take their toll, the fall harvest somewhat replaces winter natural mortality.
Besides, the fall harvest takes only a small percentage of the state’s turkey population, which is currently estimated at about a half-million birds. The 2008 fall harvest, for example, was only 7,391 birds. Although the fall harvest could have noticeable effects locally, say in a neighborhood or on a heavily hunted conservation area, its effect on the statewide population is almost negligible.
According to the most recent Missouri Wildlife Harvest and Population Status Report, authored by Dailey, the fall hunting harvest could “safely” be as high as 50 percent of the spring harvest without compromising the quality of the spring gobbler hunt. In 2008, the fall harvest was only 16 percent of the spring harvest, well short of the amount necessary to trigger any reevaluation of the fall season.
What Can We Do?
Dailey likes to tell the story of a hunter who approached him at the end of a public meeting about a local downturn in turkey numbers and said, “You’re not going to do a darn thing, are you?”
“I really couldn’t respond,” Dailey said, “because we’re already doing all that we can.”
It’s because of Conservation Department efforts, citizen involvement and cooperative landowners that we have as many turkeys as we do. The 25-year translocation effort allowed turkeys to establish themselves in every county of the state. We made it possible for a population boom that made Missouri the envy of the nation in turkey management.
Even though one or two states may have since surpassed Missouri in total harvest, we still can boast of the best quality turkey hunting. That’s because we’ve fine-tuned the timing of our spring turkey season to ensure that turkeys have a chance to breed, but also increases the likelihood that hunters will hear gobblers and have a chance to call them in.
Our state’s turkey hunting regulations are guided by the Missouri Wild Turkey Harvest Management Plan, which was created in 1998 by a committee of citizens and biologists assembled by the Conservation Commission. Each year the Regulations Committee and the Conservation Commission review regulation recommendations that are based on data collected by the Department’s.
“Our annual November review of turkey status is one of the most important tasks,” said Regulations Committee Chairman Dave Erickson. “In addition to biological considerations, we thoroughly review hunter input from surveys, letters and e-mails.”
Dailey said the Department has one of the nation’s most comprehensive approaches to maintaining quality turkey hunting. He said that it takes several staff and a small army of volunteers to conduct annual evaluations which take into account harvest data, hunter attitudes and counts of poults and gobbling activity.
“The Department is ready to respond with regulatory changes if we see evidence that the turkey population and hunting quality take a long-term turn for the worse,” Dailey said. “It’s not necessary yet, though. We are in a wait-and-see-and-hope mode.”
What he is hoping for is a few consecutive years of drier, warmer springs. “We’ve got a good base turkey population, and we’ve been working with the USDA Farm Bill, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other game bird organizations to increase crucial nesting and brood rearing habitat. Everything is in place for a nice bounce in the turkey population, but weather is the key, and that’s out of our control.”
Grounds for Bounce Back
Landowners can set the stage for a turkey comeback when we have good weather by increasing the amount of nesting and brood-rearing habitat on their property.
Mature forests do not make good turkey habitat. Dailey suggests thinning forests to open up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to hit the forest floor. This in turn promotes the growth of grass, forbs and legumes between the trees. This type of woodlands management is going on in many areas to benefit turkeys, quail and other ground-nesting birds.
“I’m talking aggressive thinning,” Dailey said. “It’s cutting out cedars and removing hardwoods to go from forest to woodland and prescribed fire for maintenance. That’s what’s best for turkeys.”
The Conservation Department has partnered with the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail/Pheasants Forever, Quail Unlimited and the Ruffed Grouse Society to help fund turkey habitat restoration efforts in Missouri. To learn more about the program, contact a private lands specialist through your regional office.