Managers look to head off turkey numbers slide

Among possible hedges to a turkey population slide are eliminating hens from the fall turkey hunting harvest and/or dropping an October shotgun season.

Kentucky wildlife managers are pondering options to bolster wild turkey numbers as something, likely a combination of factors, causes turkey populations to decline in numerous states across the eastern United States.

Kentucky’s statewide turkey population has shown no dramatic nosedive, but while hunters have maintained a generous harvest over the past several years many of them also have noted that the numbers of birds they experience in the field are down from an apparent peak just over a decade ago.

Biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources say one thing that is clear is that turkeys across the state aren’t reproducing are successfully in the most recent years. Surveys suggest a pattern of fewer surviving young turkeys, poults, being produced each spring than was the case in years passed.

Whatever the reason, each adult hen on average is successfully hatching and raising fewer poults than what previously was the case.

Turkey reproduction may be more successful in Kentucky than some surrounding states at present because Kentucky hunters don’t begin their spring gobbler hunting season until later in the turkey breeding season than some other states. Kentucky’s season starts on the Saturday nearest to April 15, later than most, at which time many of the prime hens have already been bred and are ready to nest before hunting starts.

Many Kentucky hunters long have envied the earlier hunting start of other states instead of waiting until the turkey breeding phase already has passed a peak. Yet, managers are confident they are doing the best for the resource with a delayed start, which takes precedence over putting hunters afield when turkeys may be more susceptible to calls and when gobbling (which helps hunters locate birds) is more at a peak.

While other states are closer to a turkey crisis than Kentucky, managers here are concerned enough to put alternatives to the ongoing decline in the think tank stage. At a recent meeting of the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Commission, suggestions pointed at reversing the Kentucky turkey population downward drift were aired. Commissioners are now to circulate suggestions among sportsmen and women in their respective districts to find what measures the hunting public might favor.

One factor thought to be significant in present turkey decline is the proliferation of coyotes, predation by which formerly was not a factor in earlier Kentucky turkey populations. While coyote hunting options have been broadened in recent time, one option suggested to help turkeys is expanding the hunting of coyotes at night with the use of lights.

Presently, night hunting with lights while using rifles on private land is allowed Dec. 1-March 31, but a suggestion to help the flagging turkey numbers would be to extend this through June 30.

Another suggested measure to control turkey-sapping predators is the establishment of a spring trapping season that could reduce the number of predators that destroy turkey nests, eggs and newly hatched birds.

A potential major change to fall turkey hunting is a suggested halt to the harvest of non-bearded turkeys then. That is, fall hunting would no longer be for turkeys of either sex, hens being taken out of the possible limit.

One consideration offered is the end of the weeklong October shotgun fall turkey season, one of two fall gun hunts, the other being a week-long season in December.

It has been suggested that reducing the fall turkey harvest to a maximum of one bird on any one state-operated wildlife management area could relieve some harvest pressure. In a similar vein, another suggestion is the reduce the maximum harvest of turkeys by non-resident (non-Kentucky) hunters in the spring season to a single bird instead of two.

Another suggesting is to extend the period in the spring during which wildlife can be fed away from homes. At present, the regulation prohibits feeding Mar. 1-May 31. A date being offered for a possible extension of the feeding ban is July 31.

One problem identified with the feeding of wildlife is that corn and other grain put out as food can sicken and kill turkeys among other wildlife. In addition, managers say artificial feeding stations also train predators to ambush prey species where they congregate for concentrated food, circumstances that can prove deadly for young and vulnerable turkey poults.

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Digging into September, hunting in Kentucky nowadays is showing more diversity.

Today marks the second weekend of both the mourning dove season and the archery hunting season for deer and wild turkeys. Likewise, the early crossbow deer hunting period for seniors (65 and older) and youth (under 16) opened with the general archery season.

The hunting scene takes a fowl turn next week, however. Thursday is the opening session in the 15-day early Canada goose hunting season.

The Sept. 16-30 season is an opportunity for Kentuckians to take local-nesting, non-migratory Canada geese at a time when there is no chance for interior Canada geese to be here after migrating from far northern nesting habitats.

Regulations for the early homebody goose season are like those of the traditional fall-winter season, although bag limits are more generous. During the early season for local nesters, hunters can take five Canada geese per day with a possession limit of three times the daily limit, 15, after three or days of hunting.

The early Canada goose season will barely have begun when, on Saturday of next week, Kentucky’s special early wood duck and teal hunting season opens.

The Sept. 18-22 season allows Kentucky hunters the opportunity to hunt and perhaps harvest some home state woodies, birds that nest here but often have migrated southward by the time the traditional duck hunting season opens on Thanksgiving.

At the same time, hunters in search of Kentucky wood ducks also may have opportunistic encounters with blue-wing, green-wing and/or cinnamon teal, small ducks that are among the first migrators and may be passing through Kentucky habitats from more northerly areas on their way south.

After the five-day wood duck/teal season, hunters here have another four days, Sept. 23-26, during which they can hunt and harvest teal only.

The daily bag limit for birds during the wood duck/teal season is six ducks, but only two woodies can be taken daily. Teal can make up all or a portion of the limit. Finally, during the teal-only days of hunting, the daily bag limit is simply 6 teal.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. Email outdoors news items to outdoors@paducahsun.com or phone 270-575-8650.

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