A chart of the Arkansas wild turkey population resembles a graphic of the nation’s economic conditions — down, down, down.
A federal bailout of the turkeys would be nice, of course, but that’s not possible. Instead, pleas for better weather may be in order.
This turkey downslide has been going on for some years now — nearly a decade. And it is not just in Arkansas. Other southeastern states reported similar situations in a gathering of turkey biologists nearly a year ago. States to the north are reporting turkey declines as well.
Mike Widner of Conway is now retired as the turkey program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He hosted that meeting of turkey biologists and said, "There really wasn’t a consensus on what was causing the decline in turkeys. Most of the people at the meeting said weather during nesting and brood periods was a factor."
You only have to look back a few months to get this point. Arkansas had horrendous weather over much of the state last March and April, extending well into May. This is when turkeys lay eggs, incubate them, then watch over the babies born.
Extensive flooding wiped out untold numbers of turkey nests, especially in northeast Arkansas and all along the Mississippi River.
As a result, the annual poults to hen survey by AGFC biologists resulted in an average of 1.1 poult (baby turkey) to each hen — near an all-time low for the state. The previous year, the ratio was 1.4.
A break-even ratio, meaning reproduction enough to maintain populations, is around 1.76, Widner said. But Arkansas’ long-term poult to hen ratio is about 3. This includes the boom years of the 1990s when turkey numbers climbed steadily.
A participant in that gathering of turkey biologists last year was James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Kennamer is regarded as the preeminent turkey specialist in the nation.
He told the group that the world is changing with more urbanization and more suburban development. This is at the expense of wildlife habitat, and turkeys are less adaptable to living close to humans than some other species, deer in particular.
When a new highway is built, much wildlife habitat is lost.
But weather has been unusual over much of the nation as well as in Arkansas for several years. Global warming? Not necessarily. An example is Iowa, where five straight years of unusually heavy snow have reduced populations of pheasants, turkeys and quail.
At that gathering of turkey biologists, South Carolina representatives brought up coyotes, which have recently increased considerably in that state. Other states, including Arkansas, replied that turkeys have grown in numbers previously despite the increase in numbers of coyotes.
Turkey eggs in nests often fall prey to a number of predators — raccoons and skunks especially. Feral hogs probably account for some loss, and several southeastern states have had serious hog problems longer than Arkansas.
"Ground nesters (birds) have adapted to normal weather conditions. Turkeys will bounce back if the habitat is there," Widner said.
An example in Arkansas is Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area near the Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas.
This 19,949-acre facility has been intensively managed for more than 25 years. Elk have thrived to the point Gene Rush is the elk hunting hot spot of the region. Deer, bear and turkey numbers have also increased.
A recent addition along Richland Creek has resulted in quick use by all of these species on land grazed by cattle just three years ago.
The Game and Fish Commission will meet Nov. 17 in Little Rock, and setting of the spring 2012 turkey hunting season is on the agenda.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.