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Solving the Puzzle of Wild Turkey Management

turkey-management.jpgIt is a challenging, yet exciting time for wild turkey management in New York State. Turkey populations expanded rapidly through the 1990s due to restoration efforts; however, DEC biologists and New York hunters have observed a gradual decline in populations of this popular game bird since 2001, with a sharper decline from 2007 to the present. There are several reasons for this, including a natural contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions. Other factors include density dependence, poor production, and changing habitats and predator communities. Currently, turkey populations are around 200,000 birds — the lowest level since the mid-1990s. DEC biologists are committed to understanding if and how turkey population dynamics have changed in relation to changing environmental and social circumstances.

The main “drivers” of turkey populations are weather, habitat, predation and, potentially, fall hunting mortality of hens. DEC has three ongoing research projects focused on gathering information about these factors to determine their relative importance, and to adapt turkey management to better fit current conditions. There is evidence that both the ecological system (e.g., habitat, predators) and social system (e.g., hunter opinions and behaviors) have changed over the past 20 years. For example, the impact of predation or fall hunting mortality in 1993, when populations were rapidly expanding, may be different from the impact of predation or fall hunting mortality in 2013. It is our objective to figure out if and how the system has changed, and to adjust our management accordingly.

Turkey Harvest Potential – DEC has partnered with the National Wild Turkey Federation, SUNY-ESF, and Michigan State University to investigate the wild turkey harvest potential within New York. Important factors that affect turkeys here include spring weather effects on reproductive success, winter weather effects on survival, and the effects of habitat on reproduction and survival. The goal of this study is to look at the relationship between these factors and how turkey populations change over time in different parts of the state to determine each region’s potential to produce and sustain birds.

Turkey Hunter Survey — Turkey populations have changed over the past 20 years, but so have the demographics, outlook and expectations of New York’s hunting community. We are partnering with Cornell University’s Human Dimensions Research Unit (HDRU) to conduct a statewide survey of turkey hunters. This survey will help determine their motivations and opinions on turkey populations, hunting opportunities and issues of concern to them, such as all-day spring hunting and the timing and length of the fall season. Understanding what hunters desire from and for the resource is an important part of turkey management. The survey will focus on hunter activity and attitudes about hunting regulations. It also will ask hunters to rank or prioritize management options for fall hunting seasons, while considering the tradeoffs associated with those options (e.g., fall season length and spring population size).

turkey-management2.jpgHen Harvest Rates and Survival Rates – Hen survival is the major driving force behind turkey population changes. To better understand what is happening in New York, we will capture and band hens and equip some with satellite radios to determine seasonal and annual hen survival and mortality. This will provide insight into the role of predation on hens, as well as the possible impacts of hunting mortality during the fall. Banding will take place during the winter, from 2013 through 2016. After two years under our current fall season structure (fall 2013 and 2014), we will revise fall season zones based on the results of this study and on the results of the projects described above, to create a new “map” of fall seasons starting in fall 2015. We will continue to assess hen harvest and survival under the new fall season structure (fall 2015 and 2016) to ascertain the effects of our management action.

Our primary goal for turkey harvest management is to protect the long-term security of the wild turkey population while still providing opportunities for hunters and others to enjoy the wild turkey resource now and in the future. The current suite of projects will enable us to achieve this important goal.

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