Where Have All the Turkeys Gone?

Are you seeing as many turkeys as you normally do?  How many gobblers have you been hearing on your spring turkey hunting trips?  If your answers to these questions is either “no” or “not very many” you must be wondering why.  Opinions are plentiful about the apparent decline in turkey numbers.  Some probably have some merit, others not so much.  One thing is certain, many states across the south are reporting reduced turkey populations.  The chart below shows the reproductive trends in Georgia for the last 35 years based on poult to hen ratios as measured by their wildlife biologists. Ratios above 2.0 indicate an average to good hatch, while <2.0 is not good.  Georgia numbers have generally been under 2 for the last 10+ years.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this statewide trend in turkey reproduction is not good.  Let’s explore some of the possible reasons for these declines.

turkey-chart

Prescribed Burning

The relationship between turkeys and prescribed burning has been researched for many years.  More recently, much of this research has focused on the impact of growing season burning (normally considered to be burns conducted after April 1) on turkey reproduction and habitat quality.  Research indicates that hens prefer to nest in areas that have been burned within the last 2 years.  Areas not burned within the last 2 years are generally avoided by hens.  Without question, prescribed burning is a very important tool in the turkey management tool box.  When those burns should be conducted is still up for debate.  One study found little difference in insect abundance between winter and spring burned areas, while another study found a sharp increase in the average number of insects the first year after a growing season burn.  Burns conducted before April 1 (i.e. cool season) have little impact on actual turkey nests, however growing season burns have been shown to destroy some nests.  Are the nest losses enough to impact the overall turkey population?  The research says no.  Studies in Mississippi and Georgia found that while a few nests were destroyed by growing season fires, the overall percentages were low and in many cases the hens re-nested further reducing the impact of these losses.  Both of these studies concluded that overall habitat improvement outweighed the loss of a few nests.

Regardless of your opinion on the impacts of growing season burning, it is hard to imagine that enough growing season burning is being done to impact turkey populations throughout the south.  A more likely cause for reduced turkey numbers is complete lack of prescribe burning on millions of acres in the southeast.  I travel a lot across the south, and with the exception of large quail plantations and most federal properties, regularly burned tracts are the exception rather than the norm.  The limited use of prescribed fire should be a major concern of southern turkey hunters.

Predators

Like burning, the impacts of predators on turkey populations has been well researched.  There is no doubt that predators impact turkey numbers but which predators are doing the most damage?  Historically, nest predators such as raccoons, opossums, and skunks have had a far greater impact on turkey reproduction than larger predators like bobcats and coyotes.  Coyotes have been receiving a lot of press lately about their impacts on wildlife populations.  I’m sure that coyotes will opportunistically eat turkey eggs, poults, and hens, but the most current research indicates that their impacts to population numbers is not nearly as great as the egg eaters mentioned above.

Should you practice predator control on your property?  The short answer is certainly “yes”, but don’t expect that removing a few coons and possums will put a turkey behind every bush.  Intensive predator control is expensive, labor intensive and research shows that while it can be successful, if habitat conditions are not suitable to accommodate the additional reproduction, then your efforts will not be rewarded.  Take home message: Get your habitat in shape before undertaking an intensive predator control project.

Hunting

It is a generally accepted premise that harvesting a limited numbers of males from a population does not impact overall population health.  This is the theory behind gobbler only spring turkey hunting.  Harvesting gobblers after hens have been bred has little impact to overall turkey numbers.  While that is true I would like to offer another point of view to this accepted principle.  If you agree that turkey reproduction has been trending down as indicated by the previous chart, then fewer turkeys, thus few gobblers, are being produced each year.    Turkey hunter numbers have been increasing.  Turkey hunting technology and the use of gadgets (decoys, blinds, etc.) has without a doubt increased hunter success.  Yet with this increased success, season bag limits have not changed in most southern states in many years.  Here is the rub: if fewer gobblers are being hatched and more gobblers are being killed, than it would stand to reason that after a few seasons the numbers of gobblers heard on a spring morning would be reduced.  Is this the reason hunters seem to be hearing less gobbling each spring?  Is it time to consider reducing bag limits, making jakes illegal, and/or shortening the season?

Discussion

There is certainly no silver bullet when it comes to increasing turkey populations.  No single event or issue is responsible for the decline, but more likely it is a combination of many things.  That is the way things work in nature.

If you are concerned about burning up turkey nests, schedule your burning earlier in the year.  Most hens begin to nest, at least in our part of the world, in late March to early April.  Incubation, on average, begins in mid-April.  Whether you schedule your burns early or prefer growing season burns, please burn – it is extremely important to burn!

I would encourage everyone to try trapping and predator hunting.  These are very interesting sports that require improving your outdoor skills and knowledge of the critter you pursue.  Coyote hunting is gaining popularity, especially by those concerned about deer fawn production.  Give it a try, you might like it!

