The Conservation Department attributes the smaller harvest to a decline in hunter participation.
JEFFERSON CITY-Hunters checked 5,928 wild turkeys during Missouri's fall firearms hunting season Oct. 1 through 31. It was the second-smallest harvest in the fall season's 33-year history.
Top harvest counties were Greene with 199 turkeys checked, Franklin with 157 and Webster with 154.
Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle, who oversees the Missouri Department of Conservation's turkey-management program, said the harvest was about what he would expect based on the number of fall firearms turkey hunting permits sold.
"The number of turkeys harvested per permit sold has remained relatively constant for the last 20 years," said Isabelle. "This year's permit sales were off by about the same percentage as the harvest."
Missouri held its first autumn firearms turkey hunt in 1978. Hunters bagged 4,374 turkeys that fall. The size of the fall harvest increased gradually over the following seven years. It nearly doubled in 1986, when the bag limit increased from one to two birds.
The fall harvest peaked in 1987, when hunters checked 28,139 birds. After that, the number of hunters participating in the fall season declined from a high of approximately 50,000 to 13,736 this year. The harvest trend mirrors declining hunter numbers.
Isabelle said several factors have contributed to fall turkey hunting's declining popularity. Among those factors has been the increasing popularity of archery deer hunting.
All 13 counties where hunters checked more than 100 turkeys during the fall firearms turkey season are south of the Missouri River.
"Northern Missouri counties led the state in turkey harvest for a long time," said Isabelle. "Hunters frequently saw lots of turkeys up there during the summer, and it got them excited about fall hunting. They have been seeing fewer birds, especially in the past few years, and I think that lots of turkey hunters in northern Missouri recognize that the population is down in that region of the state and are taking it upon themselves to not hunt birds in the fall as a result."
Isabelle said the sharp drop in this year's fall firearms turkey permit sales and harvest is not evidence of a proportional decline in the state's turkey population. He noted that the slide of the fall firearms turkey harvest began 25 years ago, when the state's turkey flock was still growing in some parts of the state.
"Our spring turkey harvest continued to increase during much of that period," he said. "From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, it grew from about 30,000 to just over 60,000. The decreased interest in fall turkey hunting obviously was not because we didn't have enough turkeys."
This year's fall firearms turkey harvest included 3,877 hens, or approximately 34 per county. Isabelle said a fall turkey harvest of this size has no effect on the number of turkeys available to hunters the following spring.
"Missouri's wild turkey population is estimated at approximately 500,000 birds," said Isabelle. "Population modeling indicates that as long as fall harvest does not exceed 10 percent of the statewide turkey population, it has little impact on the population. Even when you combine the fall archery and firearms harvests, the total is less than 2 percent of the state's turkey population. That is well below the 10-percent threshold."
Isabelle said that although turkey numbers are down in parts of the state due to a poor reproduction, turkey hunters can still expect some outstanding hunting opportunities during the 2011 spring season