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Wild turkeys art

In a recent article I speculated that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources would propose to the state legislature a statewide opening date of April 1 for the wild turkey season. Actually, it’s worse than I thought.

The proposal, outlined in a SCDNR report dated Nov. 1, 2018, recommends an opening date of April 10, with the season extending to May 15.

Turkey season: The old bait-and-switch

The DNR report, mandated by Act 41 of the legislature, is 28 pages long, filled with technical language, graphs and charts. It makes many conclusions based on supposition. Hunter harvest surveys, summer production surveys, and a gobbling chronology and nesting study are cited. The surveys and studies were used to validate the department’s conclusions. Of course, we know that data can be manipulated to support any position.

It was Camelot: Magical time in a magical place for turkey hunting

Act 41 was passed by the General Assembly in 2015. It temporarily set the wild turkey hunting season from March 20 to May 5 statewide in an effort to standardize regulations. It also reduced the bag limit from five to three gobblers. The act required SCDNR to conduct research and issue recommendations for seasons and bag limits after three years. A subsequent act extended Act 41 an additional year.

Prior to 2015, the turkey season in 12 Lowcountry counties began on March 15 and ended on May 1. The rest of the state opened April 1 and ended May 1. This split season recognized seasonal differences between the Lowcountry and the Upstate, and was in place for 40 years before Act 41 was passed.

The DNR report has placed blame on the Act 41 season adjustments for causing an increased harvest in a decreasing turkey population. The report goes on to cite early season harvest of dominant gobblers and hunting-related activities as other limiting factors – things that didn’t seem to be a factor in the 40 years prior.

The department’s report also states that causes in wild turkey declines may include changes in habitat, forestry practices and predation, but the only factor that can be managed is hunter harvest activities. So the only result is a reduced hunting opportunity?

Opening day in the turkey woods

The report states that an April 10 opening date is an average of 15 Southeastern states, but doesn’t name those states. The internet only recognizes 12 Southeastern states to include Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Kentucky borders the Ohio River, Tennessee extends beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and Arkansas is west of the Mississippi River and is in another time zone. Not good comparisons.

I know that Alabama has a March 15 opening, with a five-bird limit, so I went online to look at some other Southern states. Georgia opens turkey season March 23 and ends May 15. That’s more than 50 days. Florida has split seasons that open March 2 and 16. Mississippi opens March 15. Texas opens March 17. I wonder what other states helped make up the average.

So, why do I have a problem with an April 10 opening date and a May 15 ending for the South Carolina turkey season? Tradition, yes that’s a factor. I’ve only been hunting turkeys for 25 years, but a March opening has been a tradition for me and many others. The weather is cool, bugs and snakes aren’t out, and the woods aren’t yet cloaked in green. Nobody wants to hunt later into May.

Hunters don’t care about gobbling frequency, or how many days it takes to get a gobbler. We care about the experience and ample opportunity. Don’t take that from us, we’re the ones that support conservation and put dollars in the mix for wildlife. I think that the DNR wants to protect the resource, but at what cost to the hunters of our state? There could be a better balance.

I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t do any good to complain unless you can offer some solutions, so I will offer the following. If a reduction in harvest is desired, then limit the daily harvest to one. Limit the county harvest to one, and limit the WMA harvest per unit to one, with a total season limit of three.

The proposed turkey season changes have seen no public scrutiny. There have been no meetings, nor public input from hunters, land managers and outfitters. Hunters will not support this proposal as offered, and the DNR knows it.

The Lowcountry will be the biggest loser in this change. Hunters come to the Lowcountry to get an early start on the turkey season. They spend money on gas, food, licenses and are an economic factor in the region. If this proposal becomes law, they will go somewhere else.

There’s one final thing that bothers me more than anything else. A biologist at the DNR told me in a telephone conversation four years ago that the department would recommend a statewide April opening date for turkeys, after the three years of stabilized regulations. They had already made up their minds before Act 41 was passed into law, and before any surveys, and studies were done.

The sportsmen of South Carolina deserve better than that.

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T&D outdoors columnist Dan Geddings is a native of Clarendon County currently residing in Sumter. He is founder and president of Rut and Strut Hunting Club in Clarendon County and a member of Buckhead Hunting Club in Colleton County.

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