Largest wild turkey research project in Nebraska underway

The NWTF’s Nebraska State Chapter helps fund the most comprehensive research on wild turkeys ever conducted in state history.

When state agencies deem wild turkey bag limits unsustainable, they will reduce the number of birds that can be taken in a season and make additional regulatory changes, such as eliminating a fall season or limiting opportunities for non-residents. While hunting can influence wild turkeys, there are usually other factors at play that lead to population level declines.

In Nebraska, populations have declined about 45% since wild turkey numbers peaked around 2009.

As a precaution, the Nebraska Park and Game Commission recently lowered the bag limit, lowering the spring season from three birds to two and the fall season from two birds to one. Also, the fall season is now shorter and the number of spring permits available to non-residents will be limited to 10,000. All of these changes will take effect in 2023.

“NGPC has seen alarming declines in neighboring states and is beginning to feel the impact as well,” said Annie Farrell, NWTF district biologist for Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas. “This is not to say that the baggage allowance will stay lower, but the science must address the decreases, substantiate them, and a solution must be implemented before we can see a future increase.”

But it’s not that hunters are the reason the birds are declining per se; more nuanced factors may be contributing to the decline, such as brood survival, habitat, disease prevalence, and likely a combination of all.

In addition to the season and bag limit changes, the NGPC is taking its proactive approach further by conducting the largest wild turkey research project in the state. The agency is contributing nearly $2 million to understand the declines and perpetuate the future of our favorite game bird.

The University of Nebraska is leading the project and will work in collaboration with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia.

“Research is needed to understand the factors influencing these declines and provide basic ecological data so agencies can ensure management strategies that result in the sustainability of the state’s wild turkey population,” said Mike Chamberlain, Ph.D. , Terrell Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Starting in January 2023, wild turkeys will be harvested in two specific regions, Pine Ridge in northwestern Nebraska and the Republic River region in the southwestern part of the state.

The goal is to capture a minimum of 40 hens and 20 gobblers in each region annually for three years. Captured turkeys will be fitted with GPS transmitters and a blood sample will be taken to allow for genetic analysis and disease testing.
All birds caught beyond the sample size of 60 will have their feet banded and a blood sample will also be taken.

The NWTF state chapter in Nebraska provides funding for lymphoproliferative disease testing at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“LPDV is a recently characterized retrovirus that has been detected in wild turkeys in all surveyed areas in the US and Canada, and the virus has caused considerable concern among biologists and agencies,” Chamberlain said. “LPDV often occurs at the same time as other infections that contribute to poor health and can cause debilitating or fatal tumors. These retroviruses also have the potential to influence hormone levels in birds, which may influence reproductive success.”

Once the samples arrive in Athens, LPDV testing will be performed by the Southeast Cooperative Study of Diseases for the project.

According to Chamberlain, understanding LPDV prevalence rates and combining it with data collected from GPS-VHF transmitters could provide unique insight into why birds are declining.

“Combining the prevalence data with spatial and behavioral data collected via GPS transmitters would allow for a unique and powerful tool for understanding how LPDV can influence behavior, movements, reproduction, and survival,” he said.

The NWTF is also helping to fund another LPDV study with the University of Georgia and the Southeast Cooperative Study of Wildlife Diseases to understand diseases at the cellular level, which helps inform the general understanding of disease ecology and guide future management of the wild turkey. You can learn more about that project here.

There will be more updates coming soon as the investigation develops.