State of the State’s Turkeys

What does 2005 have in store for gobblers and those hunters who pursue them?
Larry Savage has some pretty good ideas.

It stretches my mind to recall it, but I still remember the first wild turkey I ever saw in Louisiana.

I’m not sure of the exact date, but it was somewhere around 1950, give or take a couple of years. My brother and I accompanied our dad, a predator control trapper with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, for a week along the Tensas River in Madison Parish.

Dad’s job was to trap wolves that were harassing farmers in the area that summer. We stayed at a remote hunting camp far back in the woods and late every afternoon, we watched wild turkeys fly up to roost in trees just behind the camp.

I don’t recall seeing another turkey in Louisiana until 1993, when on one of my first spring turkey hunts, I called up a jake and shot him.

A lot has happened to Louisiana’s turkeys over this span of years. That group of birds I saw more than half a century ago in Madison Parish was one of only a few isolated flocks of wild turkeys that inhabited the state back then.

Today, wild turkeys occupy practically all of the suitable habitat in the state, a fact that boggles the mind given how far we had to progress before huntable populations of turkeys became reality.

Larry Savage, veteran wildlife biologist with 28 years under his belt toiling for the LDWF, has been appointed to the position of wild turkey study leader for the state.

Savage recently shed some light on the state’s turkey situation, and shared his opinions as to what hunters can expect, not only during the 2005 spring turkey season but down the road as well.

“I saw my first wild turkey in Louisiana in 1965 along the Ouachita River. This bird was one of the original flock that had occupied Northeast Louisiana for a long time. That bird I saw burned an impression in my brain. There were none in Union Parish, where I grew up,” Savage explained.

“I went to school at LSU, and while there, I got involved in research concerning the stocking of wild turkeys in Tensas Parish and in the Atchafalaya Basin.

“After leaving LSU and going to work for LDWF, I worked for 20 years as a biologist, involved in restocking birds all over the state.

“I remember when we stocked north Louisiana a couple of decades ago, and some were released in Union Parish near where I grew up just south of Farmerville.

“I was also involved in helping stock birds along the Ouachita, where I saw my first wild turkey in 1965. The populations of these birds had dwindled away to practically nothing because of major habitat changes, the principal one being the clearing of forests along the Mississippi delta to make way for soybean fields. I saw the demise of these original birds, but it was quite gratifying to have a hand in getting them restocked again.

“I have a long history with the department of working with wild turkeys, and based on what I’ve learned, I have developed a rather conservative philosophy on wild turkey management. In short, my philosophy is that with everything the wild turkey faces today, from loss of suitable habitat to urban development, turkeys need to be given the benefit of the doubt, and our management reflects that philosophy.”

Savage worked the eight years prior to his appointment as turkey study leader heading up the state’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). Savage hopes to project what he’s learned about managing deer over into wild turkey management.

“Approximately 70 percent of Louisiana’s wild turkey habitat is on private land,” he said. “If we hope to impact our turkey populations, we have to focus on these acres and hopefully get the owners of this private land more involved in the management of these birds.”

The LDWF is currently involved in several research projects relative to wild turkeys, but still more needs to be done, says Savage.

“We still don’t have a good handle on narrowing down the peak nesting dates for turkeys,” he said. “We need this information to better enable us to get realistic hunting season dates, thus giving turkeys the advantage. We don’t have a good grasp of actual harvest numbers, and hope to get hunters more involved in helping us collect good data.

“The implementation of a tagging program is being strongly considered, and we hope to get this approved and ready for the 2006 season.”

In comparing today’s wild turkey situation with that of past years, the picture changes as you go around the state.

“Different parts of the state are going in different directions,” said Savage. “In the hill country of Northwest Louisiana and the central part of the state, particularly the Kisatchie National Forest, things are looking pretty bright.

On the other hand, in portions of South Louisiana, particularly in the Florida Parishes, there has been a trend over several years of lower poult production.

“Down there, you have a double whammy against turkeys. Forests are managed very intensively, which has impacted turkeys regarding suitable habitat, and that area is becoming urbanized. New Orleans seems to be spreading out all across this area.

“Another finding from this area has contributed greatly to our more conservative philosophy in wild turkey management. Biologist Jimmy Stafford trapped, banded and released gobblers in Washington Parish to try and determine survival rates on areas where the season was opened.

“We were astounded to see that after he banded these birds in February, 70 percent of them were shot in April. What is troubling about this is that the southeastern average on direct recovery of banded gobblers is more like 20-30 percent.

“The problem was a hunting season that was too long (37 days), it started too early and it operated under a liberal three-bird-per-season bag limit. These turkeys just got hammered.

