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After months of work, the Department of Game Inland Fisheries has completed its first Wild Turkey Management Plan.
Courtesy of National Wild Turkey Federation
The Eastern subspecies of the wild turkey is the focus of a new draft management plan developed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and a stakeholder advisory committee.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
A Virginia big game hunting license includes tags for white-tailed deer, black bear and wild turkeys.
Turkeys are on the verge of making another connection with the large mammals.
The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has completed a draft of its first Wild Turkey Management Plan, a formal road map similar to those already in use to guide management approaches for bear and deer.
The plan is the result of months of work by a stakeholder committee that included professional biologists, hunters and others with a vested interest in turkeys.
Over the next few months the public will have an opportunity to review and comment on the plan, and that feedback could result in some tweaks to the document.
The DGIF’s board is expected to vote in October on the plan, which will guide turkey management in Virginia through 2022.
“It’s been a lot of time and effort,” said DGIF biologist Gary Norman, who manages Virginia’s wild turkey program and oversaw the plan’s development. “It was a steep learning curve, but it was a well-thought-out process.”
Norman said that having senior DGIF biologist Dave Steffen involved was helpful because Steffen has previously been involved with development of the bear and turkey plans.
Steve McMullin, an associate professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, also was involved in the plan. McMullin also had previously assisted the DGIF with similar plans, including the bear and deer management plans, and a plan for wildlife management area use.
The 62-page draft turkey plan goes into deep details in all aspects of turkey management, including the history of the species in Virginia, hunter trends and desires, and objectives for population management in the coming decade.
“It’s wild turkeys from A to Z,” Norman said.
Cully McCurdy, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, served on the committee as a mediator between the DGIF and the roughly 6,000 federation members in Virginia.
He said it’s common for state wildlife agencies to seek at least some input on game management
“But not many agencies want to go out and engage the public to the level DGIF has,” McCurdy said.
One big change in the plan’s management approach concerns how turkey habitat is classified.
Currently, DGIF biologists estimate turkey population numbers by developing an index based primarily on the spring turkey season kill, and analyzing those numbers based on each county’s square miles of forested land.
For the plan, Virginia Tech graduate student Holly Morris developed an approach that looks at habitat suitability.
“She’s been able to come up with habitat suitability numbers for each county,” Norman said. “It can completely change the approach for managing the population in a county.”
For example, a county might have a large amount of forested land. However, if that forested land presents poor or marginal turkey habitat, the population might be more limited than in a county with less forested land but with better habitat.
Morris said that hunters likely won’t be surprised by the habitat suitability model, which she developed by analyzing information including geographic information system data that differentiate among different kinds of land cover, including dense forests, open fields and urban environments.
Hunters who spend much time afield already are familiar with areas that tend to have the highest concentrations of turkeys, often areas that offer a patchwork of habitat types to offer food and cover for the big birds.
The county-by-county approach can have its challenges, one being the temptation to micromanage hunting seasons.
“Are we going back to something like the days when we had 16 different squirrel seasons?” Norman asked. “I hope not.”
One possible option to simplify the management approach, Norman said, might be to create turkey management units, rather than to try to manage on a county-by-county basis.
An important function of the plan is to establish population objectives.
In general, the plan seeks to increase the wild turkey populations in many counties, while stabilizing it in some.
That approach is in stark contrast to management objectives for whitetails, where stabilizing the herd is the primary objective across much of the state, with plenty of counties pinpointed for population reduction.
“For turkeys, I think everybody has oars in the boat generally moving in the same direction,” Norman said.
The plan does not ignore the possibility that turkeys can be unwelcome. The stakeholder committee included a representative from Virginia’s vintner community, because there is a perception that turkeys can damage grape crops.
“They have their negative impacts,” Norman said. “But compared to bear and deer, they are relatively small.”
The plan doesn’t make specific recommendations on turkey hunting seasons. Rather, the DGIF’s staff will use the plan’s objectives as it considers any adjustments to seasons.
Fall hunting seasons are a primary factor when it comes to turkey population trends. Virginia’s fall seasons range from two to eight weeks, but the kill is low, typically fewer than 5,000 birds annually.
Committee member Richard Pauley of Botetourt County, a longtime proponent of maximizing fall hunting opportunities as a way to attract new turkey hunters, said he was pleased that the plan provides for the possibility of additional crossover among deer firearms and muzzleloader seasons, and fall firearms turkey seasons, in counties where the population is robust.
Such expansion would likely increase the hunter take of hens, but Pauley thinks that will be OK.
“There are a lot of turkeys,” said Pauley, noting that hens can provide tough competition for spring hunters seeking to lure in gobblers. “Virginia is a difficult place to hunt in the spring because there are so many hens.”
So while the plan looks at turkey population distribution, it also explores how to allocate those turkeys among hunter groups, be they spring hunting fanatics, fall hunters, or those who appreciate some of both.
McMullin said the hope is that dialogue at the upcoming public meetings and via written feedback will help determine how that allocation will look over the next 10 years.
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