REVERSAL OF FORTUNES
Southeast Region Wildlife Supervisor Eric Suttles, who serves as the Department’s eastern wild turkey project coordinator, said it was decades ago when biologists noted declines in eastern turkey populations. To address the issue, the Department established different season dates and bag limits for wild turkey hunting in the Southeast Region.
Suttles said the effect of those changes has been to stabilize the eastern turkey population. He said surveys have shown modest ups and downs in the Northeast and Southeast regions over the past decade.
“We are in better shape than the western part of the state,” he said.
Smith tells a different story about western Oklahoma. “The drought in 2011 and 2012 hit and really started affecting turkey numbers. They didn’t really rebound after that. In the last three to four years, numbers have gone down dramatically.”
The declines are being seen nationwide, not just in Oklahoma. Nationally, biologists say the turkey population has dropped to about 6 million birds, which is down about 15 percent from the historic high seen around 2010. And many states are in the same situation, trying to figure out what is driving the decline in wild turkey numbers.
In Oklahoma, wild turkey populations have declined over the past three years in all five regions where surveys are conducted. Those three-year declines range from a 2.7 percent in the Northeast Region to a whopping 67.1 percent in the Southwest Region.
The biologists decided a year and a half ago that something needed to be done. The first goal is to immediately address the decline. The next goal is to conduct scientific research to learn what is causing the decline and what can be done long-term to best manage wild turkey populations.
The quickest way to effect change is to alter the hunting regulations. So, proposals were brought forth to alter season dates and bag limits. An opinion survey of turkey hunters generated more than 5,200 comments — an all-time high for hunter input on a proposed change in regulations. Interestingly, hunters supported reducing the spring bag limit to two toms as proposed by the Wildlife Department, but nearly 30 percent offered an unsolicited suggestion to reduce the bag limit to one tom.
Another interesting outcome from the public survey was that many respondents said using bait to attract turkeys was a problem, citing reasons including increased predation and possible aflatoxin poisoning.
ODWC Assistant Director Wade Free said the tremendous response from hunters to the survey was very valuable to biologists, Wildlife Commissioners and staff. “We were impressed with the public's input, which we consider an important part in making the best wildlife management decisions.”
In June 2021, Suttles and Smith presented management data, survey results and regulation change proposals to the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission, which ultimately approved the new regulations in a 5-2 vote.
Suttles said he takes pride in the fact that Commissioners challenged the biologists on behalf of Oklahoma’s hunters, and that biologists were able to respond with solid data to support the proposals. He believes the new regulations not only benefit the resource but also are simpler for hunters to understand. He also said the later season opener for most of the state is much better biologically for turkeys to increase in number.
However, Smith cautioned that nobody should expect the new hunting rules to have a major effect right away. He said any benefits will likely take several years to show up in the data.