Statewide Wild Turkey Studies Underway – Laker Country 104.9 FM WJRS

Two ongoing research projects should shed light on why Kentucky’s turkey crop has fallen since its 2010 record.

Hunters reported harvesting 26,836 turkeys during the state’s 2022 spring seasons. While this level is comparable to the peak of the turkey population boom in the early 2000s, it is well below Kentucky’s record spring harvest of more than 36,000 turkeys 12 years ago, and the average of the last 10 years of 30,822 harvested.

Kentucky is not alone in suffering a decline in its turkey crop.

“This is a range-wide phenomenon – it’s happening in other states as well,” said Zak Danks, turkey program coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources of the United States. Kentucky. “Researchers are talking and collaborating with each other, trying to figure out what’s going on in the wild turkey’s range.”

Kentucky is currently working with Tennessee Tech University and the University of Georgia on a turkey breeding study. Researchers are studying the nesting success and survival rates of young birds. Biologists will study how predators, weather, habitat and gobage affect the number of turkeys that reach adulthood.

Another ongoing study examines the impact of hunting on the herd. For this research, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, biologists began banding male turkeys earlier this year. Researchers will continue to band birds until 2025 to better understand the number of birds captured by hunters compared to the number of birds that die from other causes, such as predators.

Ben Robinson, acting director of the department’s Wildlife Division, warned that researchers need to complete the entire project before beginning to interpret the results.

“Drawing conclusions now would be like calling the Kentucky Derby halfway through the race,” he said.

Several factors impacted the turkey season this spring, including spells of cold and wet weather. The holidays may also have affected the number of hunters: Easter fell during the opening weekend while the spring season ended on Mother’s Day. Other factors during the spring season, such as the Kentucky Derby, youth sports or other group activities, once again competed for people’s time.

License sales figures this year indicate that the uptick in hunting and fishing participation during the pandemic has declined as COVID restrictions have eased.

Sales of licenses and permits authorizing the hunting of turkeys fell 6.6% in 2022 compared to the previous year. Still, an estimated 75,000 to 85,000 people hunted in Kentucky during the spring 2022 turkey season.

In preliminary results of a currently ongoing survey of 2,022 turkey hunters, a significant percentage reported that they stopped hunting after harvesting a turkey due to concerns about declining turkey numbers. Final results will be available upon completion of the survey later this month. This factor and other factors related to participation may explain the drop in the 2022 harvest.

Less gobbling observed by turkey hunters this spring – as indicated in the current post-season survey – is likely correlated with below average poult recruitment in 2020, reflected in the results of the annual brood survey statewide summer. However, last year’s brood survey indicates above average recruitment of young turkeys.

“We’ve heard from many hunters who have seen more jakes this spring, raising expectations for a good crop of 2-year-old gobblers to hunt next year,” Danks said.

As researchers and wildlife managers seek to better understand what might be happening with turkeys in their range, the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission offered several recommended changes at its meeting last December to combat proactive against perceived decline.

The committee recommended:

A bag limit of one turkey per hunter per Wildlife Management Zone per season.
Eliminate the harvest of beardless turkeys during fall hunting seasons.
Extend wildlife baiting ban from May 31 to July 31. Bait piles promote artificially high concentrations of predators and turkeys at bait sites, likely increasing predation and health risks to turkeys.
Extend the night coyote hunting season with rifles until June 30, except that the season would be closed from April 1 to May 15. Hunters on private land could use any legal modern firearm, centerfire and rimfire.
The recommended changes to the regulations are not yet in effect, as they must receive legislative approval before becoming law. Before leaving, hunters should always consult the hunting guide in force, published by the department to summarize the regulations in force. Hunting guide booklets are available at fw.ky.gov and from licensing agents.

Danks said crop fluctuations could be part of the normal cycles of a turkey population that has already peaked. In 1978, Kentucky’s turkey population was estimated at only 2,000 turkeys. It took almost two decades before the flock exceeded 100,000 birds. Flock estimates have stabilized at around 200,000 to 250,000 since 2002, indicating that Kentucky could have as many turkeys as the landscape will support.

“When populations increase, they generally have a higher reproductive rate,” Danks said. “When a population reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, it exceeds that capacity for a short time and then declines, followed by fluctuations.”

The 2010 season is an example of overflow. A large outbreak of 17-year-old cicadas in 2008 provided poults with a substantial food source that also distracted predators from their focus on turkeys and other prey. Survival rates skyrocketed, leading to the record harvest two years later.

This is why studies will focus on the survival of turkeys. Have all the best nesting sites and habitats been captured due to the number of birds in the flock?

“There is only a limited amount of habitat available for turkeys,” Robinson said. “Once we hit the carrying capacity of the turkey flock, we start to see fluctuations.”

Hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts can help monitor the wild turkey population by submitting sightings of turkeys in July and August each year. Visit fw.ky.gov and search the keywords “turkey survey” and select the preferred method for completing the summer brood survey.

Sharon P. Juarez