By Jill J Easton
Not too many decades ago, seeing a turkey track was a thing of wonder. After looking at it, the hunter scuffed it out so nobody else would see. If a turkey gobbled, it was an experience that was relived in his mind over and over again. If the hunter had the astounding luck to actually kill a gobbler, it made the local newspapers and was talked about for weeks.
Yes, the American wild turkey was nearly as gone as dodo birds. This happened because of unregulated year-round hunting, widespread habitat destruction, a general lack of game laws and enforcement, and a belief that wild game of every sort would replenish itself.
Forty-seven years ago, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded. The organization’s goal was to bring turkeys back in huntable numbers across the nation.
In 1980, Rob Keck became CEO of the organization and shepherded the process that not only brought back the wild turkey, but gave the turkey status as one of Americas most huntable big game species.
Today Keck is an important voice in the outdoor community. He is Chairman of the Board of Bass Pro Shops Wonders of Wildlife and is Bass Pro’s Director of Conservation. Keck seemed like the perfect person to provide ideas to bring the wild turkey back again.
Flash forward to 2020
Turkeys were in bad shape before the 2020 season, but last season they were harassed and killed by thousands of Covid-crazed new hunters. A combination of hunters in the woods, bad hatches in many places for five years, and increases of predators meant that many experienced hunters didn’t get to work a gobbler unmolested last spring.
An ever-increasing number of hunters, biologists and conservationists feared that the turkeys’ majestic morning songs may soon fade into memory. Here are some of Keck’s thoughts on bringing back the wild turkey again.
“Turkeys are not in bad shape in every part of the country,” Keck said. “In Okeechobee, Florida turkeys are doing well, Gould’s in the Arizona Chiricahua Mountains have strong numbers. In the piedmont of South Carolina numbers are outstanding, but in many other places nearby the numbers are down dramatically.”
In Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas there have been five years of cold late spring rains. In its 2020 Turkey Hunting Handbook, the Missouri Department of Conservation actually warned hunters that they would have to work harder to take their gobblers while the organization raised rates on turkey licenses.
“About ten years after turkeys were reintroduced into new habitat, numbers peaked,” Keck continued. “It wasn’t unusual to hear seven or eight birds gobbling in the morning, but gradually the numbers have trended down.”
Turkeys are not as plentiful.
“There are many reasons why turkey numbers are down,” Keck said. “Predator numbers are up. When coon hides brought $30 trappers were everywhere and turkey nests were safer. Weather patterns have changed, we are seeing more wet springs. This causes the wet hen effect. When a hen gets wet, the bird smells stronger, and her scent attracts predators. An additional problem is the hens can’t keep 8 to 10 poults covered through long heavy rains. The young birds become hypothermic and die.”
Keck also talked about poaching as another factor, both in and out of season. In some areas unethical hunters kill dozens of gobblers and still have a tag left at the end of the season.
“Equipment has also made a huge difference in the numbers of turkeys taken,” Keck said. “Hunting is so much easier in a blind and using decoys. Fanning is another hunter trick that works too well. Also, shotgun shells, especially those using Tungsten Super Shot, have dramatically increased the distance at which hunters can take gobblers. Corn is another draw that turkeys can’t resist.”
Solving these problems doesn’t make anyone happy.
“Altered seasons, reduced bag limits and limited draws are all possible solutions,” Keck said. “They won’t be popular with game agencies who depend on license money, or with the ethical hunters who want a legal chance to shoot a gobbler, but someone has to start making the hard decisions.”
Keck stressed that research and protective wildlife enforcement should be priorities, but many state wildlife agencies are strapped for funding and can’t afford new enforcement officers or biologists.
“A good management plan that includes controlled burns before the hens are setting, allows underbrush for nesting cover and planting food plots with clover would all help turkeys,” Keck said. “Habitat improvements are another area where many wildlife agencies can’t afford the expenses of manpower, seed and weed control.”
“Another solution is to take advantage of hybrid vigor and move turkeys like we did in early years of the turkey restoration program,” Keck said. “The addition of new genes into the local bloodlines seems to improve hen success rates.”
The reasons turkey numbers are down are many and easy to name, but solutions are hard to come by. Across the nation groups are starting up to help save America’s greatest gamebird. Perhaps you have heard talk, maybe a group in your area is working on some of the problems.
Get involved. Join a local group and spend some sweat equity improving turkey habitat on your property, or with a public land improvement project. Join the National Wild Turkey Federation, the only nationwide organization dedicated to the success of wild turkeys.
“For many years I went into the woods and heard multiple gobbles and saw birds on almost every hunt,” Keck said. “We all thought that this could never end, but it has. The best we can do is pray for good spring weather and that the good Lord can give us the finances, determination and strength to bring turkeys back again.”