“In Northwest Louisiana, a similar trapping/banding program is ongoing, and the direct recovery rate up there is more like 12 percent. This latter study was implemented after the season was shortened with a later opening day and the limit reduced to two birds per season.

“Another problem in the Florida Parishes is that this area was one of the first in the state to have huntable populations of turkeys. There are hunters in that area who have years of experience in turkey hunting. As aggressive timber management reduced good habitat to some isolated pockets, these turkeys became easy prey for hunters who knew what they were doing.

“Now that we’ve reduced the season length with a later opening date and with the reduced season bag limit, the direct recovery has dropped from 70 percent to around 30 percent, near the southeastern average.”

This past spring, the poult surveys indicated that some areas of the state did pretty well, while others did poorly, according to Savage.

“Our poult inventory for this past spring revealed a pretty good hatch over Northwest Louisiana as well as the delta area over around Tensas,” he said. “Most of the rest of the state, however, had poor hatches.

“In fact, the state poult inventory overall was down to its lowest level since 1994. One of the culprits was weather. The areas where production was lowest had heavy rains in May and June, critical months for poult survival as they’re coming off the nests about that time.”

Wildlife biologists look for indicators to, in essence, “feel the pulse” of wild game populations, such as wild turkeys, says Savage.

“Deer hunters the past couple of seasons have reported seeing more bobcats on their leases during deer season,” he said. “Bobcats eat turkeys, but they feed primarily on rabbits and rats.

“What this tells us is that the areas where more bobcats are seen is not desirable turkey habitat. Turkeys and predators have evolved together for a long time, and when you have good quality turkey habitat, turkeys will do fine; they have the advantage.

“However, when there is marginal turkey habitat, predators like bobcats have the advantage.

“One of the main ways that suitable turkey habitat has been reduced is when you have deficit timber harvests; more trees cut than are growing. Put all this together, and we have to just be smarter and do a better job of adjusting our seasons to protect turkeys as much as we can while providing quality recreation for turkey hunters.”

Considering all we learned from this seasoned wildlife biologist as to what makes turkeys tick, we asked him to delve into the prospects for the upcoming spring turkey season in Louisiana.

“North Louisiana and the Kisatchie National Forest in Central Louisiana have had good hatches the previous two years,” he said. “I’d call these some of Louisiana’s ‘hot spots’ for turkey hunters this spring,” Savage said.

Even with plenty of birds to hunt in these areas, there are factors that will determine whether hunters will be successful.

“Temperature affects gobbling,” he said. “If we get an early spring with warm weather early, the hens may nest earlier and you’ll hear a lot of gobbling.

“On the other hand, if we get a cold spring, there will be less gobbling, although the breeding activity will be about the same.

“When there is a bountiful hard mast crop, turkeys will be in better condition, they gobble more and hens tend to have larger clutches. We had an abundant acorn crop this year over much of the state, so I expect the season to be fairly good, provided the weather cooperates.”

It is a settled fact that Louisiana sits next to states that have far more turkeys than we do. Mississippi and Alabama are loaded with birds numbering half a million and up, while the best guess by biologists is that we have fewer than 100,000 wild turkeys in the Bayou State. Will Louisiana ever be able to approach the numbers hosted by our neighbors?

“With the habitat we have, I would imagine we’re about at the number of turkeys we can sustain in Louisiana,” Savage said. “I recently looked at a satellite photo of our state taken in 1998, and the thing that jumps out at you is the general absence of forests along the Mississippi delta. This area is void of timber, except for isolated spots like Tensas, where the area has been converted to agriculture.

“We simply don’t have the habitat other southeastern states have. Then look at the Florida Parishes, and see how New Orleans is spreading out.

“I recently attended a wedding in Boston, and one of the wedding guests told me about how turkeys there are such a nuisance. This guy lives in the city of Boston, and he has wild turkeys roaming around his yard. All you have to do is look around up there, and if land doesn’t have a house on it, there are beautiful forests. That’s the way it used to be here.”

There are several things about his new job that has Savage excited. He has been impressed with the work of volunteers on behalf of the wild turkey.

“I just got back from a state board meeting of the Louisiana chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and it really opened my eyes to the level of commitment and the unselfishness of those volunteers who work tirelessly within their local chapters to raise funds for turkeys. These folks are to be commended,” Savage said, “and I’d urge any turkey hunter who is not a member to find the nearest local chapter and join hands with this fine group of folks.”

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About Glynn Harris 444 Articles
Glynn Harris is a long-time outdoor writer from Ruston. He writes weekly outdoor columns for several north Louisiana newspapers, has magazine credits in a number of state and national magazines and broadcasts four outdoor radio broadcasts each week. He has won more than 50 writing and broadcasting awards during his 47 year career.

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