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>>GRANT: Turkey season has closed or is about to close in most states. But that doesn’t mean I’m not continuing to think about turkeys.
>>GRANT: I have been an avid turkey hunter for many years. And I have seen seasons with a lot of turkeys and some with not quite so many.
>>GRANT: Typically, in those seasons with fewer birds the local wildlife management agency will tell hunters that due to a really wet spring the previous year or a couple of years before resulted in a small hatch and that turkey populations will rebound within a year or two.
>>GRANT: However, I’ve never experienced the decline in turkey populations over such a large geographic area as I’m seeing now. I’ve got to tell you, I and several biologists I’ve been visiting with are concerned about turkey populations.
>>GRANT: Daniel and I travel extensively to assist landowners with habitat and hunting improvement plans. And a few years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined driving through states like South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, without seeing a lot of turkeys out in fields this time of year.
>>GRANT: As an example, Daniel and I recently drove to Northwestern Kansas from The Proving Grounds and we assisted a couple of different landowners during that trip. We drove about 1,500 miles and except for one flock we saw on a property where we were working, we saw less than a dozen turkeys during that entire trip.
>>GRANT: Now you know, we’re both avid hunters and we were looking the entire way trying to see who could spot the most toms in fields.
>>GRANT: It’s not just our personal observations that concern me, several state agencies have good data about declining turkey populations. In fact, some of them are adjusting seasons and limits accordingly.
>>GRANT: When I attended Clemson University in South Carolina, all hunters were allowed five turkeys a spring. Five turkeys a spring. I’ve got to tell you this Missouri boy was running wild through the mountains above Clemson University.
>>GRANT: Since then, the bag limit has been reduced significantly. Now hunters are allowed to tag three male turkeys during the spring season and only one during the first ten days of the season.
>>GRANT: The reason for restricting harvest during the first ten days is so there will be more males available during the primary portion of the turkey breeding season. And I think they have a good plan.
>>GRANT: Several other states are discussing similar changes, such as adjusting when the season opens, the bag limits, and even restricting the use of decoys.
>>GRANT: Any way you slice it, something is certainly happening in a negative fashion to turkey populations throughout their range. And usually when a population is declining, it has something to do with the habitat quality.
>>GRANT: Turkeys need quality nesting and brooding habitat for the populations to thrive. And it’s easy to understand why. When you look at the total time on the ground, think about eggs and poults before they’re mature enough to fly, that’s over 50 days. Fifty days for those young turkeys to spend 24 hours a day on the ground.
>>GRANT: You may be wondering where we come up with the number “50 days on the ground.” Well, let’s dissect that a bit. A hen typically lays ten to 14 eggs. So, the first egg on the ground is going to be there at least ten days before the hen starts incubating it. And then she’ll incubate, or sit on that nest, almost all hours of the day for about 27 days. So, that oldest egg – 10 plus 27, that’s 37 days.
>>GRANT: Once the eggs have been incubated and the eggs hatch, those poults are 13 to 14 days old before they’re flying well enough to get into a tree and roost at night. So, if you add that together – 10 days on the ground, 27 days incubating, and 13 days minimum before they’re mature enough to get up into a tree – fly up into a tree – that’s 50 days. Fifty days on the ground with a lot of predators moving around.
>>GRANT: Without quality nesting or brooding habitat, it’s very likely for a predator to travel close enough downwind to smell the eggs or the poults and come in and wipe them all out. That’s exactly why we need quality habitat, especially during the nesting and brooding season.
>>GRANT: Let’s put some numbers to that. Several researchers have shown that about 50% of turkey nests are destroyed by predators and that’s before they hatch – 50%. And that number is likely much higher in areas with low-quality habitat.
>>GRANT: If a poult survives to about six weeks of age, it can fly really well, it can avoid predators with flight, the chances of survival increase significantly.
>>GRANT: Clearly, predation wasn’t that high historically, or turkey populations wouldn’t have built up to these extremely high numbers. And I think there’s several reasons why this imbalance of predators to prey, specifically turkeys, have occurred.
>>GRANT: Let’s consider some of the habitat changes that have taken place. You know, historically, the explorers wrote about huge flocks of turkeys. And there are also huge prairies or savannahs – very large areas of cover – where turkeys could hide from predators.
>>GRANT: Fast forward to now and the habitat throughout much of the turkeys’ range is highly fragmented. We’ve ended up with narrow, or small, blocks of cover. And it looks good, but in de facto we’ve made predator food plots, not cover.
>>GRANT: For example, several of the timber harvest practices or BMPs, Best Management Practices, call for SMZs, Streamside Management Zones. And they leave fairly narrow blocks of cover along the stream or wet area to keep sedimentation from making it to the water source.
