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Tough time for turkeys: State working to restore wild bird populations
Weakening population led to drop in harvests last year, state reports
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About 27,000 turkeys are harvested by hunters each year in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. That's never affected turkey numbers in the state — until now. Photo courtesy of Georgia DNR.

It’s time for Georgians to talk turkey.

Wild turkey reproduction has been on the decline since 2001, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is now working with hunters to come up with its first-ever turkey management plan to help restore the population. 

The document would guide hunting regulations for the 60,000 men and women who march into Georgia’s woods and fields from March to May each year hunting the state’s 300,000 turkeys. 

The population decline has taken years. A drop in productivity doesn’t immediately cause a decline, according to Kevin Lowrey, wildlife biologist and state turkey coordinator for DNR.

“As long as you’re getting some good years, you can rock on like that pretty good and maintain a stable or increasing harvest,” Lowrey said.  “But … from 2011 to 2015, we had about four years there where harvests remained fairly high, but reproduction was low. You can only go so long with that happening.”

In 2016, the state recorded the first drop in turkey harvests attributable to a weakening population since it began noticing hits to reproduction 16 years ago. 

Both Lowrey and local turkey expert and naturalist Herb McClure agree that unchecked predators and habitat loss are two of the driving forces behind the population decline.

“There’s more hunters than there have ever been who hunt turkeys. Now, it’s no trouble for DNR to take care of that problem; they could shorten the hunting season or lower the bag limit,” said McClure, who lives in White County. “That’s just one thing. It’s a two-fold thing.”

It’s not just hunters preying on turkeys.

Talking to The Times on Monday, McClure said he believes there have been more predators of turkeys in the South than ever before, from feral hogs devouring nests to hawks and owls snatching juvenile turkeys from the forest floor. Meanwhile, mammals like mink and raccoon are becoming more common. Both prey on turkeys and were once trapped for their fur.

“You’ve got less habitat, less quality habitat (and) an increasing predator population because we don’t trap and there’s no fur market anymore,” Lowrey said.

McClure, who has hunted 61 seasons in Georgia, said he believes state turkey populations peaked in the 1980s or 1990s. Only a few decades earlier, the birds were a rare sight around the South.

“Cultivation and farming and people living off of the wildlife done away with the turkeys almost everywhere in Georgia and other states by the 1950s,” McClure said. “There weren’t any turkeys hardly anywhere.”

Their numbers were restored with a state-led reintroduction effort, and turkeys are now present in most of the state.

Now, DNR is hoping to arrest the decline with a management plan and, potentially, new restrictions on turkey hunting.

Georgia DNR solicited comments from hunters through October and held four public meetings earlier in the month that attracted a total 35 hunters, 54 emails and a mixed bag of comments.

Most of the commenters wanted a smaller harvest limit (it’s currently three gobblers), a shorter season, a ban on harvesting juvenile male turkeys or a fall season in addition to the spring season, according to DNR.

None of these are in the plan, which doesn’t actually lay out specific restrictions for DNR or hunters. Instead, it sets some expectations for the state.

“The plan has five big goals: Population management, habitat management, maintain high quality hunting experiences, increase our body of knowledge through research, and we want to handle nuisance turkey issues,” Lowrey said. 

To achieve some of those goals, DNR could reduce the bag limit for turkeys, shorten the season or take some other action. It depends on the facts on the ground, according to Lowrey, and management decisions are up to DNR staff as guided by the plan, which is expected to be in place before the end of the year.

The state is also hoping to work with private landowners, who can make changes and improvements to their property to make it more habitable for the state’s wild turkey populations.

“Private landowners are the key in making major, state level impacts on wild turkey populations,” said Lynn Lewis, conservation field manager for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Georgia. “Active habitat management is the linchpin.” 

The NWTF helped draft the plan and is “very excited” that DNR is becoming more active in turkey management, Lewis said. 

Lowrey said he sees the state’s relationship with private landowners as “where we’re winning the battle.” Georgia DNR has a well-established network of biologists who help with quail management on private land, but those same people can offer advice on turkeys and a wide range of species, he said.

“Going forward, after the plan is adopted, we’ll be promoting that a lot more,” he said. “We’ll be developing some best management practices for wild turkeys and getting that to help educate the landowners, maybe post some landowner workshops.”

DNR gathers its facts on turkeys from three sources: a telephone survey, an avid-hunter card filled out during the season and the observations of DNR staff in the field.

In the avid-hunter survey, the hunter “reports hours hunted per turkeys seen, how many hours he hunts, how many gobblers he saw,” Lowrey said. “We get a lot of population indexes from that, but the one we use the most is hours hunted per turkeys seen.”

DNR also measures productivity through its field staff, which record any groups of turkeys they see while on the job — paying close attention to hens and the number of juvenile turkeys they have with them.

It’s not all bad news, as Lowrey said turkey reproduction improved in 2015, 2016 and is looking good in 2017.

DNR drafted its management plan by working with a group of biologists, hunters and other experts, including the National Wild Turkey Federation.

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