This time of year, turkey hunters are in the spring woods sitting at the base of a hardwood or walking the edge of a river bottom doing what the uninitiated would never guess they do: trying to overcome a language barrier.
But it’s all kind of meaningless if there’s nothing in the woods to recognize these calls. And that — especially over the last few years — seems to be the case for too many turkey hunters. If you’re among the landowners who aren’t seeing wild turkeys on your place anymore, you’re not an outlier. The data suggest these anecdotal accounts are more than a passing apparition. They’re the consequence of a population in decline.
Most of the country’s wild turkey population is distributed across the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest. These regions are dominated by private land, so the geography in play makes private land management the “X factor” in efforts made to improve the health of the wild turkey population, and it puts U.S. rural landowners in the driver’s seat.
Adam Keith, co-founder of the land management consulting company Land and Legacy, believes private land management can turn the tide. This level of impact is possible because, as Keith says, private land management has lost its way. Yet, if landowners can get back to the basics, this group can make a measurable difference.
“I think in the past 20 years we’ve created these land management idols,” Keith says. “So we’ve gone all-in with food plots, for instance, and you’ll see a guy spend 75% of his time focused on these food plots, which likely only improves 5% of his property or less.”
When asked if we’ve collectively overshot the wild turkey population, Keith says yes. But he believes the way we’ve chosen to manage private lands is the key failure. And he’s careful to stress it’s not the private landowner’s fault. He’s doing what he believes is right, and what he can do is limited by time.
“A lot of landowners put all this work into the land management projects that will only impact a small percentage of their property, while the rest of the land gets left unmanaged because time doesn’t allow them to manage it,” he says.
The State of the Wild Turkey Population
Before we go any further and examine Keith’s approach to wildlife management and what he believes can make long-term, generational differences — not only for wild turkeys, but for all wild game on your property —here’s a closer look at the latest numbers relating to the wild turkey population.
Earlier this year at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s national convention in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Mike Chamberlain of the University of Georgia presented his research on the declining long-term trends in wild turkey productivity. Chamberlain is considered one of the country’s leading researchers on wild turkeys and recent population concerns.
When Keith was asked if he and his company align with Chamberlain’s findings, he said he “agreed with 99% of Chamberlain’s research.” He also rejected any argument that might suggest no true population decline actually exists in much of the southern states and Midwest — which isn’t an uncommon point of view held by some groups within the hunting community.
Below are takeaways from the research Chamberlain presented. He’s scheduled to present the full scope of his research at the Wild Turkey Symposium in Asheville, North Carolina, this summer.
Since 2004, the estimated abundance of wild turkeys in the U.S. have declined by 16%.
First, it’s unknown exactly how many wild turkeys are in this country. It’s not a number that has ever been known with any measure of precision. However, what each state wild agency can do is generate a statewide estimate of abundance based on the data they have. Using this as a benchmark, we can understand shifts in population based on the historical and current estimates of abundance.
According to Chamberlain, between 2014 to 2019, there was an estimated abundance decline of 3%. But, if we go back to 2004, we see a decline of 16% since that year. The greatest declines have occurred in four states:
These four states demonstrate a decline that’s cutting across subspecies, so the decline isn’t limited to only one or two of the five wild turkey subspecies found in the U.S.
Since 2004, spring wild turkey harvest has declined 19%.
If you take a 5-year snapshot of total harvest numbers, you’ll see they’ve declined by 13% from 2014 to 2019. But if we go back as far as 2004, harvest numbers are down by 19% through 2019. Fall harvest is down 31%, though Chamberlain notes this is partially due to regulation changes and partially due to a lack of interest.
In 2020, this downward trend was disrupted in some states by COVID. States typically considered destinations for turkey hunters pursuing turkeys out-of-state showed declines in harvest numbers. Meanwhile, other states recorded dramatic increases in harvests largely due to turkey hunters hunting in-state more often. This increase is expected to be the result of limited recreational and entertainment options during the pandemic. But we’ll need more seasons post-pandemic to know for sure.
There’s a general decline in long-term wild turkey productivity.
By 2011, there was a strong consensus among scientists who study wild turkeys that something was amiss. It takes two poults per hen to make a population and, today, many states are hovering below two poults per hen.
“Bottom line is — we’re not making turkeys,” says Chamberlain.
Chamberlain says across the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest, we’re seeing 22% nest success, so about 80% of the wild turkey nests in these regions fail. Of the nests that hatch, two-thirds of those broods are lost before they are a month old.
Chamberlain stresses that this decline — the nest failures and waning productivity — are not the result of a single thing. There are many negative influences that have aligned to effect change in wild turkey productivity.
Solutions to the Turkey Population Problem
From a regulatory state point, reading and learning about solutions to the wild turkey population decline can stir up impatience because nothing comes easy — “nothing” in this statement encompasses all the things that hinge on the consensus of your state’s regulatory arm, elected and appointed officials. Bureaucracy or protocol or both often stand in the way of swift change.
Yet, by most accounts, our state wildlife agencies are doing their best, and they’re making changes in the areas where they can make them.
“The bottom line is that state agencies can only control harvests,” says Chamberlain. “They can’t control habitat on private lands so harvests are the proxy they move back to when times are tough.”
As a hunting community, we’re tasked with giving these professionals the latitude needed to make the changes that will fix the problem such as harvest changes, regulatory changes and habitat changes on public lands. Already we’ve seen states including Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi tweak their 2022 hunting regulations to improve wild turkey productivity.
Meanwhile, landowners don’t have to wait on regulation to make a difference. Yet, to affect change, all signs are signaling that it’s time to rethink how these private lands are being managed.
"We should be focused on managing historical landscapes rather than managing for a certain species,” says Keith. “So if you look at it that way, in the last twenty years it’s fair to say we’ve lost our way.”
For starters, managing forests, grasslands and getting rid of invasive species should be our focus.
“If 90 percent of the acreage you own is in timber, you’re a timber manager,” Keith says.
Keith says one of the most valuable land management tools that is often overlooked is controlled burns. “Nothing can provide the same benefit as fire,” he says. “Yet, sometimes regulations can be a hindrance and, often, landowners avoid controlled burns because of liability or fear.”
In our LandBeat video on prepping land for a controlled burn, Keith tells landowner Aaron Warbritton, who owns a family farm in Northern Missouri, that going 10 years without prescribed fire is likely the biggest reason he’s stopped seeing wild turkeys on his property.
“It’s just too grown up,” he says. “Your woods are starting to grow up with Buckbrush and other understory that’s not as beneficial and your open areas are incredibly grown up.”
When Keith was asked how landowners receive his consult – this idea of changing how we manage property and taking the focus off of a single species, namely that big buck so many of us are managing for — Keith says most aren’t surprised.
“It’s like you’re telling them something they’ve never heard or haven’t heard in a long time, but they always knew deep down what they were doing didn’t make sense,” he says. “God made the template, and we’re just replicating His natural disturbances to the best of our ability to restore landscapes.”
Of course, resetting how we approach land management and buying into where our energy should be placed — managing timber, creating wildlife openings, killing invasives to start — doesn’t give readers the details required to start implementing a shift in strategy. But Keith and Land and Legacy cofounder Matt Dye have partnered with Whitetail Properties to film a live land management consultation in a six-part series. Much of what’s captured in these videos are applicable examples of how fundamental management practices can be used to restore wild turkey populations back to private lands.
Interested in Turkey-Hunting Tactics Instead?
If you’d like to improve your approach to turkey hunting this season, or you’re new to turkey hunting, check out some of our videos and other resources on how to locate birds, get familiar with different turkey sounds and learn to pair the right call with the right hunting situation.
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