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Prospects bright as Missouri turkey hunting enters its second 50 years

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- It took just 30 years of careful stewardship to repair 150 years of damage and make Missouri the nation’s top turkey-hunting destination.

When dawn breaks across the Show-Me State on April 19, hunters will mark the 51st spring turkey hunting season since the Missouri Department of Conservation was formed.  The story of how Missouri went from nearly extirpating the robust bird synonymous with Thanksgiving Day to being one of the nation’s top turkey hunting destination is a study in the power of science-based conservation.

At the midpoint of the 20th century, Missouri had fewer than 2,500 wild turkeys. Today Missouri hunters shoot 20 times that number of turkeys every year. What brought about this turn-around?

One of the first things the Missouri Department of Conservation did after it was organized in 1937 was close the hunting season on wild turkeys. A century and a half of unrestrained exploitation, deforestation, open-range grazing and wildfire had reduced a once-plentiful flock to remnants in remote pockets of the Ozarks. Stopping that relentless exploitation was the first step in bringing back the wild turkey.

Further action to restore the state’s turkey flock would have been futile if the mindset that prevailed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries had persisted. But Missourians had seen what unregulated hunting could do, and they rallied to support wild turkey restoration work. When the Conservation Department began trapping wild turkeys and releasing turkeys into new areas in 1954, citizens guarded the birds as carefully as seeds for next year’s crops.

By 1960, transplanted turkeys had multiplied enough to support a three-day hunting season in 14 Ozarks counties. Of the 698 hunters who bought permits that year, 94 shot turkeys. To those lucky hunters, it probably seemed like a fine first return on Missouri’s wild-turkey investment.

Between 1954 and 1979, the Conservation Department trapped more than 2,600 turkeys and released them at 142 locations in 87 counties. In each new area, the agency enlisted citizen’s help watching over the growing turkey flock. The success of this partnership became evident as the state’s annual turkey harvest grew rapidly from hundreds to tens of thousands. In 1987 – just 33 years after the first release – the combined spring and fall firearms turkey kills topped 60,000.

Behind that tangible milepost was a less obvious landmark in Missouri’s wild-turkey saga. Around the same time that Missouri entered its golden age of turkey hunting, turkey numbers were nearing their zenith.

“After 30-plus years of continuous expansion, turkeys had colonized all the suitable habitat in the state,” said Resource Scientist Tom Daily, the Conservation Department’s top turkey biologist. “Once that happened, it was just a matter of time until we stopped having record harvests every year or two.”

Dailey said wildlife populations typically experience a brief period of super-saturation when they reach the carrying capacity of new habitat. Then predators, parasites, diseases and shortages of food, water and shelter catch up, and the population falls back to a sustainable level.

“The technical term is ‘biological resistance,’ ” Dailey said. “Since the 1980s, our turkey numbers have been waxing and waning according to the natural limits of their habitat. Some years we have more turkeys, because of favorable conditions during the nesting season. Other years the weather isn’t so good, and the population declines because of poor nesting success.”

Habitat usually is defined in terms of forests, fields, water and shelter. However, weather also has a powerful effect on turkey populations, and it is by far the most changeable factor affecting how many turkeys hatch and survive to adulthood each year. In years when spring weather is mild, rainfall moderate and food abundant, turkeys raise lots of young – called poults – and turkey numbers increase. On the other hand, cold, wet weather takes a severe toll on young turkeys, reducing populations in following years.

Consecutive years of good or bad nesting weather create noticeable peaks or dips in turkey numbers. These variations average out over time and large areas. But in the short term, and on a regional or local scale, the fluctuations can be dramatic. As an example, Dailey points to the current downturn in turkey numbers in Northeastern Missouri, where turkey numbers were unusually high in the early 2000s.

“People up there got used to seeing flocks of 100 or 200 turkeys at the peak of the population boom,” Dailey said. “Now that turkey numbers have returned to more normal levels, people are disappointed, even though it’s a natural cycle.”

Although Missouri’s turkey population had peaked by the 1990s, turkey harvests continued to set records throughout the 1990s and finally peaked in 2002. That year, the combined spring and fall firearms and archery harvests topped 73,000. How could hunters continue to shoot increasing numbers of turkeys for more than a decade after the population peaked?

“Missouri always has taken a very conservative approach to turkey management,” said Dailey. “We still had a two-week spring hunting season when other states were letting people hunt turkeys for a month. We took a slow approach to liberalizing bag limits, and continued to hunt only half days during the three-week spring season. In short, we went for decades without harvesting as many turkeys as we could have, with the idea this was the key to high-quality hunting.”

