Proposed Spring turkey changes began a while ago thanks to public input

Published 8:42 am Sunday, April 30, 2023

By Hunter Cloud

The Daily Leader

BROOKHAVEN — Lawrence County native Adam Butler serves as the turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and recently made recommendations to change the turkey season frameworks and regulations. His recommendations came after years of work.

Butler presented his recommendations in an educational session in February on the status of the turkey program. He proposed changes for the 2024 turkey season at the April meeting which the commission accepted into a 30 day public comment period, which is currently open until the next commission meeting.

In the same February meeting, he gave a report of Mississippi experiencing its best hatch of poults in a long time with 2.4 poults per hen after a series of poor hatches.

He said the department started looking at changing Mississippi’s turkey season in 2015 to 2016 with the publication of its Comprehensive Wild Turkey Management Plan. The first quote found in this plan comes from Aldo Leopold’s report on a Game Survey of Mississippi in 1929.

“On account of the high proportion of forest lands, and especially the wide dispersion of natural refuges in the form of swamps, no state has a more favorable chance than Mississippi to produce a large and stable crop of wild turkeys,” Leopold wrote. In juxtaposition, the first paragraph of the plan’s technical copy states recent data suggests a decline in reproductive success, hunter success and total harvests of turkeys.

MDWFP set seven objectives in the comprehensive plan. First, provide the priority, capacity and support needed to manage the wild turkey resource, collect comprehensive data on wild turkey populations which scales accurately to inform policy decisions. The department has an objective to promote, facilitate and undertake practices that address limiting factors, provide turkey hunting opportunities which satisfy hunters and yield quality outdoor experiences. They wanted to acquire the best available science to guide wildlife management, minimize unlawful exploitation of Mississippi’s turkey resource and increase understanding of wild turkey ecology and management.

At the time, harvest per 100 hours hunted had dropped significantly to 2.9 in 2016 from a peak of 4.7 in 2004. Butler said Harvest rates peaked 30 years ago and have been in a decline since then and poult per hen numbers have indicated a similar decline. While populations fluctuate naturally, they are lower than they were in the 1980s, considered a gold standard of turkey hunting in Mississippi. Public concern and comments about population decline really helped initiate the process.

“Turkeys have declined. There are a lot of reasons for it. The nature of the situation is it isn’t as bad as people perceive it to be,” Butler said. “There is a legitimate reason to worry about turkeys. There isn’t one single cause for a decline though. Public sentiment asked us to take a look at it and see what we could do to evaluate our approach to hunting.”

Changing dates

The turkey program met with a focal group of several dozen people from hunting, wildlife and habitat management backgrounds. Butler said one of the things the groups agreed on was the season structure needed a change.

Focal group respondents suggested the current season framework, open March 15 to May 1, is too early and too liberal for the state. A suggestion uniform across the groups, Butler said. MDWFP determined it needed to evaluate what they were doing and Butler wanted to make changes based on data.

They first started with Game Check, a mandatory online reporting system for turkeys, to collect data on where, when and how many turkeys are harvested. MDWFP took different pairs of Wildlife Management Areas and set one as a control and closed the other for turkey season until April 1.

In addition, Mississippi State University provided a harvest model project to provide a forecasted look at how different changes would affect the turkey population over the long term. Butler said in the February meeting their changes in the spring season at the WMAs and in the forecast model had a limited impact on wild turkey numbers.

Forecast models and research conducted in other parts of the country documented the sensitivity of turkey populations to fall and winter hen survival. Mississippi’s fall season allows hens to be legally harvested. MSU’s data illustrated a 2 percent increase in hen survival by eliminating a fall season thus increased populations by 2.5 times.

Eliminating the fall season would also protect gobblers for the upcoming spring season and protect jakes who by then could have grown eight inch beards and fit the bill of a Tom. Harvest of male birds in the fall is counter-intuitive to the management goals, Butler said.

