Spring Turkey Harvest Tops 46,000

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Cool, wet, windy weather and below-average reproduction in recent years combined to produce the smallest spring turkey harvest since 1997.

JEFFERSON CITY-Hunters checked 43,416 turkeys during Missouri’s three-week spring turkey season, falling slightly short of predictions for the harvest.

Top counties in the 2008 spring turkey season were Franklin, with 838 turkeys checked, Texas County with 801 and Osage County with 696.

The 2,898 turkeys checked during the Youth Spring Turkey Season bring the 2008 spring turkey harvest to 46,314. That is 2,148 fewer than last year, a decrease of 4.4 percent.

Near-perfect weather allowed hunters to check approximately 1,000 more birds on opening day this year than they did in 2007. By the end of the first week, however, they had fallen behind last year’s pace by about 460. They lost another 350 or so during the second week. The third week’s deficit topped 700, closing the season more than 1,500 behind last year’s total. This year’s harvest is the 11th largest on record and the smallest since 1997.

Before the season started, Resource Scientist Tom Dailey predicted a harvest approximately the same as last year’s. Dailey, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s top turkey biologist, attributed the lower-than-expected harvest to two factors.

“We started this season with fewer birds than last year,” said Dailey. “Turkey nesting success in 2007 was the second-worst since we began keeping records in 1960, but I was optimistic that the weather would be more favorable for hunting this year, and that would boost the harvest a little.”

Weather is a perennial wild card in determining turkey harvest. Warm, calm weather makes turkey behavior more predictable and encourages hunters to spend time outside. Cold, rainy, windy weather makes the big birds skittish and makes hunters more likely to sleep in.

“The severe freeze that hit Missouri just before the season opened last year really put a damper on things,” said Dailey. “With average weather, hunters could have taken as many birds this year as they did in 2007, but we didn’t get average weather.”

Below-normal temperatures and frequent rain, often accompanied by violent weather, kept a lid on this year’s turkey harvest. The southern half of the state was particularly hard-hit. Parts of southeastern Missouri had received more than 12 inches above average rainfall by early May. Tornadoes ripped through southwestern Missouri during the final weekend of turkey season, and strong winds buffeted the rest of the state on the eve of the turkey season closer.

Dailey also noted a decrease in the number of juvenile male turkeys, commonly called “jakes,” in this year’s harvest. Young birds made up just 17 percent of this year’s spring turkey harvest, compared to 22 percent in recent years.

“This goes along with what was observed in the field last year,” said Dailey. “The late freeze really hurt turkey nesting, and we saw that in this year’s harvest statistics. The 5 percent of the harvest that we lost on account of having fewer jakes this year would have put us just about where we were last year.”

He said he is pleased that hunters were able to harvest as many turkeys as they did.

“The fact that we still harvested 46,000 birds tells you something about how many turkeys we still have in Missouri. My hope now is that we will get back to more normal weather so the remaining birds can bring off a good crop of young turkeys.”

Another factor not in turkeys’ favor is the conversion of grasslands to croplands.

“Nesting and brood-rearing habitat could be reduced this year as the high prices of corn, soybeans and wheat are tempting farmers to put pastures, Conservation Reserve Program fields and other grasslands into crop production,” said Dailey. “A reduction in nesting and brood-rearing cover could reduce production of all of our ground-nesting birds, including turkeys, quail, ring-necked pheasants and songbirds.”

He said an alternative to converting entire fields to crops is enrolling existing cropland in CP38 or CP33, U.S. Department of Agriculture cropland buffer programs. These practices allow farmers to crop the best parts of fields while maintaining wildlife habitat on the margins, where yields may be lower.

Dailey said Missouri’s turkey nesting prospects are not very bright because of the late, cool spring. Late springs sometimes translate into reduced nesting success. This year’s cooler-than-normal spring and late growth of vegetation are not in turkeys’ favor.

The Conservation Department recorded three firearms-related hunting accidents – all nonfatal – during the spring turkey season. That is one more than last year and well below the long-term average.

-Jim Low-