Have we overshot turkeys in Minnesota?
The 2011 Minnesota spring wild turkey hunt almost assuredly will not set a new state harvest record. Given the huge record kill of 2010, that's not entirely surprising. The state can't set a record every year, particularly after liberalizing the tagging system last year set the table for a strong kill.
Still, did harvest have to drop this much?
Consider these data from Joe Albert's front page story in this week's print version of Outdoor News. Through May 2, the end of the spring D turkey season (20 days of total hunting), hunters have bagged 6,456 birds. At the same time last year – the fourth consecutive year with a record harvest – hunters had killed 8,946 turkeys.
Folks, that's a 28-percent drop year-to-date. If that percentage holds against the total harvest of a year ago (13,467), then 2011 hunters are on pace to kill fewer than 10,000 turkeys this spring. That hasn't happened since 2007. The 2009 harvest was 12,210 birds, which eclipsed the 2008 kill of 10,994 birds, which topped the previous record of 9,412 birds in 2007.
In an era when ducks, pheasants, and even deer populations haven't inspired much outdoors optimism, turkey numbers have remained a bright spot with record kills year after year after year. But unless the tide changes quickly, those record-breaking turkey headlines are coming to a screeching halt.
In our admittedly unscientific online poll last week, readers were clear about the tough hunting through Season C. The question? "Turkey hunters: Through the first three seasons how would you rate hunting this spring?"
Only 28 percent rated the hunting either good or excellent, while 17 percent rated it fair and a whopping 45 percent called it poor. Serious wild turkey gurus I trust, like Gary Clancy and Mike Sieve, have told me they don't remember a year with so few turkeys afield as this spring.
What's going on? Prior to this season, I wondered publicly if the liberalized season strategy first implemented in 2010 might result in a lower harvest this year. The first year of those regs resulted in a huge kill, but did we overshoot birds, with the bill for those happy results coming due in 2010?
Bill Penning, the DNR's farmland wildlife program leader, doesn't think so. Based on the near complete absence of phone calls from landowners and other citizens, he also doesn't believe winterkill harmed the population the past few months.
"I'm not ready to attribute harvest to lack of turkeys yet," he said. "And if you compare this year to 2009 and 2008, we'll be in the ballpark with those years."
He believes hunters enjoyed exceptional hunting weather in 2010 that allowed the big harvest, and in 2011, hunters have seen the extreme opposite in weather. The miserably cold, wet conditions for hunters hasn't been much fun for turkeys either, and they've been content to stay on the roost.
That said, turkey numbers have declined somewhat in the southeast, an area of the state where the birds likely have reached carrying capacity, Penning said. Populations of most any critter will begin fluctuating once habitat has been maxed out. A series of wet springs also probably hasn't helped the survival of young birds in the region. It's no coincidence that the DNR has dropped permit numbers in one southeast permit area, 349, the past two years. Even so, the agency has had surplus turkey permits for the late season in much of the southeast, so harvest remains below what DNR biologists consider safe.
Regardless, permits available for the fall 2011 hunt probably won't fluctuate much, simply because autumn turkey hunters only kill about 900 birds. But will the agency consider lowering permits for spring 2012?
"We'll have to wait until this spring season is over and the harvest data are analyzed," Penning said.
No doubt, hunting conditions in April were miserable. Several buddies have commented to me that they've been colder on turkey hunts this spring than they've ever been on a November deer hunt!
Here's hoping that with the warmer temps and sunnier skies, turkey harvest the final four season will make up some of the difference we saw during the early seasons.