Two turkey hunters sitting under a tree.  Photo by Kelly Adams

Photo by Kelly Adams/ODWC 

Spring turkey hunting season won’t be the same in 2022 as in recent years. New season dates and a new bag limit are in place across Oklahoma, changes made this past summer after Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife biologists expressed concerns about declining numbers of wild turkeys in the state. 

Hunters planning to pursue any of the three subspecies of wild turkeys that can be found in Oklahoma are reminded of these new regulations: 

  • The spring turkey season dates are April 16 to May 16, statewide. 
  • The spring turkey season bag limit is one tom turkey per hunter. A tom is defined as any bearded turkey. 
  • The youth spring turkey season will be the Saturday and Sunday before April 16. A turkey taken during youth spring turkey season counts toward the regular season limit of one turkey per hunter.

As the days get warmer, many sportsmen and sportswomen embrace the opportunity to harvest a large game bird during a time when the budding landscape and mild conditions make it a prime time to enjoy outdoor pursuits. 

Spring turkey hunting is a popular pursuit for hunters in Oklahoma and across the country; in fact, the wild turkey is second only to deer as America’s most-hunted game. In 2021, an estimated 60,000 hunters harvested about 19,000 wild turkeys during Oklahoma’s spring seasons. The banner year for turkey hunting in the Sooner State was 2003, when an estimated 75,000 hunters took about 42,000 birds. 

But it wasn’t always this way.

Current Wild Turkey Distribution

Wild turkey in a field.  Photo by Greg Patterson/RPS 2015
Greg Patterson/RPS 2015

Photo by Greg Patterson/RPS 2015 

CONSERVATION "POSTER CHILD"

Wild turkey populations were robust in western Oklahoma before the first land run in 1889 began opening large areas to settlement. In the ensuing decades, habitat losses and subsistence hunting decimated the wild turkey population. Some estimates put the total number of wild turkeys at 30,000 birds at the beginning of the last century — for the entire continent! 

By 1930, most Oklahomans would say there were no wild turkeys to be found here. 

Biologists realized that even where suitable habitat remained, the birds were totally absent from the central and western portions of the state, and the statewide population was probably less than 1,000 birds. 

In 1948, the Wildlife Department embarked on an ambitious program to re-establish the wild turkey to its former range. Southwest Region Wildlife Supervisor Rod Smith said turkey restoration really ramped up throughout the 1960s. The trap-and-transplant efforts proved highly successful, not only in Oklahoma but across America. By the early 1970’s, America’s population of wild turkeys was about 1.5 million. 

“By the ‘80s, we were getting real close to completing restoration,” Smith said. “For the last 20, 25 years, we have not trapped turkeys and relocated them.” 

Nationally, the wild turkey was becoming a very worthy “poster child” for the wildlife conservation community. Populations continued healthy growth, and by 2010 an estimated 6.7 million wild turkeys were on the landscape. 

Oklahoma saw similar gains. “Numbers increased really rapidly from 2000 to 2006; they really spiked,” said Smith, the Department’s Rio Grande wild turkey project coordinator. In 2016, the estimated Oklahoma turkey population was just under 100,000. Today, the estimate is 70,000 birds statewide, a drop of about 30 percent in six years. 


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.

Turkey winter flock surveys chart by region.

WHAT'S GOING ON?

As 2019’s downward trend in bird numbers continued, the plight of the wild turkey in Oklahoma quickly became a priority for the Wildlife Department. It was time to study what was causing the decline. “This was a high priority for the Wildlife Division” in regards to research, Smith said. 

Research Supervisor Kurt Kuklinski said the Department is emphasizing how important it is to learn about the wild turkey’s status by embarking on a five-year research project. “Just the fact that we’re willing to put almost $2 million on the line for a five-year project, that shows at the administrative level that this was important.” 

The ambitious research project, which kicked off Jan. 1, 2022, in the Southeast Region, is being conducted with teams from Oklahoma State University and Texas A&M University-Kingsville, funded by the Wildlife Department and the federal Wildlife Restoration Program. It is a three-pronged approach looking at wild turkey life cycles in the Southeast Region and Southwest Region, and a study of wild turkey genetics statewide. 

Stated research objectives are to: 

Evaluate nesting ecology of wild turkey, including nest initiation rates, clutch size, nest success, nest site characteristics, and habitat selection of nesting wild turkey at two sites in southeastern and southwestern Oklahoma. 

  • Evaluate brood ecology of wild turkey by monitoring poult survival and habitat selection for wild turkey broods. 
  • Determine seasonal movement and habitat selection of wild turkey. 
  • Determine survival of wild turkeys for breeding and nonbreeding hens based on VHF data, and leg bands will be used to estimate harvest rates for male turkeys. 
  • Determine how fragmentation and landscape features influence gene flow and genetic diversity among turkey populations. 
  • Determine if any populations are isolated or have low genetic diversity. 
  • Determine patterns of hybridization and introgression between genetic stocks founded by the Rio Grande and Eastern wild turkey subspecies. 
  • Provide best management practices for wild turkey management and incorporate research findings into public outreach and extension programs.

Researchers said they expect the project to define areas of the state where conservation and management of wild turkeys should be priorities. Data will shed light on turkey nesting success, poult survival, habitat needs, and predation threats. 

Suttles said relatively little research exists on turkeys in Oklahoma, and he’s especially anticipating what the project will reveal about poult behavior and survivability. Smith said he’s hopeful the project can shed light on how various weather affects turkey populations. 

In the end, this major research project will help provide a better understanding into the cause of the current wild turkey population decline, and will add to the collective science and best management practices for wild turkey management in Oklahoma and across the nation.


MORE ON THE RESEARCH

The Wildlife Department is confident that its strong relationship with the OSU research team will yield important data and meaningful results. Biologists are ready to use the results and recommendations from this research effort to improve turkey numbers through enhanced land management practices, turkey habitat improvements, and possibly adaptive regulatory strategies. Hunters will be the primary beneficiaries of this collaborative effort, and rightly so given that the project is funded through the Wildlife Restoration Program, supported by hunters purchasing licenses and hunting equipment.

This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of "Outdoor Oklahoma" magazine, available for just $10 per year. To subscribe, click here.

 

Journal Tags