>>GRANT: This is the best cover in the area, so turkeys are going to nest there. Or we think about the same sediment catching zones and the edge of ag fields. Some of these are called CP33 projects, where especially a long, narrow strip of CRP on the edge of an ag field.
>>GRANT: Well, typically it drops off to a lower area beside that. And – and we know at night that air is cold, so the thermals are gonna sink. And any raccoon, opossum, fox, coyote, skunk traveling on the low side of that narrow strip of cover is going to smell the nest or the poults or the chicks or the fawns, go in there, and predate that area.
>>GRANT: If you really consider what’s happening with these narrow strips of cover, you understand why I call those predator food plots. You’re building an area that’s going to have food for predators.
>>GRANT: This is not to say that those management practices haven’t done a wonderful job of reducing sediment getting in the streams or wetlands. But if wildlife is part of the decision-making process, we need larger, different shaped cover areas so we’re not creating predator food plots.
>>GRANT: We’ve got to expand the width of those strips or even make them square or some other shape, so a predator simply can’t walk on the downhill side and smell all the young prey species in that cover area.
>>GRANT: When we look at predation on adult turkeys, it’s much higher on hens than it is toms. And the reason is simple – that hen is committed to sitting on a nest or staying on the ground with the young poults for so many days. They’re not up in a tree. And, of course, predators are more active at night – most of the turkey predators are more active at night – and that hen on the ground trying to defend her nest is much more likely to be predated on than a tom sitting 20 feet up in a tree.
>>GRANT: Habitat quality is a huge factor in the quality and quantity of wildlife populations. And as I travel throughout the turkeys’ range, I’m really concerned as I continue to see more fragmentation and decrease in the quality of brooding and nesting habitat.
>>GRANT: Fortunately, there’s some relatively easy solutions to improve the quality of turkey habitat, and, of course, the habitat for many other game and non-game species.
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>>GRANT: Through the years we’ve shown many examples of high-graded, closed-canopy forest. Sometimes I’ll be working in the forest, and I’ll stumble upon a turkey nest and it’s just by the base of a tree. I mean, there’s no cover around. I – I can see it from 20 yards away. Those white eggs are just shining. Think about how easy it is for ground-based or even avian predators to find that nest.
>>GRANT: Knowing that most of the hardwood forest throughout the United States have been high-graded, there’s a big need for forest value and habitat quality. To go into those areas and terminate the low-quality trees; thin that forest out so each tree is getting more sunshine – more photosynthesis; and allow those trees to grow more while allowing vegetation – grasses and forbs – to grow between the trees.
>>GRANT: Another factor is how cattle pastures are managed these days. Many cattle pastures are planted with cool season grasses like fescue or something like that. And they create just a solid sheet of grasses that’s very thick throughout the entire pasture.
>>GRANT: If we compare that to native habitat like big bluestem, little bluestem, mixed in with a lot of forbs, well, those native grasses – warm season grasses – tend to grow in clumps. And there’ll be a really thick clump and maybe some bare ground and then a ragweed or something else.
>>GRANT: And there’s all this habitat for young poults to move through and there’s cover from avian predators versus you think about maybe a turkey nesting in a fescue field. And that egg hatches – well, that poult is so small and so frail, there’s no way it can walk through that thick fescue. It’s basically dead before it knows it.
>>GRANT: At the same time, habitat is declining in many areas, the number of predators is increasing. We’ve made it easier for predators to hunt; we’ve provided a great food source and the number of trappers has decreased significantly throughout the turkeys’ range.
>>GRANT: Some of the most interesting data I’ve seen on this subject was made by my friend, Dan Applebaum, that showed a decline in both turkey harvest numbers and fur sales in the state of Missouri.
>>GRANT: There’s an obvious trend, not necessarily correlation, but trend, of this decline in turkey harvest numbers and decline of fur sales.
>>GRANT: We’ve filmed coyotes, bobcats and hawks all attacking our turkey decoy. Most recently it was a hawk, and I mean it came in talons open and tried to grab that decoy right where the neck meets the head.
>>GRANT: Think of the odds of you sitting there with a camera focused on it and seeing that. Now, how much does that happen in real life? We’re out there for a few hours. Think about a real turkey being out there day after day after day – 365 days out of the year. Imagine how many turkeys are being predated on.
>>GRANT: Here at The Proving Grounds and at several of the landowners we’ve assisted, have better than average turkey populations. And I believe the reason is we’ve worked simultaneously to improve habitat quality and reduce the number of predators.
>>GRANT: An easy indication for wherever you’re hunting is how many jakes you see. If you’re seeing a lot of jakes, well, there’s a good hatch the previous year.
>>GRANT: If it’s been several years since you’ve seen a number of jakes, you need to start thinking about the habitat quality and the number of predators where you hunt.
