turkey populations around the United States began to level out. A tenant of wildlife management is that exponential population growth is eventually curbed by predators, disease, competition for food and changes in habitat. Missouri’s turkey population had reached unimaginable levels, close to a million entering autumn, and flocks of hundreds of turkeys in winter were not uncommon.
Although turkey population growth flattened in the 1990s, hunting success peaked in 2004 with a record spring harvest of 60,744. With 98 percent of these birds being males shot after the peak in breeding, this level of hunting had little or no effect on future long-term abundance. Similarly, fall harvest had fallen over the years to a small fraction of the statewide population, translating to little or no effect on long-term abundance or the quality of the spring hunt.
No Webbed Feet
Duck hunters are happy these days because waterfowl abundance is high. Unfortunately, our resident ground-nesting birds, turkeys, quail, greater prairie-chickens, etc., suffer major reductions in chick production when weather from April to June is overly wet or cool. These conditions can lead to drowned nests and poults, hypothermia in poults and increased predation.
For the past few years weather records have been broken in ways that are not conducive to producing turkey poults, including the Easter freeze of 2007, record rainfall in 2008 and overly cool, wet springs when records were not being set. The result has been a decline in turkeys, measured by a drop in harvest of more than 10,000, and an estimated drop in abundance of more than 100,000.
What is the next chapter of one of the greatest wildlife success stories? With all the history Missouri’s turkeys, hunters and managers have been through—trapping, turkey boxes, radio telemetry tags, hunter surveys, check stations, Telecheck, sophisticated turkey decoys, special opportunities for youth and people with disabilities and hunting seasons of all sorts—the future is most dependent on weather, something we have no control over.
Close at hand, the 2010 spring season will be challenging because poor poult production in 2007 and 2008 translates to fewer mature gobblers. On the bright side, jakes, from the 2009 hatch, will be relatively more abundant in southern Missouri because torrential rains occurred mostly in northern Missouri. We now have a population that declines or increases mainly in response to spring and summer weather conditions. A few consecutive years of drier, warmer springs is critical for our turkey population