I vividly remember how that spring morning dawned over the Ouchita National Forest. The still darkness gave way to a dark blue as the pre-dawn light slowly extinguished the starlight that dotted the creek drainage. The screech of a bird’s first song of the morning interrupted the quiet: the piercing screech of a robin perched overhead. The morning chorus of birds grew slowly as new species of birds stepped in and announced their eagerness to procreate.
Perched on that cliff I felt as if I could hear and see a mile in every direction as every species of Arkansas bird rattled the hardwoods in song. All species, that is, except the one I came to hear about, the eastern wild turkey. This was my welcome to the front lines of the turkey population crisis.
I’m certainly not a habitat expert, but what I saw in front of me seemed to offer the complete package for supporting healthy flocks of turkeys. Talking to locals, it seemed as if these now-quiet mountains once resounded with gobbles after successful restoration efforts. Reports of declining harvests spanning the last 40 years suggest they are right.
“You didn’t hear turkeys because there are no turkeys left in Arkansas,” my friend Matt hyperbolically offered in response to my head scratching. Another passionate turkey hunter, this Arkansan expat put down roots farther east in Mississippi, where bird populations appear in a gentle slide rather than a nosedive.
Yet across the region, turkey hunters and biologists have sounded the alarm. Numerous contributing factors seem to be at play, including some we’re eager to talk about (predators and habitat) and others with less relish among sportsmen (hunter harvest and season timing). I encourage you to take a hard look at the emerging research on wild turkeys by Dr. Michael Chamberlain and others to delve deeper into the demographic crisis.
In my home state of Idaho, it’s hard to imagine these same conditions ever affecting our healthy turkey flocks. Here, we are currently living in the good old days of the sport, where the numbers remain so strong that the state has trapped and transferred nuisance birds and opened generous fall seasons on most northern units to keep owner complaints in check. and the number of birds. .
As we celebrate the successful introduction and establishment of the wild turkey beyond its native range and to the west, perhaps we should watch for the population crisis in the east as a harbinger of conditions migrating our way.
Here, where big game hunting reigns, spring turkey hunting is not woven into the historic fabric of the outdoor community as it is east of the Mississippi, for better or worse. In general, these introduced birds are treated as a welcome source of income and sport, but are kept at arm’s length when tight budgets prioritize management of native species. Fish and game agencies that receive numerous nuisance calls when giant winter flocks wreak havoc on local agriculture may have a different opinion.
By contrast, state agencies in the west may not meet the same degree of pushback when modifying flock management strategies as their southern counterparts, who must defy longstanding sporting traditions if turkey numbers are to fall. chopped. To be sure, adjusting the season’s opening days, lengths, and bag limits in states with rich turkey hunting histories has been met with everything from reluctant acceptance to outright contempt.
Fortunately, most western seasons already align well with breeding seasons. This strategy allows most fertilization to take place before hunting pressure disrupts flocks and removes dominant males from the landscape after their reproductive contribution has been completed for the year. Likewise, Western bag limits in the spring season are modest compared to those found historically in the Deep South.
True, it is difficult to imagine anything that threatens turkeys in the West. They have eagerly entrenched themselves in seemingly every pine- and aspen-choked drainage from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean. These birds have claimed a place in a landscape filled with nest-raiding predators and harsh weather.
With conscientious management, I remain optimistic that our healthy herds will continue in a growth phase. With so many opportunities, it’s easy to indulge in party time to ignore the insidious indicators of famine. Could we be approaching the precipice our fellow hunters reached in the southeast 30 years ago, unknowingly peering down the same descent into catastrophe? Not likely, but its fate is worth keeping in mind as we expand harvest opportunities and adjust seasons.