There’s more good news than bad in the store for hunters who, dream of gobbles, struts and beards.
When Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro went down with a shattered leg just out of the gate at the Preakness, even those who don’t follow thoroughbred racing were saddened.
Efforts to repair his damaged leg seemed to have a chance at working and our spirits were uplifted. Recently, though, a nation bowed its collective head in grief as the ordeal ended when it became necessary to euthanize the prize race horse.
The eight-month saga of Barbaro saw us as a nation respond to bad news, followed by good news and end with more bad news.
There is a smidgen of similarity between the Barbaro saga and Louisiana’s turkey situation. There is both bad news and good news to report as we prepare to herald the opening of the spring wild turkey season in the state.
You have no doubt had someone at some point tell you he has both bad news and good news for you, asking which you prefer to hear first. If you’re like me, you probably want to get the bad stuff over with quickly so you can get to what’s good.
There are actually two areas of concern as they relate to wild turkeys in Louisiana. First, the annual poult survey taken each summer is lower than it was a year ago. For example, in Northwest Louisiana, the average number of poults per hen in 2005 was 3.2. In 2006, the number had dropped to 2.2 poults per hen.
We visited with Larry Savage who heads up the wild turkey management program for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and asked his response to the decline in the production of poults last spring.
“I’m really not that concerned,” Savage said. “These numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year, and next year, we could have an increase. The years of 2004 and 2006 combined to give us the lowest count of poult production we’ve had in several years. However, 2005 was a good year.
“We’ve found that turkey numbers tend to cycle between good years and bad years. What would cause us concern is if our poult surveys indicated lower numbers for several years in succession.
“In 2004, we had a very wet growing season. Nesting success is largely determined by weather conditions. Rainy weather in conjunction with cooler-than-normal temperatures can have a negative effect in the final stages of incubation and during the first three weeks after poults hatch.
“In 2006, much of the southern portion of the state was still suffering the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which impacted the overall poult figures.”
The second area of bad news concerns what is taking place in the southeastern portion of the state. Turkey numbers continue to diminish with the state’s lowest poult counts being noted in that area over the past several years.
“Traditionally, the Florida parishes had turkeys when much of the state did not,” said Savage. “However, we have seen a fairly steady decline in the numbers of turkeys in those parishes for the past several years. This area was already in decline before the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, it’s only gotten worse.”
Savage noted that after the hurricane, thousands of people relocated from New Orleans and the surrounding area, and many of them moved into these more rural areas. As a result, what had been suitable turkey habitat gave way to subdivisions.
“That area has long been known for its dairy farms, which are suitable for wild turkeys,” he said. “Much of these farms today are in residential development. This part of the state gives us the most concern long term for wild turkeys.”
O.K., enough with the bad news. Let’s move on to news that will have turkey hunters making haste in practicing their calling, patterning turkey loads and replenishing their camo supply. There is, indeed, enough good news around the state’s turkey woods to bring on a state of excitement.
According to Savage, there are at least two regions of the state that should be exceptionally good.
“We have had good poult survey information from what we classify as the Western Longleaf Pine region of West and Southwest Louisiana as well as the Atchafalaya and Lower Mississippi Delta parishes,” he said. “As a result, hunting should be good this spring in those areas.”
The Western Longleaf Pine region consists of several public hunting areas, including the Sabine, West Bay, Peason Ridge and Fort Polk wildlife management areas along with Red Dirt National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, much of the 600,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest is in this area.
“One reason this region is good is that compared to other parts of the state, it is not as heavily populated, and although there is hunting pressure, it is possible to get away from other hunters if you don’t mind walking a couple of miles back into areas most hunters aren’t willing to travel,” Savage said.
“Poult counts are fairly good in the Atchafalaya area as well, but this area is swampy with sloughs and streams and thickets. It’s pretty hard for the hunter not willing to fight through the thickets.
“In addition, lottery hunting takes up most of the season with only a few days of regular, non-lottery hunting allowed. Even so, there are lots of turkeys here, and the lucky hunter who gets drawn for a lottery hunt has a good chance at working a gobbler or two.”
Another bit of good news involves hunters in some parishes that will have an extra week tacked on to their season. Several parishes have been moved from Area B to Area A, the rationale for such action being that these parishes have healthy populations that can offer increased hunting opportunity. Included in the parishes whose season this year will run from March 24 to April 22 are the open portions of Bienville, Claiborne, Jackson, Lincoln, Ouachita, Morehouse and Union.
