No one likes reduced hunting opportunities, but for the sake of the wild turkey, the time has come and the Pennsylvania Game Commission board of game commissioners has proposed changes to reduce fall turkey hunting in the majority of the state’s 21 wildlife management units.
Included are WMUs 4C and 4E, which may be among those to have a one-week reduction or elimination of the three-day Thanksgiving season. Currently, WMU 4C has a three-week season, WMU 4E has a two-week season and both have the Thanksgiving season.
According to the PA Wild Turkey Management Plan 2018-2027 prepared by PGC turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena, 15 WMUs have failed to meet spring harvest goals, signaling a drop in bird numbers in these areas. Contributing to the decline are changing weather patterns, increased predator populations, disease, habitat loss and fall hunter harvest — the last of which being the easiest to control.
This has prompted the PGC to make some tough decisions in an effort to boost turkey numbers across the state. Primarily, it is focusing on protecting more hens, since it is the egg-laying, brood-rearing females that ultimately drive the future of the population.
“When harvesting hens in the fall, it’s not just taking one hen out of the population it is an exponential harvest,” Casalena said. “You’re also taking out her three young that she would have had with her the following year.
“We’ve seen in the past that by reducing the season length in certain WMUs, populations can recover over the next few years, as long as you’re lucky enough to get good weather and maintain enough stable, brood-rearing habitat. The Thanksgiving portion of the season, while very popular among hunters, essentially equals one week of the season, typically comprising 20 percent of the overall fall harvest in just three days.
“Our data shows that 70 percent of fall turkey hunters use shotguns and take just under 60 percent of the fall harvest,” Casalena said. “In contrast, only 14 percent of hunters use rifles but make up 33 percent of the overall harvest.”
Twelve other states allow rifles for fall turkey hunting, and only Florida limits the fall harvest to bearded-only birds. Based on the fact that Pennsylvania has by far more turkey hunters than any other state in the nation, Casalena found the move appropriate for protecting the population.
Casalena said Pennsylvania has more turkey hunters — 200,000 in the fall, 226,700 in the spring — than it has turkeys, just less than 200,000. For that reason it’s important to do what is necessary to preserve the future of the resource.
In a state that has seen numbers decline in more than two-thirds of its WMUs in recent years, it might seem logical to eliminate the second spring gobbler tag, since some might view one hunter taking two birds in the same spring as unnecessary overharvest. From 2014-2016, second bird harvest averaged 3,787 gobblers (8 percent of the overall spring harvest).
Considering those hunters first shot 3,787 birds before going on to fill their second tag means 3,787 of the state’s 226,700 spring turkey hunters — approximately 1.67 percent — accounted for 16 percent of the total spring harvest, but Casalena didn’t seem overly concerned. She said the spring season does not impact the turkey population because the majority of the males harvested are taken after peak breeding and hens are already incubating eggs.
“We have a carefully timed season that intentionally finds middle ground between peak gobbling and a safe nesting period, and hunters shooting 3-year-old gobblers are basically getting the last good year of that turkey,” Casalena said. “It’s compensatory mortality, since most would’ve died anyway, but if hunters pass on jakes, though, there’s a good likelihood those birds will remain in the population as adults next year.”
On average, the harvest rate for an adult male is 38 percent and the harvest rate for jakes is 27 percent. Adult survival rate is 41 percent and jakes have a 65 percent survival rate, meaning jakes can fill the place of excess toms removed after breeding each year with minimal impact to the population.
Even so, hunters still managed to amass an average annual harvest of 38,641 bearded birds in the spring and 17,602 mixed-gender fall turkeys over a 10-year period. While a greater number of birds get taken each spring than fall, the fall harvest is what really matters.
Frantz is board chairman of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org