50 Years of Missouri Turkey

By Thomas Dailey | April 22, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2010



Celebrating a wild return and a strong hunting future.


Happy 50th anniversary Missouri turkey hunters! Last spring’s hunting season marked 50 years of the annual rite that Missourians enjoy so much. Missouri’s modern spring hunting began in 1960 with a three-day season in 14 counties. Six hundred ninety-eight hunters harvested 94 turkeys.

Today’s seasons involve all 114 counties, more than 150,000 hunters and more than 55,000 turkeys harvested annually. Hunters even set a record this year. Archers bagged 3,298 turkeys during the fall season that ended Jan. 15.

As impressive as these numbers are, more important is the simple presence of this great bird—gobblers in the spring, poults in the summer and flocks together in the winter.

Trapping and Transplanting

The turkey revolution occurred from 1954 to 1979. Wild turkeys were trapped and transplanted (translocated) to areas where the species was scarce or nonexistent. Missouri’s environment was perfect for turkeys, and populations grew exponentially with birds filling the many areas of good habitat and eventually moving into marginal habitat. Led by the Department’s turkey biologist, John Lewis, MDC staff worked with landowners to translocate and protect this renewed natural wonder.

Research and the Blue-Ribbon Panel

Turkeys are precious to Missourians, and this was reflected in early conservative hunting seasons, most notably the daily mid-day closure. As the population grew, more opportunity was provided—more hunting days, fall firearms and archery seasons, a youth season—and the limit was raised from one to two turkeys.

Turkey populations soared in the 1980s and 1990s, and turkey biologist Dr. Larry Vangilder, with substantial support from the National Wild Turkey Federation, embarked on research on the life and habits of the species. Research made it clear that bolder liberalization was appropriate, and this was put into action in the 1998 Missouri Wild Turkey Harvest Management Plan.

The Plan wasn’t just based on research, a Blue-Ribbon Panel convened by the Conservation Commission provided hunter input. The priority was a high-quality spring hunt, which translates to an abundance of vocal gobblers and room to hunt without interference from other hunters. Research dictated that if we are to guard against overharvest of mature gobblers, the spring season must begin after the peak in breeding activity in early April. This is a principle that both minimizes the chance of overharvest of mature gobblers, and ensures that most hens are bred, providing the young turkeys to annually replenish the population.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

By the 1990s 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’s Next?

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 to bounce back.

Will trapping and relocating turkeys be used again to replenish populations? Translocation was an effective tool for restoring wild turkey populations to large landscapes completely void of the species. Today there are virtually no suitable areas of significant size that existing turkey populations cannot naturally expand into given favorable weather and adequate reproduction. Given the cost of translocation, it is better to simply allow nature to take its course.

In the meantime, we will continue our comprehensive and annual assessment of appropriate hunting regulations. We monitor and manage our turkey population through science-based research, citizen input and partnerships. We are partnering with the University of Missouri on cutting-edge analysis of past turkey population and harvest data and will revise the turkey management plan with this new information. The Department along with partners such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri will continue our focus on hunting heritage. Because of strong citizen support, there is a bright future for Missouri’s turkey resource.

All turkey enthusiasts have opportunities to contribute to the future of this noble bird. The Department of Conservation partners with the USDA, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other game- and non-game bird organizations to increase crucial nesting and brood-rearing habitat. These habitat programs benefit all wildlife, but most importantly they provide the potential for a turkey rebound.

Although Missouri’s turkey population has declined in some areas, we still have some of the best turkey hunting in the nation, and the Conservation Department and key partners intend to keep it that wayend of  main article


Select Highlights of MDC Turkey Management

  • 1952 The State's turkey population had dropped to fewer than 2,500 birds in 31 counties
  • 1954-79 Statewide restoration of wild turkeys via trapping and transplanting
  • 1960 First spring season; 3 days, 14 counties
  • 1960-72 Spring season expanded (4 times) to 14 days
  • 1975 First fall archery season
  • 1978 First fall firearms season
  • 1985 Spring season expanded to all 114 counties
  • 1996-98 Conservation Commission appoints “Blue-Ribbon Panel” and the Turkey Management Plan is published
  • 1998 Spring season extended from two to three weeks
  • 2001 First spring youth season

Habitat Restoration

As Missouri’s National Wild Turkey Federation regional biologist, one of my duties is to foster habitat restoration through grants and partnerships with a focus on many of Missouri’s 38 Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs).

In the southwest, where turkeys aren’t doing well, NWTF has focused on grassland, glade and woodland restoration in Roaring River and Shoal Creek COAs. We are supplying seed drills, prescribed burning equipment, funding for cedar removal and labor for burns. On private lands, dedicated funding from local NWTF chapters has been matched by the Missouri Department of Conservation through the Bobwhite Quail Challenge Grant to provide cost share for landowners to restore nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Bobwhite quail are the primary focus of this program, but improvements for quail are very beneficial for turkeys and many other species of wildlife.

Similar approaches are being used in the northeast portion of the state, and specifically in the Mystic Plains and Thousand Hills COAs. In the northwest, NWTF has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to assist in reclaiming 250 contiguous acres of native warm-season grass in the Grand River Grasslands COA. This will benefit greater prairie-chickens, but the periphery of this landscape will provide turkey nesting and brood-rearing habitat.

NWTF is heavily invested in collaboration; we are motivated by activities that promote our passion, more turkeys and more places to hunt them. If we can get there quicker by helping the prairie-chickens, quail, songbirds or collared lizards—even better. When you place your focus on habitat you come to realize that everyone is aiming at the same target, we’re just shooting at it from different angles. Keep it focused on habitat and everybody wins!

—by John Burk, NWTF regional biologist The Conservation Department pays a portion of the salary for this position to provide technical assistance to private landowners regarding turkey management.

Also In This Issue

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Missouri hunters will take part in a pilot program this fall to make waterfowl hunting at three state-owned wetland areas less of a gamble.

This Issue's Staff

Conservationist Staff

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