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Declining turkey population not exclusive to W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians aren't the only ones seeing their turkey hunting decline.

The trend, as it turns out, extends far beyond the Mountain State's borders. Wildlife officials in southeastern, mid-Atlantic and northeastern states are seeing a slow but steady decline in wild turkey abundance.

"It's been going on for at least the last 10 years," said Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "And it has enough people concerned that the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has resolved to try to find out why it's going on."

The association's member agencies, including West Virginia, are reassessing the way they manage turkeys.

"They're taking a look at their turkey-hunting regulations, and they're taking a look at the way they manage their flocks," Taylor said. "Several factors could be contributing to the decline. Habitat loss, season lengths, hunting pressure, generous bag limits and early opening dates are some of the potential causes being looked into."

Agency representatives have asked University of Georgia biologist Michael Chamberlain to find the answers to some basic questions.

"The first thing we want him to do is figure out the extent of the decline," Taylor said. "We want him to determine if turkeys' productivity has decreased. If reproduction has suffered, we want to know why."

The answers, Taylor added, won't be easy to find. "There's no simple answer to this. All the simple answers were arrived at years ago. We've got the toughies now."

One of the first things agency heads plan to look at - if they can agree on a way to do it - is whether turkeys are reproducing effectively.

"For us to know whether our reproduction data are valid, we have to have a uniform, consistent way of making brood reports," Taylor said. "Problem is, every agency has its own way of doing things. We're going to survey folks as to what is feasible for agencies.

"Brood reporting is important because turkeys aren't deer - they don't have young every year. Some years, there's poor reproduction.

"Here in West Virginia, our turkey population is heavily vested in Mother Nature. If she gives you a cold, rainy brood time, you get bad reproduction. Follow that with a poor mast crop, and you're hurting even worse."

Taylor said habitat loss is almost a given throughout the wild turkey's range.

"We're losing land to development," he explained. "We'll probably never again have the turkey population we had in the 1990s because there simply aren't as many acres of forestland as there used to be."

The group also plans to look into its member states' bag limits and season starting dates to see if those are affecting turkey numbers.

"A lot of states fell into the trap of feeling that turkeys were doing great, and there was nothing we could do to hurt [populations], so they decided to hunt the snot out of them," Taylor said. "In South Carolina, for instance, the bag limit is five turkeys. We need to figure out if we're over-hunting our birds."

West Virginia often takes flak from hunters who believe wildlife officials start the spring season later than most southeastern states. Taylor said agency heads in those other states are beginning to wonder whether they're opening their seasons too soon.

"There's a draft resolution from the Southeastern Wild Turkey Working Group, and the gist of it is to look at opening days for spring turkey seasons," he said.

"Suffice it to say that a group of turkey biologists throughout the Southeast are looking at whether they are opening their seasons too early. The research [West Virginia] and Virginia did was definitive. If you open the season, the illegal loss of hens increases because they're not sitting on eggs. In Virginia, where the season opens sooner, the problem is worse."

Other potential areas of study are the effects of feeding corn to turkeys, and the effect coyotes might be having on turkey populations.

Taylor said the jury is still out on the corn question, but the coyote question has pretty much been answered.

"We want to know if corn is causing disease, if it's increasing predation, and if it's changing turkeys' feeding habits," he explained. "As for the coyotes, studies done in South Carolina and here in West Virginia show that coyotes seldom eat turkeys or turkey eggs. They wreak havoc on deer and fawns, but not turkeys."

Taylor said finding the answers to so many questions will take time.

"We don't have a definitive timeline to finish this study," he said. "The questions are difficult, and the answers won't be easy to find."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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