>>GRANT: Before I get a bunch of hate mail, I’m not talking about wholesale slaughter of predators. I’m talking about balancing the number of predators so prey species can survive and thrive.
>>GRANT: And every time I talk about trapping, I’ll get just a little bit of hate mail. And I always wonder, “How do you think your ancestors stayed warm?” They didn’t walk over to the thermostat and turn it up a notch or two.
>>GRANT: I’ve got to tell you, this year for Christmas, I took some raccoon and opossum hides and had a really nice blanket made for Ms. Tracy. A few years ago, I took some raccoon and coyote hides I’d trapped right here at The Proving Grounds and had a king-size blanket made. I mean, man, I was so excited to give it to her. And she opened it up and I mean, it’s beautiful and warm and just – it’s incredible. It should be in a museum. I mean, it’s awesome.
>>GRANT: Man, we fluffed it all out and put it on the bed. I’m so excited, man. And about ten minutes in the bed, we’re kicking that thing off. It is so hot. I see how our ancestors stayed warm.
>>GRANT: And that’s why I double backed this year and had one made with opossum in the center and raccoon around the outside edge. Raccoon is a tougher hide, so if you grab the blanket and pull it, no chance you’re going to rip it or anything. And opossum does not retain as much heat.
>>GRANT: I know you’re thinking, “An opossum and a scavenger? I see it on the road. It’s eating, you know, a dead cow or something.” If you’ve never felt an opossum pelt, you are missing out. And that’s why I’ve nicknamed them the Ozark Mountain mink. They are so soft; the pelt is so fine. And I’ve got to tell you, that blanket is a welcome addition to our house.
>>GRANT: If there are a lot of predators where you hunt; you’re not seeing many turkeys; you’re not seeing many jakes; there’s predator tracks and scat everywhere; they’re all over your trail cameras – I suggest you do what we do and start trapping.
>>GRANT: Bill Duke of Duke Traps and I were recently talking about this big decline in turkey populations throughout much of their range. And he agrees with me – it’s time to do something.
>>GRANT: So, if you call Duke Traps, they’re offering a big discount to GrowingDeer viewers on the raccoon size live or cage trap. That’s my favorite trap. It’s super easy to set and if I’ve got to go out of town to work, I can just put the door down real quick; come back when I get home, open it up. It’s the most convenient way to work on balancing the amount of nest predators on your property.
>>GRANT: Maybe it’s hate mail day, but every time I mention trapping opossums, I get a lot of hate mail. And the subject is always, “Oh my goodness. They’re supposed to eat about 4,000 ticks a day. That’s why you’ve got so many ticks at The Proving Grounds.” And I’m thinking, “Really?” I mean, we’ve reduced the amount of ticks I’m getting here at The Proving Grounds and how many we see on deer through the use of prescribed fire.
>>GRANT: Let’s just think about this. Here’s a really cool graph of opossum population trends from the Missouri Department of Conservation clearly going up.
>>GRANT: Now, I don’t need to show a graph to anyone that shows that tick populations are going up. They’re probably going up faster than opossum populations. Clearly, opossums are not controlling the amount of ticks in Missouri or anywhere else.
>>GRANT: And besides, almost no one traps anymore. There’s more opossums now than in probably any time in my lifetime and tick populations are climbing. But we know that prescribed fire is a great tool to set back or reduce tick populations.
>>GRANT: Lots of research on this. Pennsylvania is now making it legal for landowners to use prescribed fire. Other northeastern states are considering this as a tool to control tick populations, not just improve wildlife habitat.
>>GRANT: Several state wildlife and forestry agencies offer prescribed fire classes and if you’re not skilled in the use of prescribed fire, I strongly suggest you attend one of these classes and add that tool to your bucket that you use to improve wildlife and habitat where you hunt.
>>GRANT: While talking about predators, I strongly encourage state agencies to allow trapping during the nesting and brooding seasons. That’s the critical time.
>>GRANT: States that have a trapping season that ends in January or February is missing the boat for an opportunity to allow private citizens to do some great conservation work.
>>GRANT: There are many, many factors contributing to this current decline of turkey populations.
>>GRANT: It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. And I hope you will work with biologists and turkey enthusiasts where you live to discover and address the issues that are most likely impacting turkey populations where you hunt.
>>GRANT: I believe the time is now for us to unite and address the issues that are impacting turkey populations. I don’t think we’ve got a lot of time to waste, and I hope this episode serves as a catalyst to start some very good conversations about turkey conservation.
>>GRANT: Learning more about the interaction between habitat and critters is a great way to be outside and enjoy Creation.
>>GRANT: More importantly, I hope you take time every day to be quiet and listen to what the Creator is saying to you and His will for your life.
>>GRANT: Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.