Turkey season bag limit reduced to one tom

Wildlife Commission moves season to later dates, $1.3 million planned for new research

Tom turkeys walk through the fall woods. (USFWS Digital Image Library)

By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF

In an effort to curb population declines the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission voted Monday to drastically cut the wild turkey season bag limit from three birds to just one.

The seven-member commission voted unanimously to accept a Department of Wildlife proposal to change the season dates from April 6 through May 6 to April 16 through May 16 statewide and to change the fall season shotgun-only (no rifles). It voted 5-2 to reduce the statewide season bag limit to one tom.

Commissioners James Barwick, District 5, and Bruce Maybrey, District 2, voted against the one-tom limit while arguing in favor of a two-tom limit that would have allowed one bird taken by archery and one by shotgun. Arguments for simplicity in the rules, enforceability and concern for the population ultimately won out.

The move comes in concert with an announcement by the Wildlife Department that it will devote more than $1.3 million to new wild turkey population research projects.

“I am really grateful for all the great work by our biologists in providing the best data available, the unprecedented amount of public comments from passionate hunters, and the thoughtful deliberation by our Wildlife Conservation Commission. This was an extremely difficult decision, but I’m confident that the proposal passed today gives us the best chance of improving our wild turkey population while at the same time providing our hunters with the most opportunity possible,” said J.D. Strong, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “We can always review and adjust as we closely monitor reproductive success, hunter harvest and other measures going forward.”

The commission first aired a Wildlife Department proposal in its regular meeting June 7 but tabled the vote to give commissioners more time to understand the population and harvest trends, consider other options and still make a ruling in time for the department to meet deadlines for publication of its 2021-2022 regulations book. The commission will not hold its regular meeting next month, which was set for July 6.

Biologist Eric Suttles, a wild turkey project leader for the department, presented the commission with numbers that showed steady declines in wild turkey winter flock surveys and spring season harvests across most of the state the past three years. Estimated population declines are 55 percent in the northwest, 67 percent in the southwest, 12 percent in the northeast, 16 percent in the central region and 14 percent in the southeast region, according to the presentation. The southeast region saw less change, but was already was under a restricted bag limit and shortened season. Biologists acknowledge there are “pockets” around the state where localized populations are doing quite well, however.

Eastern and Rio Grande subspecies of wild turkeys are generally down across most of their range and Oklahoma’s issues are not unique. The later season opening, designed to allow the peak of the mating season to pass before mature toms are hunted, has been adopted in surrounding states as well. Biologists have noted that back-to-back years of extreme weather during nesting and brooding times and a lack of ideal habitat have contributed to the recent decline.

Commission debate focused most on a one-bird verses a two-bird season limit.

In the early June meeting Wildlife Division Chief Bill Dinkines pointed out the Department initially debated the one-bird limit but erred to the side of hunting opportunity and surveyed hunters on the question of going to a two-bird limit.

The more than 5,000 responses to the survey showed hunters strongly supported a reduced limit to two toms, but 1,500 respondents also wrote in to encourage a drop to one-bird limit and that made department officials think again.

“I want people to know we struggled with this question internally, mightily, with this question of two verses one, and I think ultimately we landed where we needed to be,” Strong said in Monday’s meeting.

Commissioner Barwick, while he argued for a two-tom limit and taking steps to preserve hunting opportunities, also noted that long-term sustainability of the wild turkey population was of primary importance.

Strong also noted that the Wildlife Department can propose adjustments to bag limits in response to obvious changes in the population or other factors and that the reduction in bag limit does not have to be a years-long situation.

“We’re also excited to launch over $1.3 million in new research projects that will help augment our understanding of the complex dynamics that go into a thriving turkey population,” Strong said.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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