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Experiment in citizen science puts turkey hunters’ devotion to the test

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- Getting up before dawn and trekking into the woods two days a week for two months is not everyone’s idea of fun. It paid off for J.D. Long, however, netting him a lifetime hunting permit and a chance to participate in an experiment in citizen science.

Long, of Osage Beach, is among 222 volunteers who took part in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Gobbleteer Study  this spring. Each gobbleteer recorded the number of wild turkey gobblers and the number of gobbles they heard during at least two 20-minute listening sessions each week from mid-March through mid-May.

The project is designed to help biologists understand gobbling activity from the north to the south and how it changes with weather and other factors that affect wild turkeys’ mating behavior. The ultimate goal is better management of spring turkey hunting.

Missouri’s turkey population has declined in recent years as a result of unfavorable weather during the nesting season. However, Missouri still has some of the nation’s best turkey hunting, which lures hunters from far and wide, pumping millions of dollars into the state economy each year.

Two months is a long stretch of rising an hour before the sun, but Long, a self-described die-hard turkey hunter, says it was anything but a hardship for him.

“I just enjoyed it,” said Long. “It’s relaxing to me to get up and do that for a couple of hours before work. I’m already up early with my wife and two kids anyway.”

The hours of enjoyment paid an added dividend for Long. He won the drawing sponsored by the George Clark Missouri State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Like all Gobbleteers, he automatically was entered in the drawing for his choice of a shotgun or a Resident Lifetime Small Game Hunting Permit. Long, 36, has a lot of hunting ahead of him, so he took the lifetime permit, a $350 value.

In spite of the incentives, participation in the five-year Gobbleteer Study is declining. In 2007, the first year of the program, 433 volunteers reported 5,063 observations. This year, with half the volunteers, the Conservation Department received just 2,532 reports.

Resource Scientist Tom Dailey, who supervises the Conservation Department’s wild-turkey management program, speculates that the decreased participation might mirror declining turkey numbers, and general loss of enthusiasm for the rigors of scientific data collection.

“If turkey numbers have declined in a local area, it’s hard to convince someone to record zero or a just a few gobbles week after week,” he said. “We’ve also seen a large drop in data collection each year as the hunting season started.  We anticipated hunters would be reluctant to give up hunting opportunities and designed the data collection so it ends 25 minutes before sunrise, figuring the hunters could still pursue gobblers.”  “It’s unfortunate, because this program has the potential to benefit turkey hunters, who make up many of our gobbleteers.”

The low number of gobbleteers undermines the statistical validity of the data, Dailey said.  “We started the study in 2007 with a goal of 1,000 volunteers. We knew from the start that working with volunteers observers would have its challenges. Offsetting those challenges was the potential to draw on a pool of field observers much larger than we could ever hope to match with paid staff.”

We’ve tried a lot of approaches to recruit gobbleteers – blogs, news items in the Conservationist and the NWTF state newsletter, and news releases each year.  As with everything, people are very busy, and we are asking a lot of volunteers.  I’m grateful for the hard work that current and past volunteers have put in the study.

 Data reporting takes place online, so volunteers must have computers and Internet access. Details are available at www.mdc.mo.gov/19245.  Results from the past three years of the Gobbleteer Study also are available at this site. 

--By Jim Low

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