Monday, April 23, 2018

Wildlife officials probe turkeys for answers

Although wildlife biologists believe nothing beyond Mother Nature is challenging the local wild turkey population, they were here recently conducting some scientific due diligence just to be certain.

For 20 hours split uniformly over the first Saturday and Sunday of wild turkey season earlier this month, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) staff were in Salem thoroughly checking carcasses of deceased wild turkeys. Armed with tweezers and an assortment of other instruments, they took blood samples, plucked parasites, aged and closely examined bodies for details that might indicate something awry in the local population.

Wild turkeys were virtually extinct in western Kentucky throughout most of the 1900s. A major restoration projection brought them back during the early 1990s. Soon thereafter, a sustainable flock allowed hunting to begin. In 1994, there were 146 gobblers taken in Crittenden County. The follow season it was up to 178. By the early 2000s there were bountiful harvests. Crittenden County turkey hunters set a record in 2002, taking 544 birds. Livingston was following suit. Hunters were joyous and times were good. As late as 2012, Crittenden gunners were taking lots of turkeys, setting a new modern-day record with 566.

Then, something happened. Numbers started folding. Crittenden County hunters have taken fewer than 400 turkeys for four straight seasons. Livingston County’s harvest has been trending downward, too. In fact, the two counties are among only 17 statewide that are seeing decreased harvests the last few years.

It hasn’t gong unnoticed.

Zak Danks, KDFWR Turkey program coordinator, says surely weather plays a role in the rise and ebb in wildlife numbers. Turkeys are especially susceptible to cold, wet springs which make hatching and rearing young difficult. Tiny chicks will die of exposure if they get wet right after birth or when they’re about quail size and unable to hide under their mother’s protective bodies. Predation, poor reproduction periods and habit loss may also be among the factors neutralizing the turkey flock in the two counties, but Danks believes there’s nothing too sinister going on.
“The biologist in me believes that the population has just come into check with the carrying capacity of the land,” Danks said. “It’s natural stabilization.”

In other words, the turkey population exploded beyond the ability of local habitat to sustain it. There is not enough food or nesting to maintain turkey numbers that outdoorsmen witnessed earlier this century. Mother Nature has its own checks and balances, and when wildlife numbers get too high in any species, there’s a period of adjustment.

If disease has crept into the local flock, biologists will soon know. They asked hunters to donate carcasses during the opening weekend. The birds will be shipped to a laboratory in Atlanta, Ga., where they will be tested for all sorts of issues.

“I just don’t think there is any one reason,” Danks said about the recent decline in bird numbers in Crittenden and Livingston counties. “We may be seeing the new normal. It’s not pleasant for hunters, but honestly, it’s not ..... for the rest of this article see the April 19, 2018 printed edition of The Crittenden Press.