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Hunters help study future of S.C. turkeys
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Hunters help study future of S.C. turkeys

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Turkey hunter

More than 50,000 turkey hunters take to the woods each spring in South Carolina to hunt wild turkeys. The season for private lands in Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg counties began March 22 and runs through April 30.

For more than a decade, wild turkey populations across the Southeastern United States have been in decline – in terms of both production/recruitment and overall numbers, all while the number of people hunting turkeys has been increasing.

While it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet, the trend does have state wildlife managers in Southern states – including South Carolina – concerned. Efforts to better understand the population dynamics of Palmetto State turkeys got a big boost two years ago when state lawmakers, with the support of SCDNR, turkey hunters themselves and the state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, voted to institute a modest ($5 for resident hunters) fee for annual turkey tags required to transport birds from the field to home.

The revenue from the tag fees is important. For the first time ever, SCDNR has a revenue source dedicated specifically to wild turkeys. The money generated by the fee will directly fund research, monitoring and management of turkeys by agency biologists on private and public lands in South Carolina, as well as habitat improvements on the state’s Wildlife Management Areas.

In addition, the fees will be used to pay for the tagging program itself (printing and mailing costs) and for a new electronic harvest-reporting system called “SC Game Check” that includes an app for smart phones or reporting of harvest information using a dedicated toll-free number or via the SCDNR website.

“These funds will help us learn more about what is behind the decline in our turkey numbers, better monitor our population and improve habitat for the birds on public land in South Carolina,” said Jay Cantrell, one of the SCDNR biologists in charge of the agency’s turkey program.

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Currently, SCDNR is cooperating in two separate research projects, one with Clemson University and the other a joint regional initiative involving wildlife researchers and graduate students at the University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, the University of Missouri and the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station.

The first of these, the Wild Turkey Gobbling Chronology research project, a cooperative study with Clemson University, is focused on helping researchers better understand the differences in wild turkey gobbling chronology between the Coastal Plain and the Upstate regions of South Carolina. This study also looks at how the timing of gobbling varies by elevation and silviculture treatments within the Upstate. Inferences gained from this study could be used to guide management strategies and harvest of wild turkey in the Upstate in the coming years.

Over the course of the three-year project, 38 automated sound recorders are being placed on private and public land across the state’s upper piedmont and mountain geographic zones.

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The recorders are in place from March until June, in locations that are likely roost areas and record during the morning hours. The recordings are screened and analyzed with computer software and verified with human ears, and the results will provide researchers with a timeline for gobbling activity and peak(s) in the Upstate that they’ll be able to compare with similar data that already exists for the lower coastal plain.

Since gobbling activity and peaks vary with latitude and elevation, and are closely tied to breeding and nesting, this will provide a good estimate of the differences in timing of those activities and a range of the earliest and latest dates of gobbling and associated breeding across the state.

“There are opinions and estimates among hunters and biologists about how much later the breeding season starts in the Upstate, but its mostly anecdotal or extrapolated from studies in other locations,” said Cantrell. “We look forward to getting data that will help us either adjust or solidify those estimates.”

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The second study, known as the Wild Turkey Reproductive Ecology research project, is a cooperative effort between SCDNR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service-Southern Research Station, the University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri. The study is being conducted by taking advantage of an “undisturbed” (i.e., un-hunted) population of turkeys on a large tract of land at the Savannah River Site.

This study has multiple objectives, all of which are designed to evaluate different aspects of the reproductive ecology of a population of wild turkeys not exposed to hunting. Specific objectives will include:

  • Determining space use, habitat selection, and survival of male and female wild turkeys.
  • Assessing nesting and brooding ecology of female wild turkeys, with a focus on thoroughly describing nesting chronology and behavior of females during laying, incubating and brooding.
  • Describing vegetative and habitat characteristics associated with nest sites and areas used by brooding females.
  • Spatially and temporally describing gobbling activity and relating gobbling activity to nesting chronology of females and movement ecology of males.
  • Evaluating the genetic mating system of wild turkeys and describing patterns of parentage in clutches of females.
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The work involves trapping gobblers and hens on SRS, banding them, collecting DNA, and outfitting them with GPS backpack units. Data downloaded from the backpack transmitters will give researchers an amazing wealth of information about the nesting behavior of turkeys in a setting where there is no hunting pressure.

