A BREED APART

Later Hunting Season Could Help To Increase Wild Turkey Populations in Louisiana

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

Cody Cedotal developed a love for hunting Louisiana’s eastern wild turkey while growing up in Livingston Parish. It’s a different type of effort than hunting for deer or ducks but, as hard-core turkey hunters will tell you, it’s just as rewarding if not more. Patience and persistence are paramount in stalking the state’s largest game bird.

One noticeable difference from other hunting seasons is that turkey hunting doesn’t commence until the spring, normally late in March when other seasons have come to a close.

Usually around the end of February to the first of March, turkey hunters will begin preparing for opening day. It’s an exciting time as they count down the days to the season opener. Cedotal has been bitten by the bug and knows well the fever that hits late in February.

But Cedotal, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Small Game and Wild Turkey Program Manager, has some concerns about Louisiana’s turkey population, which are declining. He’s not alone. The Southeastern Wild Turkey Working Group has seen similar declines in population throughout the southeastern United States and harbor similar concerns.

“When you look at the long-term decline in harvests that we’re seeing statewide it’s pretty alarming,’’ Cedotal said. “Turkey harvest peaked in around (the year) 1997 at 11,200 birds. It has steadily declined since then to now about 5,000 birds in 2016.’’

That’s why Cedotal and the LDWF proposed moving the start of turkey season from the fourth Saturday in March to the first Saturday in April beginning in 2018. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission ratified the proposal along with the rest of the 2017-18 hunting season regulations in April.

That means beginning next year, the season will begin on April 7, 2018. Most years would have only a seven-day adjustment while some would have a 14-day calendar adjustment. The bag limit remains one gobbler per day and two per season.

Cedotal said he understands turkey hunters won’t be thrilled with the change. But it will help stabilize wild turkey populations.

“I understand that tradition and human dimensions are important,’’ Cedotal said. “Every decision we make is with hunters in mind and how can we best serve them as well as the wildlife species. But I want my kids and their kids to be able to turkey hunt without us (LDWF) having to intervene and close seasons. This is an opportunity to make that happen.’’

The primary issue is that breeding occurs during turkey hunting season and the act of hunting disrupts this important cycle. Research shows that in Louisiana, peak breeding is April 9, well into the season. Cedotal said nesting ecology studies in Louisiana indicate only 17 of 123 nests were initiated before the first week of April. Simply put, a later season will allow more hens to be bred before the opening of the season.

“In addition to declining habitat quality in portions of the state, we’re concerned about our season timing,’’ Cedotal said. “Are we contributing to some of the production problems and the decline in harvest that we’re seeing? Is it in part due to the fact that we may be hunting birds too early in their breeding cycle?’’

Cedotal said about 45 percent of total wild turkey harvest during the season occurs in the first week of the season. That’s because hunters are more active then and turkeys have yet to wise up to the hunting pressure.

Using April 9 as the peak breeding date, 63 percent of the total wild turkey harvest happens before this date, which is very alarming, Cedotal said.

“If there are only a few birds in an area and we harvest those few dominant gobblers the first week of the season, which we typically do, it potentially creates a shortage,’’ Cedotal said. “In many cases, mature gobblers are being harvested before they have successfully bred one or multiple hens.

“When that happens in a moderate/low density population there are few other individuals left to take over the role of being the dominant breeding birds. You could potentially have hens that aren’t getting bred. So, in this situation we are part of the issue.’’

Cedotal said the trends have shown diminishing harvests in each region of the state, with the Atchafalaya/Lower Mississippi Delta and North Mississippi Delta regions being the worst at 85 percent and 50 percent harvest declines since 2009.

Season timing certainly isn’t the only factor in production. Weather and environmental considerations are important. And quality habitat, which is in decline in southeast Louisiana and other areas, is vital.

Cedotal said wild turkeys are a production driven species. Like other ground nesting birds, it’s important to get good production in years where the weather conditions are conducive. Wild turkey populations may decline. But within one or two years of good weather during the breeding season they can respond quickly in good quality habitat.

“The worst thing you want to have is prime weather and habitat conditions for production and only a small percentage of your hens are bred due to excessive early harvest in an area,’’ Cedotal said.

Cedotal said the adjusted season, though not in keeping with the traditional late March start, likely won’t hurt harvest. He expects the harvest numbers to still be highest the first week of the season. But the difference of additional breeding days will be significant to Louisiana’s population.

Louisiana has faced wild turkey population challenges in the past. During the years following World War II, it was at its lowest point. In 1946, about 14 isolated flocks with approximately 1,500 wild turkey remained in the state.

But LDWF biologists and staff were vigilant as they restocked with trapped wild turkey and the population rebounded. They were supported in their effort by the National Wild Turkey Federation and private landowners. Soon, wild turkeys were distributed across the state with most suitable habitat occupied.

Cedotal and LDWF biologists have observed the steady decline from the last 10-15 years and believe now is the time to act.

“This is something that I’ve been tracking for a while,’’ Cedotal said. “Even before I was in this position. Previous Program Managers have been, too. A lot of our hunters are used to having turkey season at a certain time because of weather conditions or gobbling activity. But we need to make an adjustment and consider the biology of the birds. And we believe this adjustment will aid in stopping the population decline.’’

 

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