After what I witnessed during last year’s fall turkey season, I was shocked by a recent report on wild turkey populations.
Last fall I hunted turkeys in five counties across the state - Luzerne, Wyoming, Bradford, Indiana and Jefferson. I missed one on the first day and saw birds every time I was afield. And even though I finished the season empty-handed, the fact that I saw turkeys every time I was out made it a success.
Which is why I was surprised to see a report detailing the decline of wild turkey populations not only in Pennsylvania but across the nation.
Nationwide, there are fewer than seven million wild turkeys, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. Sounds like a healthy number, but on the state level things are getting serious, in my opinion.
Pennsylvania’s population has decreased to 300,000 - a 25-percent drop from the high of 400,000 in 2001. New York wild turkeys are at a 20-year low, while in West Virginia numbers are at 100,000, half of the peak of 200,000.
The report is an example of just how different our opinion of things based on what we see while hunting can be vastly different from those of biologists.
If turkey numbers are so low, then why did I see so many - in several regions of the state, while hunting last fall?
There’s a number of reasons.
I don’t have a lot of time to hunt, so when I do get out I target areas of good habitat that I know are frequented by turkeys.
It’s an attempt to increase the odds.
I also hunt hard when pursuing fall turkeys. Yes, that means walking countless miles in the fall woods, but more importantly hunting hard means putting the time in. I try to spend every second of daylight in the woods while hunting.
Since I hunt prime habitat, cover a lot of ground and put in the time to increase my chances of seeing a bird, does that skew my opinion that turkey numbers are healthy in those area I hunt?
Let’s give some credit to the wild turkey. They are a wary bird with keen eyesight. They’re hard to find because they’re good at avoiding us. If you want to hunt turkeys in the fall, most of the time you’re going to have to work just to see them.
The report does cite several reasons for concern, however.
In Pennsylvania we’ve dealt with several wet, cold springs over the last few years - the kind of weather that’s deadly to turkey poults.
The reintroduction programs of years ago have come full circle, the report suggests, and now all areas with suitable habitat hold wild turkeys. There are no voids left and now numbers are starting to balance out.
Research conducted by the University of Georgia brings the seasons lengths and bag limits into the equation. Spring gobbler seasons are opening earlier now in many states, bag limits have increased and in Pennsylvania we can now hunt gobblers all day for the last three weeks of the season.
Maybe the spring hunting pressure in Pennsylvania is too much with one-day youth gobbler season, followed by a statewide season that runs from April 27 to May 31. From May 13 to 31 we can hunt gobblers all day, and with the purchase of a second tag we can shoot two in the spring season. Including the youth day, we have 30 days to shoot two gobblers (with a second tag).
Is our season too long? Too much?
The numbers don’t lie. Wild turkey populations are down in many states. That’s a concern, regardless of what I see in the areas I hunt.
Still, there is a positive. Experts from several states, including Pennsylvania are searching for an answer.
And hopefully a fix.