By Brad Allen
To all my wild turkey hunting and watching friends out there I’d like you to know that the Department’s wild turkey management program is right on track. First, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) spearheaded restoration activities back in the 1970s with the support of many individuals associated with the National Wild Turkey Federation. That support continues today as we attempt to balance abundant wild turkey populations (recently estimated to be approximately 65,000 birds) with a responsible science-based management plan. To get here we have the support of our agency’s senior management helping us fund the research and address the annual Legislative actions when good-intentioned individuals push potential law changes for significant hunt plan adjustments like eliminating the wild turkey hunting permit, removing the requirement to register a harvested turkey, and dramatically increasing bag limits. I will say that much of the pressure we experienced over the years has moved the needle to a less conservative, hunt plan. My goal all along has been to maintain one of the best spring wild turkey hunts in the country. I receive this feedback frequently from individuals who have hunted in numerous other states. “If it aint broke, don’t fix it”. Many years ago I argued to maintain the noon time hunting day closure to protect nesting hens. I lost that battle and today I will admit that I was wrong. All day hunting has been well received, a small percentage of birds are taken in the afternoon, and the population continues to grow. Perhaps faster than we might have suggested we have opened up areas to hunting and increased bag limits on several occasions. These changes have increased hunting opportunity the wild turkey population has not suffered. Most importantly in 2017, the Maine legislature granted IFW the authority over season setting and harvests of wild turkeys. So today I repeat, we got this.
We are now positioned to make sound science-based wild turkey management decisions into the future. IFW game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan is working closely with researchers at the University of Maine investigating the size and important biological processes supporting a healthy wild turkey population. Their major objectives are to develop tools for wild turkey population and harvest estimation, assess population parameters (survival and nest ecology studies) under varying landscape conditions and evaluate the prevalence of wild turkey diseases in Maine. The researchers just released their year-two findings, I’ll summarize this below.
Using various turkey capture techniques and with the help of graduate students, wildlife technicians and IFW regional biologists, they captured and banded 124 wild turkeys in 2018 and 395 in 2019. The researchers fitted 155 of the female turkeys with radio transmitters to monitoring movements and nesting. Blood samples were collected to investigate wild turkey diseases. Some quick results show that the average date of nest initiation was May 6, lending support to wildlife managers that the spring hunting season is timed appropriately. The odds that a hen would successfully incubate the average clutch of 11 eggs was 26 percent, indicating that most turkey nests fail but the number is similar to that of other ground nesting gamebirds. The researchers are currently in year three of their investigation and future reports will contain additional date, updated analyses, and additional conclusions to inform wild turkey management in Maine.
Hunters reporting taking banded birds during the past two spring hunting seasons allowed the researchers to calculate harvest rates and estimate the size of the spring population of male turkeys. The results indicate an adult male (longbeard) harvest rate of 0.24 compared to a harvest rate of 0.10 for juvenile male turkeys. This 0.24 harvest rate suggests that one out of every four (approximately 25%) longbeards are shot during the spring hunting season. And ten percent for jakes. Using their harvest rates and the total harvest numbers provided through the mandatory registration process, they estimated Maine’s total male turkey population to be 32,700 in the spring of 2018 and 33,600 prior to the 2019 season. It’s reasonable to assume there are as many female wild turkeys on the landscape as males, so the male population estimate can be doubled to get a total wild turkey population estimate of about 65,000 birds. This is an impressive number when you think that this 2019 population is the result of just 111 birds brought to Maine from Vermont and Connecticut to establish this population. It’s imperative that I add that this research is dependent on maintaining our current system of requiring hunters to tag turkeys at registration stations. An accurate estimate of the harvest is essential to our management program. Further, it’s also imperative that hunters report all the banded turkeys they shoot.
Some readers may be interested in the results of last fall’s hunting season. You may remember that the season was extended to include the last two weeks in September to the regular season. IFW added a youth day on the Saturday before this extended season, allowed .410 shotguns when used with Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) and increased the bag limit from 2 to 5 turkeys in 9 Wildlife Management Districts, from 1 to 3 in 1 Wildlife Management District. Despite these liberalizations, the total harvest of 1,980 was low compared to 2018 but remained on par with the seven-year average of about 2,000 fall turkeys. This lower harvest was attributed to the influence of abundant natural foods (acorns and beechnuts) on fall hunting success and harvests. Also of interest was that 29 hunters managed to shoot and tag the maximum limit of 5 birds last fall.
The spring 2020 hunting season will be here before you know it (May 4). Current populations remain abundant and because 2018 was a good production year for turkeys in Maine, I predict a strong cohort of two-year-old longbeards on the landscape. I also think it is safe to assume that this mild and warmer than usual winter has been kind to Maine’s wintering wildlife, including wild turkeys. Good luck hunting and be safe this spring.
Brad Allen is a wildlife biologist with MDIF&W. He is also an avid bird hunter and gun dog man. He would be pleased to receive feedback on his articles. E-mail him at [email protected]