Wildlife Commission tables help for wild turkeys

A Rio Grande tom turkey displays for a hen. (USFWS National Digital Library)

For the CCOF

Publication of the state’s hunting and fishing rulebooks could be delayed after the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission on Monday tabled discussion of emergency turkey hunting rules meant aid dwindling populations.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologists told the seven-member body that wild turkey populations have dropped an estimated 50 to 80 percent in some areas of the state over the past three years. An emergency decision was required because need for the changes became apparent this year after completion of the commission’s usual rule-making process during the winter months.

To make the publishing deadline for the state’s hunting and fishing regulation guides the new rules would need to pass before the end of June.

But commissioner John Zelbst, Central Region 6, and James Barwick, Southwest Region 7 said the choice before them in the commission’s regular monthly meeting was “too big to make in 15 minutes.” They moved to table discussion and the commission voted unanimously to do so without a set date. A special meeting is possible later this month if the date can satisfy a two-week public notice mandate and align with commissioners’ schedules—which seemed to be conflicting in open discussion after the vote.

If a special meeting date is not found, discussion would take place at the next regular meeting on July 12.

The commissioners seemed to dismiss the publishing deadline and said hunters could simply be informed the turkey hunting emergency rules could be found online.

In question is a proposal to reduce the statewide season limit on tom turkeys from three to one, to make the fall season a shotgun- and archery only season (no rifles or handguns),  and to create a single, later, statewide season that runs April 16 to May 16. The current season is April 1 to May 6 in all but several Southeast counties, where the season is April 16 to May 6.

Wildlife Division Chief Bill Dinkines told commissioners the later season gives turkeys a boost by allowing them to mate and establish nests before hunting seasons commence and that it might reduce non-resident hunting pressure because Oklahoma’s season opens a week or two prior to seasons in neighboring states. Kansas and Arkansas have already moved to later opening days to aid declining populations.

Wildlife Department biologist and Wild Turkey Project coordinator Rod Smith, who was involved in early transplanting of turkeys to boost Oklahoma’s populations 40 years ago, said the emergency ruling and short notice came about because of field observations, completion of winter population surveys that end in March, and completion of the review of 5,215 returns of online public surveys from Oklahoma’s turkey hunters. The survey was not mandated but the Department felt public involvement in such a big change was important, he said.

Barwick said he wanted to have time to read the public comments and more time to see population surveys and harvest reports. He questioned whether the problems related mostly to Wildlife Management Areas and how great a factor are non-resident hunters and fall harvest of hens by archery hunters.

Wildlife Department staff responded that only 10 percent of turkeys are attributed to out-of-state tags, that less than 20 percent are taken on state lands and that some commercial guides and many private landowners have reported that they didn’t hunt this spring because they saw markedly fewer birds. Biologists also noted the problem is regional and not just in Oklahoma.

Smith noted that while the online survey suggested a reduction to a two-tom season limit, a third of hunters who responded to the survey volunteered that they would prefer a statewide one-tom limit. Wildlife Department Director J.D. Strong said wardens and biologists had first proposed a one-tom limit but staff tried to err on the side of opportunity with the two-tome suggestion. Given the hunter responses and early  instinct among staff, the choice was made for a one-tom limit, he said.

“I had hoped you would trust me and Eric (Suttles, eastern wild turkey project leader) to do what we need to do for turkeys,” Smith said to Commissioner Barwick. “I would request that anything above what we’re brining to you to be considered for future regulations.”

Barwick countered that it was a big decision even if he did trust the biologists and what the surveys found.

“I’m not saying these won’t be implemented. We just want more information,” he 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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