With turkey hunting opportunities in 49 states, parts of Mexico and several Canadian provinces, it seems like the sport might be at its zenith. But what about the future? Many folks are optimistic, but some aren't.
Consider this circa-2000 debate between two highly respected turkey biologists: Lovett E. Williams Jr. and George Hurst.
“I’m very optimistic for several reasons,” said Williams, one of the country’s best-known turkey biologists and contributing editor to Turkey & Turkey Hunting. “The turkey is well adapted to a much broader range of habitat conditions than we ever thought before. It’s also more compatible with a human presence than we ever thought. We’re seeing that when people don’t shoot hens and poults, turkeys are everywhere.”
Williams also believes turkey hunting has a great future, thanks mostly to the sport’s unique appeal.
“Hunters are satisfied without killing a whole lot of animals,” he said. “Quail hunting is hopeless. Duck hunting will one day go down the drain. But a turkey hunter can go out and be unsuccessful day after day, and it doesn’t dampen his zeal for turkey hunting. Then, when he kills one, he’s successful. It has that going for it, and other kinds of hunting don’t.
“Turkey hunting has changed from being not much different than squirrel hunting or duck hunting ... into a stylized type of hunting. People are basically accepting a kind of ethic and are adopting many of the same ideals.”
Williams acknowledges that booming turkey numbers lead to increasing hunter numbers and pressure. However, he doesn’t think that will cause problems.
“I think even with more turkey hunting pressure — which I think we’ll see more of, because it’s a great bird to hunt — I think turkeys can handle that,” he said. “Also, agencies can regulate turkey hunting better than many other things.”
In fact, Williams expects turkey hunting to thrive and, perhaps, outlive similar pursuits.
“I think it might be one of the last game birds that’s ever hunted successfully in a long-term tradition,” he said. “I think the future is very good.”
George Hurst, retired professor of wildlife management at Mississippi State University, foresees a negative future for turkeys and turkey hunters — at least in the Southeast.
Hurst said the South’s turkey population explosion is finished. Typically, bird populations boom and peak several years after restoration is complete. Then, turkey numbers subside and stabilize.
Also, Hurst believes urban sprawl, an increasing human population and modern forestry practices will decrease and degrade turkey habitat throughout much of the prime Southern turkey range.
“We (turkey hunters) are a tiny minority when it comes to land use,” he said. “I’m looking at 5 million acres of the Mississippi Delta, the most productive soil in the country. What is it devoted to, and what will it be even more devoted to? Production of food and fiber for man — period. End of discussion.”
Hurst cited heavy timber harvests in states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana as prime examples.
“The South’s future has to be negative, because forest products are the No. 1 crop,” he said. “We’re the wood basket of the nation, if you know what that means.”
Trees are renewable resources, but Hurst said the short-rotation pine plantations that typically replace mixed mature hardwood/pine forests make poor turkey habitat. Many forests are cut every 15 to 20 years, and managers don’t conduct any prescribed burns on these areas, Hurst said.
“Those pine plantations are not anywhere near the quality of habitat as a 60-year-old pine plantation that’s burned every three to four years,” he said. “A turkey says, ‘You took my mature forest, which produces mast, and gave me this damn thing?’”
Modern forestry practices also fragment areas of mature forests, which adds to another problem — predation.
“The old-forest fragmentation is a thing of the deep South,” Hurst said. “It increases patchiness, which is great for predators and disaster for turkeys. All the damn land use favors predation. It produces a real high prey base for feral dogs, coyotes, bobcats, hogs, owls and snakes, and makes great food sources for raccoons, possums and skunks. Wait a minute. The turkey loses; predators win.”
Hurst also lamented urban sprawl in many areas, notably Georgia and Florida.
Biologists, hunters, conservation groups, hunting clubs and some other private landowners will do their part to maintain turkey habitat and numbers, Hurst said. However, it’s unlikely they can gain ground against the current trends.
As that occurs, Hurst said, the number of turkey hunters will likely decrease, which spells more bad news for turkeys.
“The turkey will lose avid friends,” he said. “That hurts. I lost a guy who used to go to meetings, speak out for turkeys and spend a fortune to turkey hunt. He’s now buying golf clubs and all that other stuff.”