With the flock fully fledged, the Conservation Department began cautiously liberalizing hunting regulations. Larger harvests followed. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the spring turkey harvest grew more or less steadily. The number of birds killed might bump up or down by 3,000 to 5,000 from one year to the next, depending on weather during the hunting and nesting season, but the long-term trend was strongly upward.

In part, the harvest increases mirrored growth in the number of turkey hunters. The Conservation Department sold nearly 78,000 spring turkey permits in 1986. By 2003 the figure had increased to more than 130,000. The actual number of hunters was significantly greater, since permit sales figures did not include landowners. However, the trend was clear. A 66-percent increase in hunter numbers was bound to increase harvest—if Missouri had enough turkeys. Apparently the turkey supply was adequate. The harvest increased by 89 percent from 1986 to 2003.

The biggest jump came in 1998, when the Conservation Department lengthened the spring hunting season from two weeks to three. Whereas hunters had shot 33,000 turkeys in 1997, they bagged more than 48,000 in 1998, a 46-percent increase in one year.

Although turkey population growth slowed in the 1990s, hunting success peaked in 2004, with a record spring harvest of 60,744. Ninety-eight percent of these birds were males shot after the peak in breeding, so this level of harvest had little or no effect on long-term abundance. Similarly, fall harvest had fallen over the years to a small fraction of the statewide population, translating to little or no effect on long-term abundance or the quality of the spring hunt. From 2000 through 2005, the annual turkey harvest – including fall and spring hunting – remained above 70,000.

The decline in turkey harvests since 2005 has several causes. One is a long-term decline in participation in the fall firearms turkey season. The fall season’s popularity grew rapidly after it was launched in 1978.  But interest waned almost as rapidly. The peak fall harvest of nearly 28,000 turkeys occurred in 1987. Ten years later, the fall firearms bag was fewer than 12,000. For the past two years, the fall firearms kill has been less than 10,000.

The other major factor in decreasing turkey harvests has been weather. Cold, wet conditions hampered nesting in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Turkeys got a break from the weather in 2006, but a severe and protracted freeze in 2007 piled more misery on turkeys and those who love to hunt them.

“2007 was an awful year,” Dailey said. “The temperature dropped into the teens over much of the state around the Easter weekend, and we had freezing temperatures at night for the better part of a week. The two weeks prior to that had been unusually warm, and some hens already were laying. Conservation Department staff heard reports of eggs freezing in the nest. That event set turkey mating and nesting back by a month.”

“We thought we had had it bad in 2005, when we had the second-worst poult production on record up to that time. But the worst was still to come.”

The worst consisted of more cold, wet spring weather, followed by wetter summers. 2008 was the wettest year on record, with many parts of Missouri receiving more than 50 inches of rain and some topping 80 inches. 2009 was not much better from a nesting turkey’s point of view. Taken together, 2008 and 2009 constituted the wettest consecutive years in Missouri history.

Little wonder, then that Missouri’s wild turkey population is in a bit of a slump right now. However, Dailey noted that Missouri’s annual harvest of more than 55,000 still makes it the envy of other states. Furthermore, he said, the situation is bound to improve.

“We had a slight improvement in poult production last year in spite of last year’s heavy rainfall,” said Dailey. He said the increase came mainly in southern Missouri.

“One thing you can bank on is that the weather will change. Sooner or later, we will get a few good nesting years in a row. When we do, thanks to our careful management, we will still have plenty of turkeys to take advantage of the turn-around, and their numbers will rebound. We might never see the enormous flocks of the late 1980s again. But hunters will sit in the woods at first light on an April morning and get to choose which of several gobblers to chase.”

Dailey said the Conservation Department uses a combination of field observations and population modeling to track turkey population trends and habitat conditions. Hunting seasons and bag limits are set to maintain maximum recreational opportunities while maintaining a large, healthy turkey population. The agency uses partnerships with landowners and citizen conservation groups, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, to increase turkey nesting and brood-rearing habitat. To stay in touch with hunters’ experience in the field and their preferences for hunting seasons and regulations, the Conservation Department surveys 9,000 to15,000 turkey hunters each year.

Landowners who want to improve turkey habitat on their property and those who have problems, such as crop damage, with turkeys or other wildlife can call any Conservation Department office statewide for assistance.

While the trapping and releasing birds was a useful strategy for turkey restoration in the past, Dailey said it is not necessary to bring back turkey numbers in areas where turkey populations have dwindled in recent years.

“The whole idea behind trap-and-release was to get enough birds in an area so natural reproduction would fill the habitat. Today we have sizeable turkey populations throughout the state that can repopulate suitable habitat given a few years of good weather and poult production.”

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