New research on wild turkeys seeks to better understand turkey populations

Like many states, South Dakota had a boom in wild turkey numbers in the early 2000s. However, around 2010, harvest rates in the Mount Rushmore state have been steadily declining year over year, which suggests an overall population decline.

The NWTF is helping to fund a new wild turkey research project in the southern part of the state that will measure various demographic information about wild turkeys. Data collected from the project will be used to create a growth model, giving wildlife managers a better understanding of populations and how to manage them accordingly.

“We’ve definitely been declining after our restoration boom,” said Chad Lehman, senior wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. “As with most states, we grew rapidly after reintroductions and then started to decline around 2009 and 2010.”

Lehman and Christopher Rota, Ph.D., associate professor of wildlife and fishery resources at West Virginia University, are the principal investigators on this new research project.

In early 2023, Lehman, Rota and their team will capture 40 adult hens and 40 juvenile hens and attach VHF (very high frequency) radio transmitters to them, which send out a unique high-frequency radio signal that the team can detect. with a receiver, allowing them to locate tagged birds and infer information about survival and reproduction. The team will capture 80 birds a year for two years.

The combined data from 160 wild turkeys will allow the researchers to estimate the annual probabilities of survival and reproduction for the adult and yearling age classes.

“Our growth rate model will also allow us to determine whether regional population growth is driven more by survival or reproduction,” Rota said. “This information could be used to help guide future management actions.”

The team will incorporate the estimates into a representative model of all the dynamics of a wild turkey’s life (nesting, breeding, susceptibility to predation, etc.). The generated model will be compared with previous models, giving an idea of ​​the current population dynamics.

“Ultimately, we want to take these vital rates and implement them into a growth rate model to determine whether this population is growing or shrinking,” Lehman said. “We will monitor this population for two years and determine if the rate of growth is critical for us in managing turkeys in this region.”

Wild turkey restoration efforts in South Dakota date back more than 70 years. In 1948, two gobblers and six New Mexico chickens were released in Lawrence County. Since then, SDGFP has worked to ensure that wild turkeys inhabit all suitable areas of the state.

“The NWTF is proud to have been working together with the SDGFP since those early days to restore populations,” said Clayton Lenk, NWTF district biologist for South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota. “As the evidence suggests, populations are beginning to decline; we want to be proactive and contribute to the efforts of the SDGFP and UWV to ensure that wild turkey remains a staple food in South Dakota.”

The NWTF has had a long and rich history in the Mount Rushmore estate. Through the Hunting Heritage Super Fund, the NWTF has raised and spent nearly $1 million on habitat improvement projects, conservation education, outreach events, access, research and more. In addition to funds provided by the NWTF Request for Proposals program, the NWTF’s South Dakota state chapter is contributing $15,000 to the research project over the course of its two years.

This project is one of seven new research projects the NWTF is funding, part of a $360,000 investment in wild turkey research that the NWTF presented at the 12th National Wild Turkey Symposium in 2022.

In addition to the recent investment, the organization further illustrated the importance of research by pledging to hold the 13th National Wild Turkey Symposium in 2025. The symposium is typically held every five years, but the NWTF is working to accelerate researchers meeting. and managers to turn the tide of population decline.