EDGEFIELD, SC—With many states across the country experiencing declines in wild turkey populations, the NWTF and state agencies are deeply involved in better understanding what is happening to America’s favorite game bird.
And this is especially true in Tennessee and Kentucky, where the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Tennessee Tech University, and the NWTF are participating in a collaborative research project on several state.
The Tennessee-Kentucky collaborative banding project is in the second year of its four-year duration and is one year closer to better understanding harvest and survival information that may be affecting populations.
The banding project seeks to collect data leading to a better understanding of biological (ie phenology or mating season), landscape (ie habitat quality) and regulatory (ie time of season, bag limits) factors. ) that influence harvest and survival rates in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Harvest rates can influence populations in two ways: one, the direct removal of young and adult males, and two, the removal of dominant males from the population.
“In the first case, taking too many adult males can shift the population balance towards younger males, making the gobbler population highly dependent on annual recruitment and could negatively affect populations (not to mention satisfaction). from hunting) if there are very few adult males left.” said Roger Shields, wild turkey program coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “The latter can affect the reproductive rates of females and lead to population declines.”
Unlike other North American highland game birds, wild turkeys are hunted and captured during their breeding season, making the timing, length, and harvest limits of the spring turkey season are critical to population management.
It is vital that state agencies understand the catch rates of gobblers across the state to better inform their seasonal adjustment recommendations. And this is precisely what the TWRA and KDFW are doing to gain insight into this essential information.
With dozens of study sites in both states, on both public and private land, the areas span different landscapes in Tennessee and Kentucky. Data between the two agencies is being aggregated to paint a complete picture of wild turkey capture and survival information, unprecedented for the two states.
“Kentucky is very similar to Tennessee in most physical aspects, however, Kentucky has not had reports of population declines to the same degree as Tennessee, nor have they recorded the same declines in productivity that we have experienced,” he said. Shields. “Differences in spring harvest season dates and bag limits between years within Tennessee, and between Kentucky and Tennessee, may allow the influence of harvest regulations to be directly modeled and assess the sensitivity of harvest rates to the various components. [such as season frameworks and habitat quality].”
From 2021 to 2024, researchers in Tennessee and Kentucky have been trapping birds at bait sites with rocket nets. The team classifies each male as juvenile or adult and then attaches a numbered aluminum band riveted to each bird’s legs.
“Our goal is to capture more than 300 male wild turkeys annually within each state, widely distributed on public and private property,” said Zak Danks, wild turkey program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Four years of capture are needed because our analyzes require at least three years of capture-recapture-recovery data from at least one cohort to effectively estimate capture and survival rates.”
To date, 669 birds have been banded in Tennessee, 178 in 2021, 208 in 2022, and 283 in 2023. Of these, 359 were adults and 310 were jakes. So far, 107 of those bands have been recovered by hunters, with more to follow as the spring 2023 season opens.
In Kentucky, where banding began in 2022, a total of 659 male turkeys have been banded. This includes 234 birds banded in 2022 and 425 in 2023. KDFWR staff are also capturing female turkeys (140 to date) and collecting blood and other biological samples from birds of both sexes for disease surveillance.
Collaboration and information sharing will provide TWRA and KDFWR with a better understanding and provide both agencies with science to guide management and ultimately help conserve turkeys. However, the project is still in full swing and many questions remain.
“Right now, it’s too early to say what’s similar or different. [between Tennessee and Kentucky]said Abigail Riggs, a graduate research assistant at TTU’s Cohen Wildlife Laboratory. “We are using the information on hunting regulations from both states to determine how the regulations affect catch rates.”
While the project is ongoing and has a lot more data collection and evaluation before Riggs, Shields, Danks and the entire team can start making sense of the data, the project is moving full speed through the collaboration of multiple partners.
“This project is intriguing because of the collaborative effort of state agencies, law enforcement, private property owners and the general public,” Riggs said. “We’ve had tremendous support from these groups, and seeing how passionate people are to help in this effort has been encouraging. In addition, the project promotes awareness of the eastern wild turkey populations in the two states and the potential problems they face. I’ll be curious what the data reveals to us and what that could mean for the two states.”
The NWTF and its chapters are also helping to fund two other wild turkey research projects in Tennessee, one who is investigating egg fertilization and evidence for early embryonic mortality in wild turkey eggs and one that studies reproductive success, habitat use, disease ecology and more.
About the National Wild Turkey Federation
Since 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation has invested more than half a billion dollars in wildlife conservation and has conserved or improved more than 22 million acres of critical wildlife habitat. The organization continues to advance wildlife conservation, forest resiliency, and robust recreational opportunities across the US by working beyond borders at the landscape scale.
2023 is the 50th of the NWTFhe anniversary and an opportunity to push the organization’s mission into the future while honoring its rich history. for his 50he anniversary, the NWTF has set six ambitious goals: positively impact 1 million acres of wildlife habitat; raise $500,000 for wild turkey research; increase membership to 250,000 members; dedicate $1 million to education and outreach programs; raise $5 million to invest in technology and the people of NWTF; and raise $5 million to build a $50 million endowment for the future. Find out how you can help us achieve these lofty goals.