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Talking Turkey - Spring Season

What should be done with the spring season?

Wild turkeys are universally regarded as one of American conservation’s greatest successes. Thanks to monumental efforts by concerned citizens, conservation organizations, and state wildlife agencies like Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP), the species rose from the verge of extinction during the early 20th century to a high of nearly 7 million nationwide by the early 2000s. Since that time, however, there has been growing angst about the status of this majestic game bird throughout the Southeast. In Mississippi, data collected by the MDWFP and avid hunters suggests turkeys could be declining in some areas. While Mississippi still maintains a reputation as a “blue chip” turkey hunting state, it could be time to review the state’s approach to spring turkey hunting.

Over the past few years, several southeastern states have made prominent alterations to their spring season frameworks. While Mississippi is not yet on that list, laws governing hunter actions have recently changed. Mandatory Game Check was initiated in 2019 to address data shortcomings and provide Conservation Officers with a tool for bag limit enforcement. Thanks to the widespread adoption of MDWFP’s Hunt/Fish smartphone app, hunters can comply with Game Check’s requirements immediately while in the field. Although Game Check will aid MDWFP far into the future, most hunters want to know whether insight from this new dataset has put our state on a course toward changes to the spring season’s timing, length, or bag limit.

When game numbers fall below the expectations of hunters, the natural inclination is often to restrict hunting to allow populations to rebound. While this reaction can sometimes be warranted, it is never a guaranteed remedy. Habitat, predation, disease, and many other things work in concert to determine the abundance of species like wild turkeys, and these are all tremendously difficult to influence at meaningful scales. Furthermore, studies show that wild turkey numbers are primarily determined by the success or failure of each year’s hatch, not the lifespan of the adults. Bottom line, MDWFP is respectful of Mississippians’ right to hunt and enjoy wildlife held in public trust. Therefore, any changes to hunting seasons that encroach upon hunting opportunity must be carefully examined to ensure sacrificed days afield will manifest in better outings down the road.

An assurance that regulatory policy is set using science is one of the most important things a state wildlife agency owes the hunters who pay its bills. When tough decisions need to be made, the scientific process should be permitted to run its course, and the likely outcome of wildlife laws should be anticipated before being implemented. Mississippians have long enjoyed liberal spring turkey hunting opportunities starting early in the bird’s breeding season. While this framework is not set-in-stone, traditions that run deep should not be cast aside lightly. The temptation to make changes without the proper scientific support should be resisted until backed by data.

To that end, the MDWFP has partnered with researchers from Mississippi State University’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture to investigate the anticipated effects of spring season alterations. This project will incorporate results from past wild turkey studies, alongside present-day brood data and harvest information from Game Check and the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey to determine the potential framework changes, if any, that will produce the most turkeys through time. Researchers will consider what would be expected to happen if the season is shortened, bag limit reduced, or the starting date delayed.

Lessons learned from this work will ensure season changes will be recommended with appropriate forethought and will ultimately be in the best, long-term interest of turkeys and turkey hunters.

Adam Butler is Turkey Program Coordinator for MDWFP