The decline in numbers of wild turkeys in Arkansas concerns hunters, average citizens with interests in the outdoors and the wildlife managers of the state.
Nine consecutive years of poor reproduction have been cited. But this streak ended with a fairly good hatch, or crop of young turkeys, in 2012.
A few days ago, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission gave approval to a "Strategic Wild Turkey Management Plan." This was not a new game plan but an updated and revised edition of the agency’s 2001 turkey plan. The earlier one was crafted when turkey numbers were on the rise in the state. The latest version comes after that downward spiral.
The newest plan was constructed by a team of a dozen of so wildlife biologists headed by Jason Honey, the AGFC turkey program coordinator. There was input from Mike Widner, now retired from the job Honey holds. Widner, a Conway resident, is regarded as a top turkey person in national wildlife circles.
There are absences for this detailed turkey management plan. One is weather management. Cold, rain and floods in the breeding season can be disastrous to turkey reproduction, and this is illustrated in those nine bad years. Another factor is predators. Turkey nests, eggs and poults (babies) are hit hard by raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes and feral hogs.
The plan touches on three categories of land in Arkansas where turkeys are found – federal, state and private. Federal lands in the form of Ouachita National Forest and Ozark National Forest are home to a large percentage of Arkansas turkeys. State lands include the AGFC’s many wildlife management areas. Private lands include the extensive holdings of major timber companies.
Woven into the plan is the observation that hardwood stands are much more conducive to turkeys than pine plantations, which are administered on both federal and private ownerships.
Succinctly, turkeys live where oaks supply acorns, not where pines supply cones.
Fire in the form of prescribed burns as a major management tool for benefiting turkeys. So is the creation of permanent surface water sources. Small ponds here and there in the woodlands are beneficial to turkeys.
Riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on federal land and private lands is still another detriment to turkeys. ATVs are prohibited on state management areas.
Turkey hunting seasons have been sharply reduced in Arkansas since the downhill slide in turkey numbers began. Spring hunting covers about half as many days as in the boom times of the early 2000s. Fall turkey hunting was stopped in 2009 amid controversy, and the fall season shows no signs at present of being resurrected.
Looking back in history, turkeys were bountiful in pioneer days in Arkansas. Land clearing and year-round hunting sharply reduced their numbers, and this was one of many points brought up in the 1915 creation of the Game and Fish Commission. By the 1930s, turkey hunting was closed over much of the state.
No fall turkey seasons were in effect from 1937 to 1964. Fall gun turkey hunting was re-opened in 1966 and ran until 1997, when the fall gun season was again closed. Fall turkey season was re-opened in 2001 then shut down in 2009.
Another restriction in effect recently has been the curtailing of taking jakes, young male turkeys.
Arkansas’ 2013 spring turkey season will open Saturday, April 20, with a two-day youth hunt open Saturday and Sunday, April 13-14.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.