Alabama Turkey Season 2020: Thoughts from the Wild turkey Committee
Last month I gave everyone my opinion of the perceived turkey decline in Alabama and what I thought was needed. This month, I’ve asked our upland game bird coordinator, Steven Mitchell, to share the WFF turkey committee’s opinions. The Alabama turkey season 2020 will long be remembered as the Covid-19 season. Stay-at-home orders, closed businesses, canceled events, and travel restrictions forced many people to forgo normal plans and search for other activities as a way to follow rules and distance themselves from others.
Fortunately, there is no better place for social distancing than the great outdoors, and Alabama has a wealth of outdoor opportunities. Many people took full advantage of their unplanned extra time through hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor activities. But for many folks I know, springtime in Alabama means turkey hunting, and they were more than happy to take advantage of the extra time Covid-19 allowed them to social distance in the turkey woods.
Although we encouraged folks to social distance in the outdoors, we had concerns as to how the pandemic would affect overall turkey hunter numbers and subsequent harvest in Alabama. Our concerns centered around hunters having a lot more time to hunt. Would the increase in hunting time result in significant gobbler harvest compared to past seasons? Game Check and post-season survey numbers answered our questions. There was a 54% increase in turkey harvest reported through Game Check during the 2020 season compared to the 2019 season. Gobbler harvest also increased with 16,851 reported in 2020 compared to the 10,948 Game Checked in 2019. However, in 2020 there was also a 47% increase in the number of unique hunter IDs that Game Checked birds in 2020 compared to the 2019 season. Additionally, the harvest distribution (i.e., bag per hunter) in 2020 remained consistent with 2019. In both years, approximately 75% of hunters harvested 3 birds or less, and only 25% of our hunters harvested more than 3 birds.
This data collected through Game Check indicates the harvest increase was likely due to an increase in the number of hunters and/or increased compliance with Game Check rather than an increase in harvest success per hunter due to increased effort. In other words, it wasn’t just our same year-to-year turkey hunters who killed more turkeys; other hunters who normally don’t turkey hunt or don’t have the time were able to hunt and contributed to the increased numbers. Lending support to our Game Check numbers and resulting assessment, our annual post-season harvest survey also showed an increase in hunter numbers, estimating 59,946 hunters harvested approximately 35,000 male turkeys in the 2020 season. That is a 24% increase in hunter numbers and 36% increase in harvest compared to 2019 estimates.
The significant harvest increase in 2020 continues to heighten our concern with declining trends in population productivity and harvest numbers. Analysis of trends in turkey harvest data over the last 10 years indicate a 3% decline in harvest numbers but less than a 1% decline in the estimated number of turkey hunters, concluding that approximately 2% of harvest decline is not likely attributed to a loss in hunter numbers. Comparably, data from the statewide brood survey conducted annually since 2010, also continues to reflect a declining trend in poult productivity. Trend analysis of productivity over the last ten years indicates a two percent (2%) decline in poults per hen (pph) and a three percent (3%) decline in brood size (poults per hen with poults).
Results from the 2020 statewide wild turkey brood survey indicated the gradual decline in productivity continues, as averages decreased to 1.6 poults per hen (pph) and 3.09 brood size from the 2019 average of 1.8 pph and 3.2 brood size. Harvest index to population trends and productivity measurements are both showing a ten-year decline in growth rates, substantiating warranted concern for the persistence of a sustainable wild turkey population in Alabama under our current season framework.
Wild turkeys are the only gamebird hunted almost exclusively during their spring breeding season. The statewide average for peak nest initiation in Alabama is the second week in April, and most of the state’s spring turkey hunting season opens nearly a month prior to this peak. Every season, over 43% of our total season harvest occurs before April 1, well before peak nest initiation. Ongoing research suggests moving the season opening toward peak nest initiation date to maximize the potential for gobblers to breed with hens prior to harvest. Maximizing opportunities for breeding is extremely important, particularly when populations are declining.
More ongoing research in the southeast is investigating the impact of high gobbler harvest in the early part of turkey seasons and the resulting effect on breeding and reproduction. Much of this research suggests too many gobblers are being harvested before females are bred and begin initiating nests (laying eggs), thereby negatively influencing reproduction. Recent research by Auburn University also indicates low hunting pressure and disturbance during peak breeding time contribute to increased survival and recruitment.
Given the reported harvest numbers in 2020, Alabama hunters had a great turkey season. Covid-19 definitely played a part by allowing more hunters more time to hunt. However, with any great success there often comes sacrifice or consequences. Hopefully, the 2020 increase in harvest will not precipitate the already declining statewide turkey population causing long-term negative effects. However, current research suggests high percentages of gobbler harvest before hens are bred may be a limiting factor to turkey population growth.
We know a large percentage of gobblers are harvested early each season during peak breeding time in Alabama way before peak nest initiation, and productivity declines have been observed in our surveys for a decade. Given that information, a high harvest season from a turkey population already in decline cannot be perceived as positive in any way. The declining population data trends and current Alabama research suggest we need to make changes before turkey populations drop to levels that culminate in drastic reductions in hunting opportunity, or worse. We must fall in line with what the science is telling us and structure season framework and bag limits that benefit our wild turkey resource to ensure healthy populations prevail for future generations to enjoy. Too much is at stake to do less.