CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians aren't the only ones seeing their turkey hunting decline.
The trend, as it turns out, extends far beyond the Mountain State's borders. Wildlife officials in southeastern, mid-Atlantic and northeastern states are seeing a slow but steady decline in wild turkey abundance.
"It's been going on for at least the last 10 years," said Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "And it has enough people concerned that the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has resolved to try to find out why it's going on."
The association's member agencies, including West Virginia, are reassessing the way they manage turkeys.
"They're taking a look at their turkey-hunting regulations, and they're taking a look at the way they manage their flocks," Taylor said. "Several factors could be contributing to the decline. Habitat loss, season lengths, hunting pressure, generous bag limits and early opening dates are some of the potential causes being looked into."
Agency representatives have asked University of Georgia biologist Michael Chamberlain to find the answers to some basic questions.
"The first thing we want him to do is figure out the extent of the decline," Taylor said. "We want him to determine if turkeys' productivity has decreased. If reproduction has suffered, we want to know why."
The answers, Taylor added, won't be easy to find. "There's no simple answer to this. All the simple answers were arrived at years ago. We've got the toughies now."
One of the first things agency heads plan to look at - if they can agree on a way to do it - is whether turkeys are reproducing effectively.
"For us to know whether our reproduction data are valid, we have to have a uniform, consistent way of making brood reports," Taylor said. "Problem is, every agency has its own way of doing things. We're going to survey folks as to what is feasible for agencies.
"Brood reporting is important because turkeys aren't deer - they don't have young every year. Some years, there's poor reproduction.
"Here in West Virginia, our turkey population is heavily vested in Mother Nature. If she gives you a cold, rainy brood time, you get bad reproduction. Follow that with a poor mast crop, and you're hurting even worse."
Taylor said habitat loss is almost a given throughout the wild turkey's range.