OUTDOORS: Missouri’s wild turkey population decline

BILL WEHRLE, C-T/LCL Outdoors Sports Editor

By BILL WEHRLE, C-T/LCL Outdoors Sports Editor 

Missouri’s wild turkey hunters, as well as thousands of other folks that enjoy viewing wildlife, have universally noticed a decline in the number of wild turkeys they see. This decline started more than 20 years ago and has become more noticeable as time goes on.

The turkey population has gone from 750,000 in 2000 to 350,000 today. Turkey hunters last spring harvested the smallest number of turkeys in more than 30 years.

What’s the cause of this decline?

There are a lot of theories on what is happening to this popular bird, which was brought back from near-extinction in many areas in the U.S. by concerted efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation and state conservation departments to reach populations perhaps higher even than in pre-settlement times.

Theories on the decline have been largely displaced by scientific studies with different conclusions. Here are some of the answers offered.

According to several years of studying turkey populations, the number of turkeys we see is driven primarily by production and nesting-season success, not survival or harvest of adult turkeys. The number of new young turkeys that are added to the population each summer is the crucial factor in the number of turkeys we see in the following years.

Among the many factors contributing to poor turkey reproduction are loss of quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat, changing weather, an increase in predators, and lower insect abundance.

Turkey predator numbers have increased over the past few decades as the decline in the value of fur has caused fewer predators to be harvested by hunters and trappers.The Missouri Department of Conservation is considering proposals to lengthen trapping seasons and hunting opportunities for predator hunters, and even a bounty system, but it is doubtful these changes would result in much increase in turkey numbers.

Some of the best ways to increase the turkey population is providing good nesting habitat, prescribed burning, edge feathering, timber stand improvement, and woodland restoration. Quality habitat should provide everything a hen and her brood needs – food, water, and shelter from bad weather and predators.

Studies have shown that more-conservative fall hunting regulations, reducing bag limits, shorter seasons, prohibiting hen harvest, and even closing fall turkey seasons entirely would not substantially increase the turkey population.

Reducing the more-popular spring-season bag limit likewise would have little impact on the overall number of turkeys harvested, as only about 5% of spring hunters fill their second tag.

The best answer found so far is to encourage landowners to provide better nesting habitat by removal of fescue-dominated grasslands and planting of warm-season grasses. Changes in Conservation Reserve Program guidelines and an increase in crop prices have resulted in thousands of CRP acres being put back into production, and much turkey brood habitat was lost.

If the remaining non-crop acres were converted to warm-season grass habitat, perhaps some of this loss could be regained. The MDC wants to work with landowners to improve this habitat for wildlife. We don’t want to see a further decline in their numbers.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I thank MDC chief wild turkey biologist Reina Tyl for much of the information in this column.)

(Bill Wehrle’s “Outdoors” column now appears in the C-T every Saturday and LCL every Monday)