Spring turkey hunting is a grand sport and one that I have enjoyed for years.  I fear that with the increased emphasis on killing turkeys, we are losing the essence of the sport.  Are we at a turkey hunting crossroads where consideration should be given to reducing bag limits?  I’m sure there is a wide divergence of opinion on this, but we should at least be having a conversation about it.

One positive to come from these downward trending numbers is that increased research dollars are being spent to further understand turkey ecology.  Turkeys were heavily researched in the 1970’s and 1980’s as turkey populations were being rebuilt and expanding.  Turkey research waned some in the 90’s but is picking up steam now.  While there are no simple answers, hopefully recent and upcoming research findings will put us back on the path to increasing turkey numbers.  We certainly hope so.

Reducing Risk Through Hunting Liability Insurance

The last thing many of us want to think about when going out on our lake to fish or entering the woods on a hunt is the potential that exists for accidents to occur.  Furthermore, even when we observe safety standards and practices, accidents do occur. While other forms of recreation generate far more accidents per activity (including fatalities), hunting and fishing could generate far more inherent liability than most people’s homeowner’s policies will cover.  Therefore, it is recommended that all hunting clubs and landowners take steps to reduce their exposure and protect their personal and/or family assets from these liability risks.

As more landowners began recognize the revenue potential from leasing their land for hunting purposes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, more private land began to be hunted and leased.  The first hunting liability policies began to be issued in the 1980’s as more people began to hunt on leased private lands (thereby increasing the landowner’s liability).  In some instances, landowners and hunting club members attempt to reduce their liability exposure by having their lessees/other members sign liability waivers.  However, the liability coverage afforded by these waivers is limited and should always be combined with a hunting liability policy.

What does it cover?

The three highest risk activities associated with hunting are treestands, ATV use, firearms.  Recent estimates from the International Hunters Education Association estimate the most common type of hunting-related accidents are related to falls (www.ihea.com).  ATV accidents generally account for the second-most injuries associated with hunting club activities.  Only about 1,000 firearm-related hunting club accidents occur annually and approximately 10% of those are fatal.  Most of these firearm accidents occur from the failure of the shooter to identify the target.

Generally, all policies cover exposure for the insured parties on these high risk activities.  Standard policies, recommended by many insurance agents, provide $1 million per occurrence general liability coverage and $2 million general aggregate coverage, with minimal or no deductible.  Additional coverage often includes:

  • $100,000 damage or fire legal liability;
  • $5,000 medical supplement;
  • Member-to-Member Coverage;
  • Premises Based Coverage; and
  • Guest Liability Coverage.

Policies may also often cover some limited watercraft use, hunting dogs, electronics, cell phones, and electronics.  Finally, it is important to understand all exclusions that may apply on each specific policy.  For instance, most policies exclude the operation of commercial hunting operations and guide services.  Some policies fire liability coverage may only cover timber damage, while other policies would cover cabins and houses.  Other policies may provide strict definitions on the coverage afforded to ATV use for “hunting activities.”

How much does it cost?

Insurance premiums for hunting liability insurance have decreased dramatically since their peak in the early 1990’s.  These annual premiums for hunting liability insurance are commonly based on the acreage associated with the club.  A general rule, regardless of issuing company, annual premiums are approximately 10 to 15 cents per acre for land and clubs over 1,000 acres.  Smaller clubs and lands under 1,000 acres generally have a set minimum fee of $200 to $300.  Hunting clubs on industrial forestland generally enjoy even more reduced rates, since the landowner obtains the policy across the entire landbase and passes those savings along to the clubs.

Landowners may require the hunting clubs on their property to obtain, maintain, and provide proof of hunting liability insurance as a condition of the lease.  The landowner may also require the hunting club to list the landowner “additional insured” on the policy to protect them from the activities of the club.  If the landowner purchases the policy, the inverse is true.  The landowner can require a list of all hunting club members from the club to list as “additional insured” on the policy.  This option is appealing to many landowners because they can insure a policy is written and maintained for the property, add additional family and friends on the policy as “additional insured”, and maintain the policy in the absence of a hunting club.  In this landowner-held policy option, the cost of these premiums can be passed along to the hunting within the per acre price of the lease.

Southern Forestry Consultants and Wiregrass Ecological Associates offer wildlife, fisheries, and land management services to meet the needs of your forest, pond, or hunting club.  We have experience and expertise leasing properties for landowners and managing leases of all sizes across the southeast.  If you have any questions about these services or the liability associated with your land, lessees, or hunting club, call Austin at 229.246.9651.

NOTE: Similar to all other insurance policies, you should consult your insurance agent on the levels of coverage and options available to protect the level of exposure unique to your club and land.  These options may differ between properties and states, as the listing of admitted vs. non-admitted carriers may change.  Additional information regarding the financial-strength and issuer credit ratings of each insurance company (i.e., their ability to pay your potential claim) can be found through the US-based rating agency, A.M. Best (www.ambest.com).