Surging turkey population gets counted in annual survey

Jul 29, 2014

Credit Kathy Wilson

INTRO – The public is being asked for its input as a state agency continues the task of managing the reemergence of a bird whose numbers had dwindled severely by the 1970s. George Olsen has more.

Jonathan Shaw started as a District II wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in 2005. At that time the Commission’s turkey biologist was soon to retire and he was hoping to go out by meeting a particular goal.

    “… and one of his goals before he retired was to see the harvest break the 10,000 bird mark. When he retired in 2006 it broke the 10,000 mark that year, and in 2013 we had a record harvest of 18,000 birds, so it’s almost double from 2005-2006 to what it is now.”

Hunters pulled in 18,000 wild turkeys last year… a number that would have wiped out the entire turkey population in the state of the early 1970s several times over.

     “The low point of turkeys in NC was around 1970. We estimate we had approximately 2000 birds at that time. Restoration efforts really began in earnest in the 80s and 90s. Populations quickly grew in that time period. Today we estimate we have approximately 260,000 turkeys across the state.”

Evin Stanford, a surveys and research biologist for the N-C Wildlife Resources Commission. He says the decline to the record low was something that had been ongoing from the turn of the century, and the cause the typical things you hear when discussing a species decline.

     “The factors that really led to the decrease in the turkey population were primarily driven by –one- habitat quality. We had large scale degradation of habitat through harvesting of timber and conversion of timberland to agricultural land. It really degraded the habitat quality. At the same time we also had very liberal turkey seasons within our state that allowed the overharvesting of turkeys. That’s really what led to the decrease in turkey population.”

Proper management has brought the turkey back to all 100 counties in North Carolina. Turkeys from comparatively well-populated regions were captured and moved to habitat devoid of a turkey population. And now there’s a tightly regulated hunting season… essentially early April until mid-May with a one-bird-per-day limit, male turkey or anything with a beard, two bird max for the season per hunter. Wildlife resources is also working with landowners who want to encourage an expanding turkey… and other wildlife … population. Jonathan Shaw.

     “The greatest benefit I would say is prescribed fire, putting fire on the ground enhances habitat for turkeys and also benefits a great number of other wildlife species, opening up the understory, promoting plant growth on the forest floor, those types of things, will increase the vegetation and buggin’ places for turkey and wildlife species.”

To better understand management of the turkey population the Wildlife Resources Commission has been doing an annual summer turkey observation survey. This year marks the 26th survey, which has generally relied on information from the National Wild Turkey Federation, sportsmen, habitat land owners and state & federal workers for the data from the survey. This year the Wildlife Resources Commission is reaching out beyond those groups. Evin Stanford.

    “This is the first time we’ve attempted to reach out to the public and do a general news release and put access to the survey on our agency website. The objective there is to increase participation, overall participation has been up in recent years so we feel we’ve been able to capture good data in our survey but we’re just trying to reach out to other members of the public who might have an interest in wild turkeys which would greater strengthen the results of the survey and give us better information to better help us manage our turkey resource.”

That public information can be submitted via a Wildlife Resources Commission webpage. Info from the coastal region might be of particular interest to turkey researchers. Stanford says the coastal plain was the last spot for turkey relocation as biologists decades ago weren’t sure the coast would be hospitable to a resurrection of the turkey population. So while turkey recovery might be considered complete in the western two-thirds of the state, the coastal plain is still on the rebound.

     “We still have areas in the coastal plain where turkeys are filling in suitable habitat. They haven’t saturated all of the landscape on the coastal plain so we still have expanding populations in many areas, and we still have increasing turkey populations on the coastal plain area, whereas in many of the piedmont and mountain regions they’ve had saturated regions for a long time and populations are relatively stable but we still have growing populations in the coastal plains area.”

The survey is currently underway and runs through the end of August. I’m George Olsen.

For more information on the 26th annual wild turkey survey, click here.