Wild turkey hunting season is underway in South Carolina. Photo courtesy S.C. DNR
Palmetto State turkey population strong despite decline
By Gregg Holshouser
For The Sun News
Biologists in numerous southern states have observed a significant drop in wild turkey populations since the turn of the century and in response have coined the term Southeast Turkey Decline to describe it.
South Carolina is one of numerous states that has seen such a decline, with approximately a 30 percent decrease in the population since the record numbers of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Charles Ruth, Wild Turkey Program Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, stresses this isn’t a dire situation for the Palmetto State’s population of wild turkeys.
“An important message is, while we’re talking about fewer turkeys, we’ve still got a strong turkey population in South Carolina,” said Ruth. “We just don’t have as many as we did during the peak.”
Some observers may immediately think the establishment of coyotes throughout the state over the same time-frame as the population decline has had a significant impact. Ruth isn’t so sure.
“The message is there’s always been a long list of predators on turkeys and turkey nests – opossum, bobcats, raccoons, foxes, snakes, owls, hawks, coyotes,” said Ruth. “Research is ongoing in a number of states including South Carolina in an effort to determine why turkey numbers have decreased.”
Ruth points to a number of possible reasons behind the decline.
“It’s a combination of changes in habitat, perhaps increased predation, weather in certain years,” said Ruth. “We’ve had gradual habitat changes over time, perhaps the nesting and brood-rearing cover may not be as good as it used to be. Personally I think that’s a lot of it.”
South Carolina is in its second year of an expanded wild turkey hunting season, which opened March 20 and will close on May 5 on private land statewide. The traditional turkey season has run from April 1 to May 1, until the S.C. Legislature implemented the expanded season for a three-year trial beginning with the 2016 season.
“(The longer season) increases the opportunity for hunters by nearly 40 percent,” said Ruth.
An ongoing study conducted by Ruth and other biologists deals with nesting ecology and timing, and determining the impact of the longer season.
“We’re trying to determine if the season is coming in too early,” said Ruth. “We’ve first got to allow the turkeys to successfully reproduce and second allow hunters to hunt during the peak of gobbling. When (the legislature) passed that legislation, we were supposed to report back to them after three seasons of the new framework, as far as what we think is going on. We will have to revisit it or it will revert back to (the) April 1 to May 1 (season).”
With the season already underway, Ruth expects fair results for the estimated 50,000 hunters who will try to take a mature gobbler over the next four weeks in South Carolina’s woods, fields and swamps.
“Reproduction in turkeys has generally been low for the last decade leading to significant declines in harvest,” said Ruth. “However, recruitment (into the turkey population) has been somewhat better the past few years in many parts of the state and the spring 2016 harvest responded with about a 10 percent increase.
“Although the total recruitment ratio of 1.6 (poults per hen observed during the 2016 Summer Turkey Survey) was still low, it was slightly better than 2015. Therefore, if trends hold the harvest in 2017 should be similar to that in 2016.”
The Coastal Carolina Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation South Carolina will stage its annual banquet on April 7 at the Waccamaw Shrine Club in Conway, located at 10 Elm Street. For more information, contact Logan Skrabak at 803-729-0547 or firstname.lastname@example.org.