He also made recommendations to shorten the spring season by about a week to line up with gobbling activity in order to help improve hunter success and close the fall season. March 23 is the day you are most likely to hear a turkey gobble according to gobbling activity data.

Mississippi is one of the final states to make a change to its spring season and one of the more conservative in approach. Tennessee for example opened its season on April 12 this year. Butler said he wanted to balance hunter success, keeping Mississippi’s early and long season while doing what is best for the resource.

“I’m proud we took a deep dive and looked at every aspect of the season’s frameworks. Ultimately, we came down to where we are at,” Butler said. “The really dramatic changes we struggle to see how it would make a difference. On the flip side, we have good data. Hunters were successful under the old frameworks even with controls for fluctuating habitat and bird populations. If we don’t make more turkeys we can get more out of them. We believe we have heard the public’s concern and feel the decisions are warranted but real dramatic changes are not.”

Tennessee Turkey Program Coordinator Roger Shields said the turkey harvest early in the season was up quite a bit compared to previous seasons after changing opening dates. In the first 16 days of the season, hunters have bagged 21,888 turkeys, an increase from the 2022 season which opened on April 5. Hunters bagged 15,322 birds in the first 16 days of the 2022 season.

An increase in harvest could be due to the poult per hen figures being higher than the five year average. 2021 hatch data showed 2.22 pph and 2022 had a hatch of 2.19 pph above the five year average of 1.7 pph. 2020 hatch data shows Tennessee had 1.4 pph. Shields said hunter success early in Tennessee could be due to a few reasons.

“In 2021 we had a good hatch and expected more mature birds. We had a good crop of two year old birds coming into the season and opening weekend was good weather wise as was the youth opener,” Shields said. “This past weekend was cool but was nice. The last three weekends have allowed hunters to get out and hunt. It could be birds have gobbled well and they seem to respond well to calls. They aren’t henned up due to starting two weeks later. We often tell folks though I hate to say too much in one year because there are so many variables.”

Good weather and a good hatch could have helped Tennessee this year or it could be a result of the season moving back. Shields said he would like to see more years of data.

Tools for the department

One other crucial change that was recommended was adding a mandatory physical tagging system. Currently, law enforcement officers lack the tools to catch poachers and outlaws who kill over the bag limit. MDWFP surveys suggest that the most common turkey hunting violation is harvesting over the bag limit.

“One of the most sensible things is to give our officers every tool possible to reign in illegal exploitation of the resource,” Butler said. “Having a physical tagging system makes it easier to work those cases. It is nearly impossible to make a bag limit case with a hunter currently. They have to catch them with four turkeys. In a tagging system, once you burn your third tag you can be cited for any more harvested turkeys.”

Butler said early on they would do more education than enforcement on tagging if someone forgot a tag, something commissioner Leonard Bentz expressed concern over.

“Physical tags will be a responsibility but the hunters who really care will be willing to shoulder the burden,” he said. “They know how delicate the resource is and to try and ensure we have it as good as we have it today.”

Collectively, Mississippians can help restore turkeys through habitat improvement and restoration. Butler said 30 years ago Southwest Mississippi was a better landscape for turkeys than anywhere else in the state. Game Check harvest data shows the region is lagging behind already low numbers this season.

One thing that has changed in the Southwest region is timber type. Upland hardwoods and mixed timber stands have changed as landowners invested in Loblolly pine plantations. Cattle operations have also shrunk over the years. Pastureland provided great brood habitat but aforestation of fields into pine plantations has caused problems.

Butler said pine stands can be good habitat but required intentional management through the use of thinning and prescribed fire. MDWFP offers private land site visits, Fire on the 40 workshops and cost-share programs to aid landowners with habitat management.

“We have to figure out how to get people more involved in actively managing habitat,” Butler said. “If we can get more landowners burning I think our turkey problems will go away. We recently landed a $5 million grant to help landowners implement burning. It takes the initiative from landowners to get it done.”