Declining turkey populations prompt hunting changes in Pennsylvania
No one likes fewer hunting opportunities, but for the sake of the resource, the time has finally come. At the most recent meeting of the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners, changes to reduce fall turkey hunting were proposed in the majority of the state’s 21 wildlife management units.
According to a forum on the Pennsylvania Wild Turkey Management Plan 2018-2027 prepared by state turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists recently, 15 units have failed to meet spring harvest goals, signaling a drop in bird numbers in these areas.
Contributing to the decline are changing weather patterns, increased predator populations, disease, habitat loss and fall hunter harvest — the last of which being the easiest to control.
This has prompted the Game Commission to make some tough decisions in an effort to boost turkey numbers across the state. Primarily, the agency is focusing on protecting more hens, since it is the egg-laying, brood rearing females that ultimately drive the future of the population.
“When harvesting hens in the fall, it’s not just taking one hen out of the population,” Casalena explained. “It is an exponential harvest. You’re also taking out her three young that she would have had with her the following year.”
Based on years of hunter participation and harvest data, it was determined that two key factors could lead to a reduction in fall harvest — fewer days to hunt and limited weaponry.
“We’ve seen in the past that by reducing the season length in certain WMUs, populations can recover over the next few years, as long as you’re lucky enough to get good weather and maintain enough stable brood-rearing habitat,” Casalena.
So several wildlife management units will see a reduction in season length — some by eliminating a week of the fall season, and in others, by eliminating the three-day Thanksgiving turkey hunting window.
“The Thanksgiving portion of the season, while very popular among hunters, essentially equals one week of the season, typically comprising 20% of the overall fall harvest in just three days. By eliminating this in certain areas, we feel we can save a good number of birds,” Casalena said.
Another measure, sure to gain some criticism from traditionalists, is to eliminate the use of rifles during the fall season.
“Our data shows that 70% of fall turkey hunters use shotguns and take just under 60% of the fall harvest. In contrast, only 14% of hunters use rifles but make up 33% of the overall harvest. (The rest are taken by bow, crossbow or other method). It just goes to show how efficient rifles are, and by eliminating this as a hunting tool, we feel we will see success rates drop to that of a shotgun user, thereby also saving some additional birds,” Casalena said.
Currently, there are 12 other states that allow rifles for fall turkey hunting, and only one state — Florida — limits the fall harvest to bearded-only birds. Based on the fact that Pennsylvania has by far more turkey hunters than any other state in the nation, Casalena felt the move appropriate for protecting the population.
“Right now, we have more turkey hunters (200,000 in the fall; 226,700 in the spring) than we have turkeys in Pennsylvania (just below 200,000), so it’s really important that we do what is necessary to preserve the future of the resource,” Casalena said.
In a state that has seen numbers decline in more than two thirds of its wildlife management units in recent years, it might seem only logical to eliminate the second spring gobbler tag, since some might view one hunter taking two birds in the same spring as unnecessary overharvest.
From 2014-2016, second bird harvest averaged 3,787 gobblers (8% of the overall spring harvest). Considering those hunters first shot 3,787 birds before going on to fill their second tag, that means 3,787 of the state’s 226,700 spring turkey hunters (approximately 1.67%) accounted for 16% of the total spring harvest. But Casalena didn’t seem overly concerned.
“The spring season does not impact the turkey population because the majority of the males we harvest are taken after peak breeding and hens are already incubating eggs,” she said. “We have a carefully timed season that intentionally finds middle ground between peak gobbling and a safe nesting period.”
On average, more mature birds are taken than jakes (even with the second tag), and those older toms have a lower probability of surviving into the following year. Taking hunting out of the equation, the nature of mature birds in spring (gobbling and displaying) makes them more susceptible to predation.
“Hunters shooting three-year-old gobblers are basically getting the last good year of that turkey,” Casalena explained. “It’s compensatory mortality, since most would’ve died anyway. If hunters pass on jakes, though, there’s a good likelihood those birds will remain in the population as adults next year.”
On average, the harvest rate for an adult male is 38% and the harvest rate for jakes is 27%. Adult survival rate is 41%, while jakes have a 65% survival rate, meaning jakes can fill the place of excess toms removed after breeding each year with minimal impact to the population.
Even so, hunters still managed to amass an average annual harvest of 38,641 bearded birds in the spring and 17,602 mixed-gender fall turkeys over a 10-year period. While a greater number of birds get taken each spring than fall, the fall harvest is what really matters.
“The fall harvest is what we call additive mortality, since most of those birds would otherwise survive into the spring, and unfortunately, a fair number taken each fall are hens,” Casalena said. “Our hope is to improve turkey numbers by taking a more conservative approach to the fall seasons.”