This spring, as Wild Turkey hunting season kicked off, Louisiana State University turkey biologist Bret Collier started receiving concerning reports from the field. "My graduate students following turkeys were sending me messages saying that they'd never seen this many people around," he says. When Collier checked in with a close colleague, University of Georgia turkey biologist Mike Chamberlain shared similar news. "I'm seeing a lot of people hunting in my own area," Chamberlain says.
When the duo put their heads together, they had a realization: Maybe turkey hunters have more time on their hands because of the coronavirus pandemic and recession. After all, like birding, hunting is a safe and responsible way to enjoy the outdoors in a socially distanced manner. "If they're like me, they have nothing else to do at this point with their spare time,” Chamberlain says. If this was the case, the pair wondered whether this seemingly small change in human behavior could have an outsize impact on Wild Turkey populations, which in many areas have been steadily declining in recent years.
So, the two biologists (who both also hunt turkeys) did what biologists do: They gathered information from state wildlife officials to see if their suspicions proved out. In many states early data suggested that the increased hunting they and their students had observed is indeed a real phenomenon. And in some places, that's resulting in more dead turkeys.
In Georgia, during the first 23 days of the season, hunters shot 26 percent more turkeys than they did in 2019. Compared to last year, 34 percent more hunters shot two turkeys, and the number of hunters that killed three turkeys (the state limit) is up by nearly 50 percent. Other states reported similar stats. In Mississippi, turkey harvest on public lands was up by 60 percent compared with 2019. In North Carolina, it was up by a third over the three-year average. Tennessee's harvest was up by half, and in Louisiana it was up by 14 percent in the first week of the season alone.
In order to distribute the information as quickly as possible, Collier and Chamberlain announced their findings online in a white paper in April rather than go through the formal publication process.
These trends aren't evident everywhere. Though Pennsylvania has seen turkey populations decline in recent years, harvest rates through May 16 were around 6 percent lower than last year, says turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. And while North Carolina turkeys have been subject to an increased harvest this year, officials aren’t worried because the state hasn't yet seen the population declines that other states have.
Still, the broad picture for the spring 2020 turkey hunting season is one of increased harvest on top of ongoing declines. The reasons for those declines aren't entirely understood, but most biologists agree that they likely involve a variety of factors: habitat loss, climate change, predator conservation, and more.
"What we've seen this year are extremely non-normal conditions, especially with regard to hunter effort and harvest,” Collier says. “This is outside the standard that turkey regulatory structures have ever had to address. No one ever planned for this.”
Typically, wildlife managers can attempt to control how many turkeys are killed by hunters by changing hunting season length and timing, as well as setting a bag limit dictating how many turkeys each hunter can legally take home. But these regulations are set several months before the season starts, or longer. The pandemic, recession, and mass unemployment came on quickly and unpredictably. Now, it’s possible that folks who found time to hunt just one or two days in previous years may now be setting out for the woods every weekend.
"By the time the pandemic came, the states were powerless,” Chamberlain says. “There was no way they could react.”
These unexpected excesses of dead Wild Turkeys are superimposed onto ongoing declines in eastern populations that Chamberlain describes as "far-reaching and widespread." These declines might surprise some people because Wild Turkeys are considered one of the great American conservation successes of the twentieth century. Following centuries of unregulated market hunting, agricultural intensification, and widespread logging, by 1920 Wild Turkeys had disappeared from 18 of 39 states where they once thrived. Their population had declined to some 200,000 birds—a reduction of more than 90 percent. To bring them back, state wildlife agencies limited Wild Turkey harvest while still allowing for some sustainable hunting to occur, and instituted habitat restoration programs. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the species had recovered to between 6 and 7 million individuals.
Then, over the past decade, parts of the population began declining again. Eastern turkeys, especially in the southeast, have suffered in recent years from "a long-term precipitous decline in production,” he says. “That's fewer nests hatching, or fewer young turkeys surviving, or both.” These variables combine in a measurement called the poult-per-hen ratio. According to a 2015 analysis published by a team including Chamberlain and Collier, that ratio has progressively declined since the 1970s and 80s in 12 of the 13 member states of the Southeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Wild Turkey Working Group.
What exactly is driving the southeastern population’s decline is not fully understood, says North Carolina State University ecologist Chris Moorman. Ongoing habitat loss, in addition to recovery of predators like coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, allows for fewer turkeys on the landscape today than at their peak two decades ago. But habitat loss alone can’t explain the trends. "We seem to be in a state of decline even in areas where habitat conditions look to be okay," Chamberlain says. Other factors such as weather, disease, and hunting also likely contribute. Taken individually, each may not have a large impact on the population. But together these factors decrease the number of young turkeys that hatch and survive to adulthood.
Moorman isn't concerned for the future of the species in a broad sense. "Turkeys are a very adaptable species,” he says. Still, he admits that the recent hunting data from some states is alarming. Casalena agrees. "You used to always be able to rely on at least one out of every three years having a great reproductive year," she says. "We're not seeing that anymore." When you take the ongoing challenges to turkeys from climate change, development, and predator conservation, even just one abnormaly heavy hunting season could have lasting impacts.
As hunters and as biologists, Chamberlain and Collier want to ensure Wild Turkeys’ future. "In these extraordinary and challenging times," they wrote in their paper, "the future ability for us to enjoy hunting Wild Turkeys could be negatively impacted by our collective actions during spring 2020." The two stop short of being prescriptive, but they hope their paper will at least challenge other hunters to carefully weigh their decisions this hunting season and aim for a sustainable harvest, pandemic aside.