Frye: Decline in turkey flocks puzzling
Turkey season changes Monday when hunters are allowed to chase gobblers right up until a half hour after sunset.
But it's already changed in a bigger way. And not for the better.
For most of the past 30 years, the news about turkeys — in Pennsylvania, along the entire East Coast and into the Midwest — has been good. Trap-and-transfer efforts meant to re-establish birds in areas from which they had long since disappeared were hugely successful.
Pennsylvania's flock, which was down to perhaps 5,000 birds a century ago, reached 400,000 by 2001.
But that number's been dropping. The population is down to about 300,000 birds.
“We're not sure exactly what's happening,” said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
In West Virginia, turkey populations have dropped from 200,000 to somewhere just above 100,000, said Curtis Taylor, chief of wildlife resources for division of natural resources. Pretty much every state with turkeys is experiencing similar declines, he added.
In recent days, wildlife biologists from around the country met to discuss what's happening.
“They're looking at everything that could be behind these steep declines. It's been a hot topic,” Taylor said.
There are a lot of theories.
It could be that populations are reaching “their own equilibrium” and settling in after those record highs, Casalena said. It's certainly true that several wet, cold springs — so hard on survival — have hurt recruitment of young birds into the flock, she said.
Allowing all-day hunting late in spring seasons may not be an issue. In Pennsylvania, only about 6 percent of the overall gobbler harvest comes from birds taken after noon, Casalena said.
But starting gobbler season too early might be a problem.
The trend has been for states — often at the hands of politicians rather than biologists — to open spring turkey seasons earlier to draw in hunters, Taylor said. In Georgia, for example, spring gobbler season starts in mid-March. That's two weeks before the first hens have started to roost.
Liberal harvests could be to blame, too. South Carolina wildlife officials are looking into that.
Habitat loss also might be a problem. Every new housing development, shopping center or strip mine means turkey habitat is lost.
It could even be that turkeys are suffering from competition with other wildlife, such as surging black bear populations. They compete with them for food such as acorns, Taylor said.
That's a lot to consider, so finding answers likely will take time, Casalena said.
“There are all these variables that we never had to look at before,” Casalena said. “Now we have to look at all these other factors that come into play in managing a game species.”