Some aspects of the spring tradition we love so much are in peril — but you can do something about it
The wild turkey’s comeback in the U.S. is one of modern conservation’s great success stories. In the mid- to late-1900s, intensive conservation efforts helped reverse severe population declines, including trap-and-transfer programs, habitat investment and pure sweat equity. Back then, we turkey hunters were part of a great movement. Turkey numbers expanded across the country, triggering intense interest in our tradition. There were more birds to hunt than ever, and in more places than ever.
While this is still largely the case, and the lingering benefits of that monumental effort continue, turkey numbers are declining again in some parts of the country. So what threatens turkey hunting today? Here’s a look at some of the problems we’re facing, and how we might be able to solve them.
We’ve Redefined Success
In the pre-restoration days of turkey hunting, just hearing a gobble put a goofy grin on your face. For most of us, it still does. Working a turkey back then jump-started a hunter’s pulse so much that it turned into a lifelong addiction for many of us. If you managed to nearly close the deal on a gobbler, you told that story as often as possible: how the bird beat you fair and square, and how you would be out there tomorrow to try again. And actually tagging a turkey? That earned you ink in my town’s newspaper in north-central Pennsylvania. You were a local hero.
And that legacy might be a little part of the problem.
Ego. Competition between turkey hunters. Keeping score on who killed the bigger bird. These tendencies of human nature do little to speak on behalf of the turkey itself.
We should keep these impulses in check. Think about those posts you make on social media. Are you celebrating the turkey, as well as sharing your success? Does the photo and description of your spring hunt reflect fair-chase ethics? People besides hunters are watching, taking notes, and forming opinions. So set a good example.
As a veteran turkey hunter, this might well be easier for me to say. But the best turkey hunters I know are pretty humble about all this, too. Isn’t the freedom and pure joy of being able to hunt wild turkeys another season enough?
An Aging Hunting Population
During a recent five-year period (2011-2016), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that more than 2 million hunters had stopped hunting. Data shows many hunters throw in the towel when they turn 65. And since Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) account for roughly a third of all hunters, this trend is expected to continue.
Which means we need to do everything we can to hold the line. If you want to see turkey populations flourish, keep buying a license. Growing old is a natural process, but admiring that taxidermy turkey on your cabin wall sure isn’t going to put money into conservation and hunting programs – unless you continue hunting, too. Keep at it, for as long as you can. And, as they say, pass it on.
A Lack of Recruitment
As turkey hunters, we do what we can to keep this tradition going. State wildlife agencies offer youth hunts, and we introduce our kids to this tradition. But are we doing enough outside our ranks?
Personal biases, ranging from gender, ethnicity, political and cultural perspectives can, at times, get in the way of expanding new-hunter recruitment. Whether you like to admit it or not – especially during these unprecedented times in American history – we are all guilty of this in some way.
"Wildlife conservation. Wildlife studies. Land purchases and habitat maintenance. All of these are fueled by hunter dollars. The turkey hunting tradition is rich with history, and we’ve helped bring this game bird back from near extirpation in the mid-1900s. Let’s share that story."
To grow hunter numbers beyond our limitations and broaden our view to the bigger picture, we need to rethink and remember why we got into this lifestyle in the first place – back when we took it for granted. And we need to move forward and evolve our own thinking about it.
The trending locavore lifestyle, whose numbers include folks new to hunting, is one positive direction. Hunting has long been male-dominated, but statistics show more women are joining the hunting ranks (and getting involved in shooting sports). We need to reenergize and share our turkey hunting lifestyle with everyone who wants to join us.
Disease, and the Current Pandemic
Lymphoproliferative disease. West Nile Virus. These immediate threats to wild turkey populations are still somewhat misunderstood and under extensive study. The impact of each disease on wild turkey populations is still being determined.
And then there’s COVID-19. The irony of this (mostly) human pandemic is that many sources indicate there are now more turkey hunters in the woods on a regular basis this turkey season. And in some states, harvest numbers have dramatically increased as a result (see link below). Can current turkey populations sustain the current ongoing hunter pressure? Will adjustments need to be made for next spring based on success rates this season? The answer is likely yes, depending on the state. This could prove manageable – again, depending on how each state handles the challenge.
A shift is underway where this pandemic has overlapped with turkey season: we’ve seen increases in hunter participation, recruits, and even success. This presents an opportunity for growth, and adjustment. Will some state wildlife agencies, strapped for cash, aim for increasing revenue at the expense of turkey populations? Will other states adjust management strategies to sustain future flocks?
Let’s face it: The privatization of wildlife habitat ensures quality hunting at the exclusion of other hunters. Posting “No Hunting” signs illustrates these boundaries: Mine is mine, and not yours – period. The increase in privatization is changing the landscape of hunting across the country. And in some ways, population growth presents measured challenges, too.
In 1971, the year I first hunted turkeys, the population of the U.S. was 207.7 million people. Last year, it sat at 328.2 million. As flocks have grown along with cities, housing developments and other construction, human-habituated wild turkeys now roost and strut in backyards. This poses management problems. Meanwhile, sustainable public lands include multiple-use opportunities for not only hunters, but also bikers, hikers and birdwatchers.
Since hunter numbers are currently in decline, conservation funding for such public lands is in jeopardy, too. Hunting licenses, permits, taxes on firearms — all these have long contributed to sustaining habitat for turkey, deer, waterfowl and so on.
It’s troubling to think the model we hunters have always taken for granted is now challenged. And other recreational users and outdoor enthusiasts – those who might flunk a Pittman-Robertson Act quiz – have also gotten off easy. What happens to wildlife conservation when those of us who support it fall off, and those who don’t – but want to use public land funded by hunting – balk at putting their own dollars into that land?
Education, and Anti-Hunting
Complacency in our ranks won’t promote our way of life, or benefit wild turkeys. Positivity will. And everyday activism. We need to view every encounter with a non-hunter (and yes, even anti-hunters) as an opportunity to thoughtfully share our views – such as the truth about wildlife conservation, and America’s greatest gamebird – or, at least, set a good example.
Wildlife conservation. Wildlife studies. Land purchases and habitat maintenance. All of these are fueled by hunter dollars. The turkey hunting tradition is rich with history, and we’ve helped bring this game bird back from near extirpation in the mid-1900s. Let’s share that story.
So what else can you do? Join the National Wild Turkey Federation, a group that’s worked on behalf of our favorite game bird since 1973. Contribute to and support other wildlife organizations, too, like Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, and the Ruffed Grouse Society, among others. It’s a team effort, and we need all the help we can get.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree.com's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more birds than he can remember. Still he kills enough to eat well, and fool with beards, spurs and fans until the next season. Pennsylvania born and raised, Maine is his home base now. A full-time outdoor communicator with a couple university writing degrees, he chases spring gobblers and fall flocks around the country.