Using the same rationale, Washington and St. Tammany parishes will be moved from Area A to Area B. Season dates in Area B are from March 24 to April 15. As mentioned earlier, these parishes have had declining populations for several years due to deteriorating habitat quality caused by changes in rural land use and increasing housing development. Katrina had adverse impacts on forested habitat, and likely will accelerate housing development.
On another positive note, hunters in Area C will have an additional week added to their season. Last year, hunters here had a short nine-day season; this year, the season will be 16 days long, since it has been determined that turkey populations in most portions of this area are doing well and can stand the extra week of hunting.
Several wildlife management areas will see their season length extended by a week because turkey populations on these areas are doing well. These areas include Big Lake, Red River, Three Rivers and Sicily Island Hills WMAs.
Managing for wild turkeys is a complex job because of the dynamics of the population and the habitat they call home. Professionals and volunteers conduct studies and are continuing to gather data on wild turkeys with two things in mind, according to Savage.
“First of all, we put the turkeys ahead of everything else,” he said. “If we’re going to err in anything, it will be on the positive side for turkeys.
“The second matter of consideration for us is to provide recreational opportunities for our citizens.”
Several research projects are ongoing around the state currently that will give wildlife professionals data they need to more accurately assess the status of turkeys.
“In the past, restocking was our emphasis,” Savage said. “We would bring birds in from other states or move them around within the state, but that process is about over, not only in Louisiana but throughout the Southeast. We have birds now on just about all the suitable habitat within the state.
“It’s a lot like the deer situation years ago. We moved deer around from place to place until today, we have deer just about everywhere they can live.
“We’re shifting our emphasis on turkeys from restocking to harvest management. One of the keys for us is to try as best as we can to determine the rate of harvest. From research, we know that we have to keep our harvest rate below 30 to 40 percent of the gobbler population. If we are able to do this, we’ll leave enough gobblers out there to move up into the 2- to 3-year-old range, which will guarantee good reproduction.
“A year or so ago in Southeast Louisiana, we had trapped, banded and released turkeys in one portion of the state, and once information from the bands on harvested turkeys came in, we were shocked to see that 70 percent of those banded had been taken by hunters. That’s absolutely too high and as a result, we reduced the season limit and season length to give the birds time to catch up.
“We’re currently doing a gobbler mortality study around the state where we use cannon nets to trap and band turkeys, and immediately release them on site. We’re trapping around Lake Charles and on the Kisatchie National Forest, Tensas NWR, Big Lake, Red River and Three Rivers, in addition to here in North Louisiana.”
I caught up with Savage in Bernice, where he and fellow biologist Jeff Taverner were meeting with private land owner William Colvin to trap, band and release turkeys on Colvin’s property.
“People like (Colvin) are making what we’re trying to do work,” Savage said. “He has been generous about allowing us to do some of our research on his property. In fact, he allowed us to trap turkeys on his property several years ago and move them to other portions of the state that needed turkeys.”
Savage noted that some property owners have been reluctant to allow turkeys to be trapped, banded and released on site for fear that the turkeys will abandon their property.
“Turkeys don’t leave after being trapped and banded,” he said. “Last year, I trapped and banded two long-bearded gobblers on an area and released them on site. Six days later, I trapped the same two gobblers; they hadn’t left.
“We would encourage property owners who have turkeys on their land to allow us to do this research there.”
Just what is the purpose of trapping, banding and immediately releasing gobblers on the site where they’re caught?
“This is a tool we use to assess the mortality of gobblers, which will help us in adjusting season length and limits if necessary,” Savage explained. “Over a two-year period, we trapped 159 gobblers in North Louisiana, and the direct recovery from hunters amounted to 15 percent.
“To me, this shows that our conservative approach in the past to limiting the season length has worked in this area. It gave the birds a chance to expand their territory and reproduce, and this is the main reason we are moving some of these parishes from Area B to Area A this coming season. We recognized that we had some room to allow extra hunting opportunities here.”
The spring turkey hunting seasons are just around the corner. With a uniform opening date of March 24, hunters will have the opportunity to go after birds on their home turf rather than swarming to areas that open earlier, making for an overcrowded and undesirable situation.
Although the news regarding Louisiana’s wild turkey situation is not all good, you’ll have to agree that the good news outweighs the bad.
It’s time to start practicing your calling, patterning your gun and springing for some new turkey hunting duds. Once you hear that first tom turkey thundering from the roost, it’ll make the long wait since last we hunted turkeys worth it all.
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