Carbondale, Ill. — DNR biologists say turkey hunters in most of the state should find plenty of birds in the field this spring – though overall population levels remain flat and some regions are experiencing a decline.
But turkey hunters are ready.
The season opens April 6 in the south zone and April 13 in the north zone. The youth season in the south zone was March 28-29, while youngsters in the north zone will hunt April 4-5.
Paul Shelton, DNR’s forest wildlife program manager, said turkey populations are stable in most of the state. However, 15 to 20 counties in the west-central part of the state are seeing serious declines.
“The fact that they are holding steady is not the surprise,” Shelton said. “The surprise is that some of the other areas are going down. We can’t put our finger on it. Reproductive success hasn’t been very good there.”
Shelton noted that DNR has been looking at a downward trend in west-central Illinois between St. Louis and Hancock County.
“It’s a pretty big band,” he said. “Some states have been seeing those kinds of declines on a much wider basis.”
Biologists have not been able to put their finger on a cause.
Some of it has been bad luck – several springs with colder than normal temperatures and higher than normal rainfall amounts. Turkey poults are particularly sensitive to late-season cold and rain.
“When those things coincide with the hatch that’s not good news,” Shelton said. “The proliferation of black flies over the past 10 years could be having an impact on reproductive success, getting on young poults. At this point, that is more of a hypothesis than anything else.”
He added that the University of Illinois has begun to study the population decline.
However, in other parts of the state turkey populations and harvest remain sound. Southern Illinois has seen exceptional bird numbers.
“Jackson County over the last 8 to 10 years, they aren’t seeing any problems,” Shelton said. “The lowest harvest they’ve had is in 2007. The highest harvests in the last nine years have been the last three years.”
Similar situations are found throughout the entire Midwest, Shelton said.
“We’re not having as good reproductive success. That was expected for many years. You don’t expect to see as good a reproduction in older established populations than where there is a small amount of birds and unlimited amounts of range.”
As a result, turkey harvest is expected to be close to the 13,513 birds taken last spring.
“I wouldn’t expect a big change,” Shelton said. “The biggest things that will have an impact is what are the temperatures going to be and how much rainfall are we going to get. People like to be warm and they like to be dry when they turkey hunt.”
The cold temperatures and heavy snow in March probably didn’t affect the population or hunting prospects.
“If the weather cooperates we should have a good season,” Shelton said.