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W.Va.’s turkey population still strong despite decline

By John McCoy, Staff writer
Photo courtesy GLENN “TINK” SMITH
While there aren’t as many turkeys in West Virginia as there were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, biologists say population decline isn’t nearly as pronounced as it is in other southeastern states.

West Virginia’s spring gobbler season opens Monday.

As tens of thousands of camouflage-clad hunters sit in the woods, making hen sounds and trying not to make any moves that might spook a wary tom turkey, some of them inevitably will ask, “Is it just me, or are there fewer turkeys than there used to be?”

Hunters who aren’t seeing or hearing birds would probably say “yes.” People who actually work with turkeys would say “maybe.”

There’s no doubt that the Mountain State’s spring gobbler kill has declined since its peak in 2001. Hunters bagged 17,875 birds that year. Last year they killed 11,162. The average kill since 2009 has been 9,730.

If harvest numbers were the only gauge, it would be reasonable to assume the population has fallen by the same 45 percent as the harvest. After all, wildlife officials use a similar figure, the state’s annual firearm-season buck harvest, to estimate the state’s deer population.

But Curtis Taylor, the Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife chief, doesn’t believe turkey numbers have declined even close to that much. “Do we have fewer turkeys now than we had in the late 1990s? Sure,” he acknowledged. “But I think the population is higher than some people believe. I also think factors outside of turkey numbers have contributed to the harvest decline.”

Taylor said it was natural for the state to lose some of its population. The peak years of the late 1990s came shortly after the DNR completed a multi-year trap-and-transplant program that reintroduced turkeys to areas where they had been wiped out.

“In the years immediately after you complete a restoration, you get huge growth in turkey populations,” he explained. “We completed our restoration in 1989, and populations expanded just as we thought they would. At some point, though, all turkey populations hit a ‘glass ceiling’ they don’t seem to be able to grow past. Missouri saw the same thing — a big increase in turkey population, followed by a decline.”

West Virginia and Missouri aren’t the only states where turkey numbers have fallen. Taylor said there have been declines throughout the southeast.

“There has been a lot of discussion among southeastern turkey biologists, and there have been any number of theories as to why the declines have taken place,” he said. “In North Carolina and a few other states, turkeys have lost a lot of habitat to housing development. Biologists in some states believe coyotes are taking a toll. Some biologists think maybe their states’ seasons are too long, and that they open too early.”

He said some of those factors might also be at work in West Virginia, but not all of them.

“We’ve lost some habitat to development, but not the same degree as other states. Our percentage of forested land is still high, and that bodes well for turkeys. We have coyotes, but we’ve also have research that says coyotes very rarely kill turkeys.”

The research Taylor referred to, performed by West Virginia University graduate student Geriann Albers, involved hundreds of samples of coyotes’ stomach contents and feces. Albers found deer remains in 59 percent of the samples; she found turkey remains in only 2 percent.

Taylor said Albers’ findings corroborated what DNR researchers found during a five-year study of radio-collared turkey hens. “During that time, we only had two birds killed by coyotes, and both of those were in Mason County, at a perfect ambush location,” he explained.

The length and opening date of West Virginia’s seasons aren’t likely to be a factor, either, because the state’s spring season has always been timed to coincide with the peak of incubation — the time when most of the hens have been bred and are sitting on eggs.

“Our season is timed to reduce the impact on nesting hens, and it has been that way from the get-go,” Taylor explained. “I think the other states are starting to discover the drawbacks of opening their seasons too early. In my personal and professional opinion, our decline hasn’t been as severe as other states’ because [our seasons] have always tried to follow the biology of the bird.”

Taylor believes West Virginia’s harvest fall-off has less to do with a decline of turkey numbers than it does with a decline in hunter numbers.

“Today we have about two-thirds the number of hunters we had when our harvests were at their peak,” he said. “Right after we completed our restoration program, interest in turkey hunting hit an all-time high. We had a growing turkey population, and it really piqued hunters’ interest. Everyone wanted to get in on the act.

“Back then, we estimated the number of spring gobbler hunters at 140,000. Well, a lot of those hunters discovered that turkey hunting isn’t as easy as they thought it was, and they lost interest.

“In addition, we have an aging population. Every year we have more hunters stop hunting than are coming into the sport. West Virginia gets more new hunters than other states do, but not enough to make up for those who hanging it up.”

Even if Mountain State officials find a way to recruit more new hunters, and even if future research discovers ways to keep turkey populations from declining, Taylor believes West Virginia’s hunters would still have a tough row to hoe.

“The bottom line is that our turkeys aren’t easy to hunt,” he said.

Of the four major wild turkey strains, the Eastern strain has earned the reputation of being the most difficult to hunt. Genetically speaking, West Virginia is home to the purest Eastern-strain birds on the entire planet.

“We are hunting the toughest of the tough,” Taylor said. “You know they’re tough when you hear guys like [legendary turkey hunter] Jim Clay say that if you can kill a turkey every other year in West Virginia, you can kill turkeys anywhere.”


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