Rebirth of the Eastern Turkey
by Matt Williams
Tall mountains and deep valleys don't exist in eastern Texas, but the geographic jargon offers a clear reflection of past and present population trends of Eastern wild turkeys across the region. Once plentiful across the Piney Woods and Post Oak Savannah, the regal North American game birds were wiped out in the early 1900s by early settlers who lumbered their habitat and shot them into oblivion. By the 1940s, there was hardly a turkey track to be found east of what is now I-45.
While significant strides have since been made toward re-establishing populations by salting suitable habitat with wild-trapped birds from other states, the efforts haven’t panned near as well over the long term as wildlife experts had originally hoped.
In fact, spring gobbler seasons implemented nearly two decades ago were recently closed in 15 counties and the season delayed in the rest after limited reproduction caused populations to dip below what biologists believed to be sustainable numbers. While a month-long spring season currently remains open in 28 East Texas counties, biologists are seeking answers for the decline in other areas.
A Little History
Looking back, thousands of man hours and millions of dollars were spent restoring Eastern turkey populations between 1987 and 2003. All told, more than 7,000 wild-trapped turkeys were released on select “block-stocking” sites in over 60 counties. The states donating the birds were reimbursed $525 for each turkey. The $4.2 million project was funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation Texas Super Fund, turkey stamp and public hunting permit sales and private donations.
The theory was the wild transplants would multiply to the point of being able to withstand the limited hunting pressure of a month- long season outfitted with restrictive harvest regulations, including a one-bird bag limit. The plan worked for a while. Then, in 2005, annual harvest records and volunteer observation data began showing a region- wide decline in turkey numbers. The downward spiral is more evident today than ever in some counties.
Perhaps the most alarming example is Red River County, which has dominated East Texas harvest numbers since 1995. That county gave up an all-time high of 132 gobblers in 2005, but the numbers have been dropping ever since. In 2012, Red River hunters only killed 27 birds.
While harvest numbers in a few counties have remained fairly consistent over the years, most indicate a gradual decline. Even “national forest” counties like Jasper, Angelina and Sabine have witnessed noticeable drops despite the use of intensive control burn practices. Periodic fire is needed to condition the East Texas habitat for turkeys, but frequency and timing are critical.
Looking for Answers
In 2007, the TPWD, NWTF and SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry launched a series of research projects aimed at unraveling some of the mysteries behind fizzling turkey populations and ultimately turning things around. At the heart of the effort was a series of “super stockings” carried out on qualifying private property sites spanning 150,000-plus acres in Anderson, Houston, Montgomery and Nacogdoches counties.
A super stocking includes 80 wild turkeys (60 hens and 20 gobblers)—more than five times the number utilized in the former block-stocking criteria. The idea was stocking more birds would allow for mortality and low production and allow them to get a toe hold faster and ultimately survive. Many of the study birds were equipped with radio transmitters, which allow scientists to gather data about movements, nesting, survival and recruitment. The study results are promising thus far, especially on the 71,000-acre North Neches River Co-op along the Neches River in Anderson County.
“Those birds have blown up over there,” says Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader. “We sent out surveys to all of our Managed Lands Deer Permit cooperators in East Texas and we got more turkey observations in and around that vicinity than anywhere else. We’ve had lots of production and lots of survival.”
Restocking Program Re-opens
The results from the research have been so encouraging that the department has elected to resume the Eastern wild turkey stocking program, this time relying on a “Habitat Suitability Index” (H.S.I.) developed by the TPWD, SFA and the NWTF. Hardin says the tool is designed to help scientists assess and rank potential Eastern turkey super stocking sites. Potential sites must undergo an extensive habitat evaluation and meet minimum scoring guidelines in order to be considered.
Among other things, a co-op property must be under a department-approved wildlife management plan for a period of at least three years before evaluation, and contain a minimum of 10,000 contiguous acres in size. Sites that earn a minimum score of 70 on the index will be ranked against others. The top ranking sites will receive super stockings based on the availability of funding and brood stocks. Each $45,000 super stocking will be paid for using money from the NWTF Texas Super Fund and from Upland Game Bird Stamp sales.
For more info on the HSI or forming co-op sites, contact Hardin at 903-322-2770 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt Williams is a freelance outdoors writer/photographer based in Nacogdoches. He writes weekly columns for several East Texas newspapers, is freshwater editor for Texas Fish and Game and Texas Outdoors Journal and is a field editor for FLW.