Turkey take may inch upward

Albany — Tough times for wild turkeys have meant tough times for New York’s turkey hunters in recent years, and the 2015 spring gobbler season might not see much of a change.

Last spring’s gobbler harvest bottomed out below 16,000 (15,904), the lowest since the early 1990s and less than half the harvest of just five years earlier, in 2009, when the kill was at 34,664.

DEC biologists say a decent nesting season last spring has helped, but don’t expect a dramatic turnaround this season.

“This year’s harvest could increase a bit, especially if hunters are interested in taking juvenile birds (jakes),” DEC wildlife biologist Mike Schiavone said. “But it’s not going to rebound much – 16,000 or so.”

Last season’s nesting and brood rearing improved slightly and was close to the five-year average. That, Schiavone said, will make more jakes – yearling gobblers – available to hunters this spring.

But a key factor in hunter success is the breeding season of two years prior, since 2-year-old toms comprise the bulk of the longbeard kill.

“And our nesting success of two years ago was not as rosy as last year,” he said. “So that will affect adult gobbler availability.”

The decline in the state’s turkey population has been clearly evident since 2009. The 2010 harvest dipped from to 25,807 after the 34,664 tally, and in 2011 just 18,738 birds were taken in the spring. After a brief rally – 19,038 in 2012 and 21,515 in 2013 – the spring gobbler kill plummeted to 15,904 last season.

“We’re definitely hearing from turkey hunters who are concerned that turkey numbers are down,” Schiavone said. “A lot of what we’re doing now is trying to address that, to determine if the season is sustainable long-term. We’re definitely aware and concerned about the decline in turkey numbers, too.”

While poor nesting and brood rearing seasons are seen as the major cause in the turkey decline in New York, Schiavone said other factors, such as predation and habitat loss, also come into play.

“Predation is something we’re aware of as we look at hen survival rates. A lot of things like to eat turkey eggs and a lot of things like to eat turkeys, so it’s definitely a concern. And habitat issues can be addressed to assist the birds,” he said.

And New York’s turkeys seem to be in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back mode: the recent winter may have hurt bird numbers in some areas.

“Production was relatively good in the summer of 2014, which is cause for optimism heading into this spring season,” said Doug Little, Northeast conservation field supervisor for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“Unfortunately, winter conditions were less than ideal for turkeys. We had significant stretches of bitter cold temperatures, along with snow conditions that limited mobility on the ground.”

Little said the stress of the winter could lead to fewer juvenile hens attempting to nest this spring because of their condition. That might be bad news for both turkey numbers and for hunters, since those birds could tie up gobblers later into the season instead of going off to nest.

Still, Little expects a decent spring gobbler season.

“I do expect good gobbling activity this season and I’m optimistic that it will be a relatively good season,” said the Greene County resident. “Hunters willing to stick it out longer into the morning and those hanging on through the latter part of the season should benefit by being persistent.”

But with turkey numbers down and gobbling activity reduced as a result, sticking with it can be tough for the frustrated legion of turkey hunters.

Schiavone notes that, despite the downturn in the turkey population, hunting spring gobblers in New York is still pretty good. And other traditional turkey hunting hot spots, such as Missouri, are dealing with some of the same issues.

Last year’s nesting and brood rearing success was best in DEC’s Region 4 (the Capital District area). “Region 4 has seen two good nesting seasons in a row, actually,” Schiavone said.

Most regions, with the exception of the Finger Lakes, were above the five-year average. But that five-year average includes several poor nesting seasons, so topping that average may not be a major achievement.

Another issue that has surfaced in New York state is the arrival of the LPDV – lymphoproliferative – virus. Several hunters in recent springs have reported killing gobblers with lesions on their face. Initially believed to be avian pox, biologists have since identified it as the LPDV virus.

“We have more questions than answers right now,” Schiavone said. “The prevalence (of the virus) seems pretty high over a large landscape, not just New York. It’s been around for quite a while.”

While DEC at this point doesn’t believe the virus is leading to major mortality among turkeys, Schiavone said they’re continuing to study and monitor the virus, especially to determine if a hen can transfer the disease to poults.

There’s no human health risk associated with LPDV, he said.

Western New York’s Chautauqua County typically records the highest spring gobbler kill, and last year’s tally of 771 was tops in the state. But it was also the lowest since the early 1990s, tracking the statewide downturn in turkey numbers.

Other top counties last year were Delaware (695), Otsego (622), Steuben (604) and Cattaraugus (558).

But other potential hot spots include Oneida and Onondaga counties in central New York, as well as northern New York’s St. Lawrence County.

The season kicks off April 25-26 with the popular youth turkey hunting weekend for 12-15 year olds, followed by the traditional May 1-31 regular season.

There’s a two-bird limit for hunters; a bird killed during the youth season counts toward the young hunter’s two-bird limit.

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