“The data sets generated by these backpack GPS units are incredible,” said Cantrell. “It allows for the monitoring of nesting activity, brood survival and causes of mortality. We will be comparing findings, and in some cases raw data sets, from this study to findings from other studies that have previously occurred in S.C. and across the Southeast on hunted populations.”

This in-depth study will provide opportunities for assessments of how the presence, or absence, of hunting pressure influences various population parameters and behavior of wild turkeys. It’s a key piece of the puzzle sought for big game managers in Southern States responsible for setting harvest dates that lessen the impact of hunting pressure on nesting success.

Researchers and graduate students from LSU, in particular, are familiar with wild turkey research in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Under the direction of LSU professor Brett Collier, LSU graduate students previously conducted a three-year movement and gobbling study on the SCDNR’s Webb Wildlife Center in Hampton County that was designed to pinpoint the start of nesting activity as part of an effort to better understand the impact of season start dates in South Carolina.

After they are captured, tagged and released, a handheld GPS Unit/computer is used to download the data collected from turkeys in the study remotely.

Unlike other game birds, wild turkeys are hunted during spring, a time frame coinciding with reproductive activities such as breeding and nesting. There is a delicate balance between the timing of spring gobbler season and the timing of nesting because hens must breed in order to successfully nest. Given this period’s biological importance, wildlife managers and legislators are challenged to avoid negative population impacts due to harvest while simultaneously providing quality hunting opportunities.

Turkey tag fees will also be utilized to fund turkey-management projects on WMAs, according to Cantrell. Those plans are being developed right now. Having a source of revenue that is dedicated specifically to turkey habitat improvements will be key to making improvements on those public lands that are very popular with many of the state’s estimated 50,000 turkey hunters. Wild turkey management projects funded using turkey tag dollars will include habitat/ecosystem restoration, prescribed burning, native and exotic vegetation control, clearing and creation of new wildlife openings and planting of existing ones. This will be an opportunity to improve wildlife habitat on state and federal public lands throughout South Carolina.

Another important aspect of the Game Check system is the increased data that will be generated when all turkey hunters begin recording their harvest information. An electronic harvest reporting system is desirable and useful to biologists, law enforcement and hunters in several ways.

For one thing, it will provide SCDNR biologists (and the hunting public) with daily harvest totals by county, with further details about the time of harvest and age (adult gobbler or jake) of the bird. The ability to look at real-time harvest information at that level of detail – which isn’t possible with post-season mail-in surveys – will be critical for better understanding the effects of season timing/frameworks on our turkey population.

The SCDNR will also continue to do post-season mail surveys to complement the data that SC Game Check will provide. The surveys capture important information such as hunter participation rates and effort. The SCDNR Turkey Program has many years of data collected via surveys and maintaining that way of evaluating trends in harvest is important. Rather than replacing the turkey hunter survey data collection, SC Game Check will add to it.

The “Summer Turkey Survey” conducted annually since the early 1980s will also continue. The summer survey is used to estimate reproduction and recruitment of wild turkeys and involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians, and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public. These individuals record observations of gobblers, hens and poults across the state during July and August each year to determine gobbler to hen ratios, percentage of hens with broods, average brood size and recruitment ratio.

Physical turkey tags will also continue to be used as a way to ensure the enforcement of bag limits. Physical tags are a highly visible and effective method for enforcement of daily and seasonal bag limits in the field. Additionally, the requirement to obtain tags allows SCDNR to identify and communicate with turkey hunters, which facilitates effective post-season hunter surveys.

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