Texas Turkey Troubles

AUSTIN, TX -- Since 1995 when Texas' first spring eastern turkey hunting season was opened in Red River County, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has maintained a conservative approach - a 30-day season, mandatory check stations, one gobbler bag limit - to give the birds ample opportunity to establish themselves in new haunts. As turkey numbers have increased and flocks expand into new areas, the agency has steadily increased hunting opportunity by opening a spring season in 43 East Texas counties.

In some areas, field observations indicate turkey populations continue to thrive and harvest data collected through mandatory check stations confirm ample hunting opportunity. But, in some counties, the telltale "gobble, gobble, gobble" of a big tom courting hens has gone silent and that has wildlife biologists concerned.

"We use the data collected from mandatory check stations as a trigger point in identifying areas of concern and in some of these counties, like Smith County, we haven't had any harvest in 12 years," said Jason Hardin, TPWD's turkey program leader. "That tells us there are very few birds out there and we need to protect them, and where possible, go back into those counties and use our new super stocking program."

Unlike earlier block stocking efforts to reintroduce turkeys into an area that relied on a few gobblers and hens to establish viable flocks of turkeys, the process for reintroduction has been refined through research to determine appropriate numbers and ratios of birds needed.

By closing hunting seasons we create an opportunity to stock birds, where habitat is available, and reduce the potential for loss of brood stock before the population is capable of sustaining harvest.

"Just because there has been low harvest in some counties doesn't necessarily mean those areas don't have any birds," said Hardin. "When we went out to our field biologists and landowners in some areas, they indicated there were still plenty of turkeys out there but they were protecting them and not hunting them. They said they didn't want us to take away that opportunity for harvest and we agreed."

In 15 East Texas counties, not only were birds not being harvested, they weren't being seen, either. Counties being considered for hunting season closure and further restocking consideration include: Cherokee, Delta, Gregg, Hardin, Houston, Hunt, Liberty, Montgomery, Rains, Rusk, San Jacinto, Shelby, Smith, Tyler and Walker.

"When populations in those counties can sustain hunting, we will reopen," Hardin added. "But, we were seeing more harvest 10 years ago in these counties and most have not had one turkey harvested in he last five seasons or longer."

TPWD is also considering a regulation change that would delay the spring Eastern turkey season in the remaining counties by two weeks. The delay, said Hardin, would give hens time to begin nesting prior to the season opening. "Once hens begin nesting they typically spend up to 23 hours a day on their nest. This makes them less available for accidental harvest. It also makes the gobblers go into a second peak in gobbling activity, which should provide excellent hunting."

To give the public an opportunity to weigh in on these considerations prior to any official proposed regulation change in 2012, TPWD is holding scoping meetings during the first week in January. Wildlife biologists will present turkey population trend and harvest findings from these counties and offer insight into the super stocking program. The meetings are set for 7 p.m. at the following locations:

Scoping Meetings:

--Jan. 4, 2011 - Center, Shelby County Courthouse, 200 San Augustine St., community room, 2nd floor.

Jan. 6, 2011 - Conroe, Montgomery County Memorial Library, 104 I-45 North.