How low can they go?

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 4/20/22

You have no idea how it hurts an old time outdoorsman like me to roam the Ozarks and witness what is happening to the wild turkey. What hurts most is to know it is likely to be this way for years and …

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How low can they go?

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You have no idea how it hurts an old time outdoorsman like me to roam the Ozarks and witness what is happening to the wild turkey. What hurts most is to know it is likely to be this way for years and years, maybe for good, like what happened to the bobwhite quail. The reasons for the decline of the wild turkey are many, but the situation we create with too much hunting is a big part of it. They have begun, over the decades to breed later and later in the spring, and the harvest of gobblers before they ever mate, is significant. Many southern states have begun to recognize that problem… too many toms being killed too early in the spring, by a great increase in hunters. And those states, at least eight of them, are trying to ease the hunting pressure and the harvest of spring gobblers.

Here is what I believe should be done to bring back numbers…

1. Have a few years of only 1 gobbler per hunter. 

2. Set back season opener ten days. 

3. End fall hunting for a time. 

4. Allow hunting for only 9 days, which includes two weekends.

5. End the greatest poaching tool of all by abolishing the ‘youth season’ or moving it to a weekend after the regular season. No one has any idea what is happening there, with kids being used to allow adults to kill one more gobbler, and then a certain number of kids being taught to lie about it. Youth season means hunting from blinds where turkeys are baited for weeks. There is no single thing that could be done to help wild turkey numbers than abolishing that. The result is huge numbers of dead gobblers before they ever mate with a hen. BUT… the result is lots more revenue for the MDC and any state conservation department that allows it.

Those moves would immediately allow more successful breeding by allowing toms to mate with hens over a longer period, before they are killed. I have talked to older, more knowledgeable turkey hunters who have hunted and studied the wild turkey for 30 or 40 years, and all agree with me on this. But in Missouri and Arkansas, and some other states, certain ineptness amongst young biologists ensures that no moves will be made. With the Missouri Department of Conservation that money from turkey tag sales is the first and foremost concern.

I think there has always been first and foremost a real decline in the knowledge of the wild turkey over the last 20 years. I am convinced that is a critical thing today. I was there in the fifties and sixties when the Missouri Conservation Commission restocked wild turkey in the Ozarks. It was not the same agency as today’s “Department of Conservation.” The biologists and workers involved back then were all out there working cannon nets to trap turkeys and releasing them all through the Ozarks, and they were men with years of experience. I know, I was there!

When you start talking about the loss of revenue, you realize that we may never see wild turkeys at a level close to what we had in the eighties and nineties. I think about an old man by the name of Dan Besser who lived on his home in the country a few miles from Collins. He became aware of the flocks of turkeys declining on his place and he began robbing one or two turkey nests each spring, and hatching the eggs in his own incubator. He had up to 20 or more wild turkey poults raised in pens to a certain age and then released, to roam around his home, where he fed them until mid-summer. Then he would stop feeding them and by fall they were gone, just as wild as any turkeys anywhere. It worked. Dan had more wild turkeys, stocking his own woods and that of his neighbors year after year. All that of course is illegal, but country people who want to have wild turkeys should follow his example, and game and fish agencies should encourage it. It would ensure that nests destroyed by the high number of egg eaters like raccoons and black snake, and other predators now at record population levers, get to eat fewer eggs.

But the common sense I saw in the “Conservation Commission” of that day, and the qualified, older biologists from rural backgrounds they employed back then are no longer seen. Just this year the young woman that works from a cubicle in Jefferson City stated that we had a better than average number of poults from last spring. NOT TRUE! She should have spent some time in the woods with me. A good nesting season in the Ozarks has not happened for about 11 years. I have watched winter flocks gather in river bottom fields for twenty years, and from that, I can tell you what happened with nesting the year before. 

In four of the six sites I watched on four rivers, there have been big declines; better than 60 percent. On the other two, declines of about 40 percent. One field where I counted 15 gobblers many years back, had only six this past winter. One field where the count was once 83 wild turkeys less than 10 years ago, had 37 this year in January. On a 3000 acre ranch where I heard 11 gobblers ten years ago, this spring I have heard only 3! At my place on Lightnin’ Ridge I fed seven gobblers in 2000. This winter I fed only one. What do I expect in the future? Greater numbers of hunters and fewer gobblers to be heard on cool still April mornings. There are ways to make it different but those ways will never happen. If only hunters would just be happy getting one gobbler instead of two. As for me, I haven’t killed a gobbler for many years. I continue to hunt them a little with my camera. But I have adopted an attitude I hope more hunters will accept… An adaptation of what the old Indian chief once said, “I will kill no more… forever.”

I URGE folks to keep up with my writings, much of which newspapers don’t feel comfortable publishing, by going to larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com, on your computer. There folks can keep up with what is happening with the progress of our “Big Piney” museum as well.

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