Politics & Government

Kansas turkeys on a 15-year decline; state ignores advice to alter hunting season

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Wild turkey populations are on a 15-year decline in Kansas. There are so few birds that more than half of the state’s hunters failed to bag a single turkey last spring.

But state officials didn’t make a change proposed by a team of biologists and law enforcement from across Kansas flouting their own guidelines for the second time in three years.

The proposed change would have suspended the fall turkey season, which runs from October to the end of January, in all of the state except the north-central unit in 2019.

The fall season is one of many factors driving down the turkey population, such as loss of quality habitat and weather, said Kent Fricke, small-game coordinator for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. But those things are largely out of the wildlife department’s hands.

“How low do we let things get before we do something?” Fricke asked the commission the state’s Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission in August.

Economic impact

If the problem continues, it could be a real threat to the Kansas economy and a blow to a state that has built a reputation as one of the premier turkey hunting destinations in the country.

Turkey hunters spend more than $51 million a year in the local economy, including buying gas, food and lodging. The spring season alone brings $1.7 million a year in permits and tag sales to the state’s wildlife department, a state agency that doesn’t receive any support from the general fund.

Fall season, which allows more liberal hunting methods such as using dogs, has more of a long-term impact on turkeys and brings fewer hunters and less money to the state than the spring season.

Unlike in the spring, turkey hunters can legally kill hens and young turkeys in the fall, wiping those birds out of the breeding population.

If Kansas is going to do anything about the turkey drop, experts say the fall season is the place to do it.

If the fall season ended, the wildlife department would lose more than $150,000 in annual tag sales. The local economy would miss out on an estimated $8 million that hunters would spend. It would also be odd to suspend the season when the department just started running advertisements that promote its fall turkey season as a tourism attraction, one commissioner said.

Adaptive harvest strategy

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has guidelines in place to keep turkey seasons in check, called the Adaptive Harvest Strategy, meant to keep turkeys abundant and hunters happy. A committee of experts makes recommendations to the wildlife commission based on those guidelines. But the decision to follow the guidelines rests solely with the commission, a group appointed by the governor.

If the population looks like it’s not doing well, the commission can reduce the number of tags it sells or change its seasons until things get better.

Plunging hunter success rates and dropping permit sales the last three years suggest something needs to change.

Gerald Lauber, a fall turkey hunter and the chairman of the wildlife commission, has been the most outspoken opponent of the proposed change.

He said the average of 350 hens killed in the state each fall “doesn’t make a difference” in a state where 30,000 turkeys are killed during a typical spring. He worries that if the fall season is suspended, it’ll be gone forever — ending a tradition he shares with his grandchildren, he said.

“It’s an exciting hunt and an opportunity for recruitment,” he said. “(You) don’t have to sit as still, (it has) a lot of value, and adaptive harvest strategy throws that out the window and discards it to save 350 birds.”

Lauber said suspending the fall season to save those hens is like “swatting flies with a sledgehammer.”

“I don’t view this number as having an overall effect,” he said.

Turkey experts suggest otherwise.

“It absolutely can make a huge impact on your overall population,” said Kevin Lowry, lead turkey biologist for Georgia, a state with a booming turkey population that doesn’t have a fall hunting season.

“When you harvest a hen, you’re essentially harvesting a whole nest. When you harvest a tom or a jake, it’s just that bird,” Lowry said.

That’s because each hen turkey killed in the fall can have as many as 20 eggs in the spring, which can cause exponential damage to the population.

Fricke, the biologist from Kansas, said this is called an “additive effect,” and it’s the reason he thinks the fall season should be suspended in struggling areas.

Depending on successful breeding and poult survival, a single Kansas fall turkey hunting season could eliminate tens of thousands of turkeys from the breeding population a few years down the road. Over the years, those numbers add up.

The turkey population in the north-central unit of the state, especially near the Nebraska border, continues to have strong numbers. Under the biologists’ proposal, that unit would have remained open for the fall season. Fricke said he thinks the decline is part of a general decline that’s spreading from the southeastern part of the country.

Among the causes specific to Kansas, Fricke said turkeys are losing habitat, and “the rate of loss is unclear and complex.”

Prairie is being converted to cropland, woody plants are encroaching into grasslands, and that’s causing “increased fragmentation” in the state, Fricke said. That limits where turkeys can build nests and raise their young.

“While there remains a large quantity of turkey habitat in Kansas, the quality of that habitat has been decreasing over time,” Fricke said.

Compounding that problem, pesticides are driving down the number of bugs available for young turkeys eat. Extreme weather on both ends of the state in recent years have added to the turkey’s problems.

How we got here

The re-introduction of turkeys into states across the United States has been one of the country’s greatest conservation success stories. A combination of over-hunting and habitat destruction during the 1800s and early 1900s drove the birds to near-extinction in states like Kansas.

By 1920, wild turkeys in Kansas and many other states were so scarce that they were considered wiped out.

Turkeys were a major source of food for early Kansas settlers, who would exploit the birds’ roosting habits — they’re almost impossible to force from their roosts — and take out entire flocks from trees at night. They were used to feed families, sold to markets and killed to feed passing wagon trains.

In 1965, the same year Kansas opened its first deer regulated season, plans were set in motion for the state to start receiving trapped turkeys from Texas and Oklahoma. At the time, it would have been rare to see a turkey in the state, as wildlife commissioners and researchers estimated the population was about 300 turkeys in Kansas, mostly near the Oklahoma border along rivers and streams.

It’s a time that’s hard to imagine, now that Kansas has re-established itself as one of the premier hunting destinations in the country and is frequently featured as one of the best turkey hunting states in the country. But it got that way after years of more cautious game management.

The first Kansas fall turkey hunting season opened in 1979, 14 years after the birds were re-introduced to the state.

It lasted just 16 days.

Kansas turkey population hit its peak in the early 2000s, Fricke said. And it’s been on a steady decline since. In 2005, an estimated 70 percent of hunters bagged at least one turkey in the spring.

Last spring, hunter success rates hit their lowest levels in 25 years when 57 percent of surveyed hunters failed to bag a bird.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.