concluded at the end of the last season. That study should help pinpoint some of the reasons for the dramatic decline of the Alabama turkey population and hunter success. The numbers are still being crunched, Sykes said.
In that study, Professor Dr. Barry Grand, of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, along with graduate students, monitored the status of 200 tagged turkeys across the state. The survival and productivity of those birds were documented.
Alabama WFF has been proactive throughout the turkey population decline that first started showing problems in 2013.
One thing Alabama has done is create five different turkey hunting zones, doing away with a blanket statewide season. The season dates are adjusted to turkey numbers in those zones. Much like Georgia has done on Cedar Creek WMA, WFF has also delayed the start of turkey season on seven WMAs to monitor if the historic start of the season is too early and affecting turkey reproduction.
The question many turkey hunters are now asking is will Georgia follow suit with other southeastern states and make some turkey hunting regulation changes.
“Our hunting regulations are updated on a 2-year cycle, and last year the Board approved hunting regulations for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons without any changes to the statewide turkey regulations,” said Rushton. “So, the earliest we would see any major changes, if our agency drafts any and the Board approves them, would be the 2022 spring gobbler season.”
While hunter testimonials certainly back up lower turkey numbers, WRD’s annual “poult count” survey continues to add proof to our problem.
“Our 2019 statewide brood survey produced a slightly lower poults per hen ratio (1.5) than in 2018 (1.6),” said Rushton.
For three years of poult data broken out by region, turn over to page 22.
“The Ridge & Valley Region saw a dip in reproduction, but keep in mind that 2018 had excellent reproduction, so lower poult numbers are not necessarily unexpected or a cause for concern,” said Rushton. “The Piedmont Region is continuing to see decreased reproduction, but the other regions of the state, particularly the Coastal Plain, had increases in poult production last year.”
For the 2020 turkey hunting season, Rushton said to expect a fair or maybe slightly better season than the past few years.
“Poult production for the past two years has been slightly above the five-year average, so hunters may see an uptick in birds on the landscape,” said Rushton. “Additionally, jake harvest was up last year, which can indicate a high number of jakes in last year’s spring population, which would translate to a higher number of 2-year-old gobblers available this spring.
“The Ridge & Valley region in northwestern Georgia had excellent poult production in 2018, which could mean a boost in 2-year-old gobblers present this spring. The Blue Ridge Mountains also had a higher than average year in 2018. The other regions of the state (Piedmont and Upper/Lower Coastal Plain) had poult production numbers that were at or slightly below the five-year average, so expect a fair season in those regions.”
Looking ahead to this spring’s poult production, Rushton hopes the mild, wet winter we have had will provide ample spring green-up and plenty of food to boost reproduction this year.
“While reproduction has declined from what it was in the 90s and early 2000s, it seems to have remained fairly steady the past couple of years and rebounded slightly from 2016’s record low brood counts. I am hopeful that our populations will at least remain somewhat steady in the near future.”
Are Coyotes Impacting Wild Turkey Populations?
Coyotes have received a chunk of the blame for declining turkey populations. However, new study results coming from the University of Georgia suggest that coyotes don’t seem to be a direct threat on turkey numbers.
“Our work thus far suggests that coyotes take very few turkeys, although we know it does happen,” said Dr. Michael Chamberlain, professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA. “I’m beginning to think that coyotes are more of an indirect threat to turkeys, in that their presence is simply an added stress because coyotes chase and harass birds all the time.
“A growing body of literature on other species is showing that indirect threats, basically perceived risk, can have important influences on behavior and life history strategies (such as reproduction). Whether that’s the case with coyotes and turkeys is unclear, but I think the possibility certainly exists.”
As Dr. Chamberlain stated, it’s still unclear what indirect effect the simple presence of coyotes can have on turkey population numbers, but there are critters out there that have an immediate direct impact on our birds. These are generally in the form of nest-raiding critters that like the taste of turkey eggs. I asked Rushton her thoughts on controlling nest-predator critters.
“In my opinion, the best thing you can do to reduce wild turkey predation is to improve the nesting and brood-rearing habitat on your land,” she said. “This means for nesting habitat, creating a well-developed understory with plenty of vegetative cover, and for brood-rearing habitat, weedy areas that are tall enough to protect poults but allow hens to visually detect predators.
“Many turkey nest predators, such as raccoons and opossums, are habitat generalists that thrive in areas that are marginal turkey habitat, so habitat improvements can go a long way to increasing reproductive success. Additionally, habitat improvement is generally more cost effective and efficient than predator management, which, if done correctly, is very time and labor intensive,” Rushton said.
To The 93% With Private Land
WRD has proven that when you take a piece of property, like a state-owned WMA, and make a decision to grow turkeys, it can be done. The big problem when discussing the decreasing statewide turkey population level is that 93% of Georgia lands are privately owned. WRD has no say-so in how those properties are managed. However, those with private land who are interested in growing and maintaining turkeys, habitat seems critical. WRD is willing to offer help to those wanting to grow birds.
“Habitat management is vital to maintaining good wild turkey numbers on private land,” said Emily Rushton, WRD’s wild turkey program coordinator. “There is a wealth of information available online; a good place to start is the NWTF website—they have many articles devoted to habitat management techniques.
“Additionally, WRD has biologists who are dedicated to helping landowners improve their properties for wildlife. They can assist with technical advice, as well as provide face-to-face advice with a site visit and can even follow up with a habitat management plan, if desired.”
To find a WRD biologist near you, call the DNR Private Lands Program at 229.420.1183 or call your regional Game Management office. Those numbers can be found at georgiawildlife.com/about/contact#gm.
Cedar Creek WMA Delayed Turkey Season
For the second consecutive season, Cedar Creek WMA will not be open until two weeks after the statewide season starts. This year’s spring gobbler season on Cedar Creek WMA will be held April 4 to May 15.
The later season is a continued effort to learn more about factors causing the decline in turkey populations. The delay was put in place to determine what effect hunting activity may have not only on the amount of gobbling but in the reproductive success of hens.
Last year was the first year the later season was implemented on Cedar Creek. While it is too early to tell what effect the delay had from only one year of data collection, we can certainly look at the stats from last season.
“Last year, harvest numbers on Cedar Creek dropped quite a bit, probably at least in part because of the season adjustment,” said Emily Rushton, WRD’s wild turkey program coordinator.
According to GON’s WMA Turkey Special, 23 gobblers were killed in 2019, down from the 52 taken in 2018 and 39 in 2017.
“The effects on reproduction will take longer to be fully understood, but we hope that enough toms were carried over from last year to have a positive effect on breeding this year,” said Rushton.
About The Author: GON freelance writer Donald Devereaux Jarrett has been with GON since 2003 and is currently on the following pro staffs: JEBS Chokes, Mossy Oak, South Dakota Hunting Service and Pistol Creek. If you’d like to talk turkey with Donald, you can reach him at [email protected].
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