turkeys were doing so well that, starting in 1978, the Department allowed a fall season. Turkey hunters too fidgety to wait until spring came out in droves for the chance to bag a bird for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. During the peak years of 1986 to 1989, fall hunters harvested from 20,000 to 30,000 turkeys a year.
After the Peak
Understanding that we had a peak in our turkey population is important. When turkeys were being introduced throughout the state, they found ideal habitat and fewer predators, and their numbers naturally expanded exponentially. The turkeys not only filled good habitat, they showed up unexpectedly in places where habitat was considered merely fair.
Eventually, however, our turkey population encountered what wildlife biologists call “environmental resistance.”
“Essentially, they reached a natural limit,” said Dr. Tom Dailey, the Conservation Department resource scientist who is the state’s top turkey biologist. Dailey explained the principle that wildlife populations can’t grow forever.
“Whenever you have a booming population,” he said, “environmental resistance, which includes predation, disease, malnutrition and habitat limitations, will catch up to the population and limit it.”
“We have different habitat and a different predator community than we had 30 years ago,” Dailey said, “which means that we don’t have the turkey conditions we had 30 years ago. In short, things are not as good as they used to be for a turkey.”
The Boom is Over
That doesn’t mean, however, that a bust will follow the boom. Conditions are still great for turkeys in Missouri and we can boast of having some of the best turkey hunting in the country.
“It’s not that we’re in a long-term down trend,” Dailey said. “It’s just that we’re no longer in an uptrend. The problem is that people seem to compare everything to the uptrend.”
What they should expect, instead, is a fairly stable population that will fluctuate within our golden mean. Instead of booms and busts, Dailey said, we will have a population that declines or increases in response to spring and summer weather conditions.
“When it comes to how many turkeys you see this year,” Dailey said, “it’s really about the weather, and lately the weather has not been good for turkey production.”
Dailey said we’ve experienced what he hopes is an unusual bad stretch of weather for turkeys. He cited cool, wet conditions during spring 2005, a 2007 “Easter freeze” that likely killed