Three times a year, rural mail carriers traveling the back roads of Nebraska check on the turkeys.
They record the number of birds they see, note the number of miles they have traveled, and send the information back to biologists at the state Game and Parks Commission.
Last July, more than 370 carriers in most of the state’s 93 counties participated, totaling turkeys in four days and 156,000 miles. They repeated the process in October and April.
The commission has relied on transporters to count turkeys — and partridges, bobwhite quail, pheasants and rabbits — since the 1940s.
“It’s a really useful tool,” said Luke Meduna, the commission’s big game program manager. “That’s really good data.”
And he tells Meduna and his team the story of a steep decline in the state’s turkey population, which has fallen 45% since its peak years of 2008 to 2010.
But it’s not just the rural mail carrier network that is noticing the decline. Hunters see it too.
In the fall of 2014, almost 70% of license holders succeeded in their hunts; last year, that number fell to 46%.
In post-season surveys, the commission asked hunters if they would hunt turkeys in Nebraska again after their 2021 experiences. Of the 441 who responded, 7% said no, and a few gave their reasons:
“We don’t see enough to spend the license money on,” one wrote. “For 10 years, the turkey population has been catastrophic.”
And: “No birds, not a good use of my free time.”
And: “The population needs to bounce back before we stop hunting.”
Due to the drop, Meduna and his staff have recommended restrictions on the spring and fall 2023 turkey hunts, including smaller bag and permit limits and a shortened fall season.
Specifically, they suggested the commission remove six weeks from the fall season and lower the bag limit from two birds to one. For the spring season, they recommended reducing the permit limit from three to two.
Meduna predicted changes to the fall season alone would reduce the harvest by up to 40% – from 2,529 turkeys last year to around 1,500 in 2023.
By comparison, hunters in Nebraska killed more than 7,000 birds during the 2014 fall season.
After Meduna and his team recommended the restrictions, he heard about a dozen hunters, he said.
None of them objected to the changes. “In fact, quite a few have said we’re not going far enough.”
And at their Friday meeting in Lexington, the game and parks commissioners said the same – and voted against the proposed changes.
“They rejected our staff’s recommendations on the basis that we weren’t doing enough to minimize the impact on the turkey population,” Meduna said after the meeting.
Stewards have called for a revised plan that would further reduce the harvest of fall hens and minimize the impact of the spring season, he said.
He plans to prepare something for the August committee meeting.
where the birds have gone
Meduna couldn’t point to a single source of population decline, but he had a few guesses.
But first, he pointed to the flood years — the late 2000s — when turkeys were thriving in Nebraska. “There were literally turkeys everywhere. In town, and things like that.
This was likely an artificial high, driven by ideal nesting conditions, their instinct to produce as many offspring as possible, and a decline in predators.
“Turkeys can produce a lot of young in a hurry, and that was probably one of them. We’ve had a string of good years where the numbers have exceeded normal carrying capacity and what the habitat can support.
The boom also came in the wake of the West Nile virus, which had reduced numbers of great horned owls, a key predator of turkeys.
But the owls bounced back. And the number of coyotes – another predator – has increased, after being reduced by mange several years ago. Raccoons, which raid nests to prey on chicks, are also a threat.
At the same time, turkeys are losing land, Meduna said. The old wood ages and the red cedar invades. And when commodity prices rise, growers tend to plant where they have never planted before.
“We’ve seen a lot of historically marginal farmland being converted back to row crops,” he said. “The peripheral habitat of the turkey has become cultivated again.”
Still, these are just theories, he said. To get stronger evidence of what’s going on with Nebraska turkeys, the commission is planning a three-year research study with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Georgia.
This winter, they plan to place song counters in trees at two study sites in western Nebraska, allowing them to record the rate and intensity of gobbling and correlate it to breeding and breeding seasons. nesting. This will help show, among other things, the impact of hunting season on gobage, an important part of the turkey’s reproductive cycle.
They will also fit 120 GPS collars to turkeys – 60 at each site – to study male and hen survival, habitat selection and nest survival.
lion, otter seasons approved
On Friday, commissioners approved another mountain lion hunting season in the Pine Ridge area.
The 2023 season will be similar to 2022, with a limit of four animals and a sub-limit of two females. But the commission will reduce the number of lottery permits from 320 to 200 to try to increase the length of the season and increase hunter satisfaction, the agency said in a news release.
The commission estimated the mountain lion population at Pine Ridge at 33 animals.
And the commissioners also approved the state’s second regulated river otter trapping season, from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28 — or until 125 otters are harvested.
Extinct from the state for decades, river otters were reintroduced in the 1980s and have thrived ever since; the commission removed them from the 2020 endangered species list after their numbers exceeded 2,000 and they spread across the state.
Last year, the state announced its inaugural otter season, with 78 caught.