Fall firearms turkey harvest up 19 percent

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY Mo – An increase in this year’s fall firearms turkey harvest could be the first concrete evidence that Missouri’s wild-turkey population is recovering.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Telecheck database shows that hunters checked 7,077 turkeys during the fall firearms turkey season Oct. 1 through 31. Top harvest counties were Greene, with 209 turkeys checked, Franklin with 194 and Henry with 175. Juvenile turkeys made up 58.2 percent of the total, up from 55.5 percent last year.

This year’s fall firearms turkey harvest is 1,150 more than last year, a 19.4-percent increase. MDC Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle credits weather for the jump in fall turkey harvest.

“Our turkey flock has had a hard go for the past few years,” said Isabelle. “Cold, wet weather kept down nesting success from 2003 through 2005. We got a break in 2006, but then we had that amazing Easter freeze in 2007. 2008 was the wettest year in Missouri history, and 2009 and 2010 weren’t much better. All that took a toll on turkeys and other ground-nesting wildlife.”

Isabelle said this year’s spring and summer floods were tough on turkeys in the Missouri and Mississippi river valleys, but unusually dry weather throughout most of the state gave turkeys their first real break in five years. Surveys conducted during the summer showed a significant increase in the number of poults, as young turkeys are known.

This year’s statewide hatch of 1.7 poults per hen was the best since 2002. In Northeast Missouri, this year’s poult-to-hen ratio of 2.1 was the best it’s been since 2000. Most of Southeast Missouri also experienced a much-improved hatch this year, with the region’s poult-to-hen ratio also exceeding 2 poults per hen.

Isabelle said he expected an uptick in the fall turkey harvest, based on the improvement in nesting success. He also anticipated increased sales of fall turkey-hunting permits as hunters noticed the increased number of young turkeys in the woods. MDC sold 14,717 fall firearms turkey hunting permits this fall, compared to 13,736 last year.

Isabelle said he is encouraged by the increased fall turkey harvest and cautiously optimistic about prospects for the 2012 spring turkey season and beyond.

“This is a good first step,” said Isabelle. “We have always known that turkey numbers would rebound once the birds got a break from the weather. We still have a long way to go, but if the weather continues to be more normal we can hope for continued improvement in our turkey numbers.”

According to Isabelle, it is unlikely Missouri will ever see the numbers of turkeys it had in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That high-water mark was the culmination of a restoration program in which turkeys were reintroduced into areas where they had been absent for decades. Turkey populations expanded rapidly until they encountered “biological resistance” from predators and other limiting factors. From that peak, turkey numbers decreased slightly to sustainable levels.

“We are going to see the return of more abundant turkey numbers again,” said Isabelle. “As long as we have enough habitat, Missouri will have a great turkey resource. But wildlife populations always have peaks during periods of favorable conditions and valleys like the one we are experiencing at the moment.”