Wild turkeys are being over-hunted in South Carolina as sportsmen take advantage of a 4-year-old law that made it easier to kill the popular game birds, state wildlife managers say.
Despite plummeting turkey populations, the Legislature agreed in 2015 to start the spring turkey-hunting season 10 days earlier throughout much of the state. That was part of a change that gave sportsmen about three extra weeks to hunt.
Now, state wildlife managers say they are seeing evidence that the turkey population — already declining — is suffering even more.
A new study found the birds aren’t reproducing as often, which, biologists say, is a bad sign for future wild turkey populations. Meanwhile, hunters report killing 18 percent more turkeys each year since the hunting season was changed, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
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“It looks like hunting may be playing a bigger role than we thought in the past, ’’ said Charles Ruth, turkey project supervisor at Natural Resources. “Something has changed.’’
Crafty birds that also make tasty meals, wild turkeys have been on the decline since 2002, when their S.C. population peaked at about 176,000, according to the wildlife agency. Today, the population has dropped to about 123,000, at least partially because of over-hunting, according to Natural Resources..
During a hearing Wednesday, legislators said they were trying to help turkeys recover when they agreed in 2015 to let sportsmen begin hunting in mid-March, instead of waiting until early April throughout much of the state. As part of the 2015 deal, legislators passed a tougher bag limit that they thought would help populations recover. The earlier start date to the hunting season was to appease turkey hunters.
But the tougher bag limit didn’t make much difference.
Instead, Natural Resources and the National Wild Turkey Federation said the earlier start date and longer hunting season are the problems. Male birds that are ready to mate in mid-March — prime mating season — now are being killed, making it harder for females to find partners, according to a study that wildlife agency officials gave to the Legislature this month.
The study, prepared during the past four years and headed by LSU researchers, recommends beginning the turkey hunting season no sooner than April 5 and ending it in early May to help populations recover.
Not everyone likes that idea.
During a state Senate committee hearing Wednesday, some hunters and legislators questioned the study’s findings and bristled at the suggestion that hunters are to blame for the lower turkey population.
Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, asked whether coyotes and state land management practices, such as intentionally burning land to clear thick forest vegetation, are having an impact on the turkey population. Others also said bad weather, habitat loss and other predators are taking a toll.
“Hunters should be the last thing that we look at as the problem,’’ Goldfinch said. “In most cases, hunters are the solution.’’
But the National Wild Turkey Federation endorsed Natural Resources’ proposal to cut back the hunting season. Officials of the group, which promotes conservation for turkey hunting, said lawmakers are misguided in questioning the recent study, adding the state needs to correct its mistake from 2015.
“You don’t want to believe data that’s been four years generated by real biologists? That doesn’t make any sense,’’ said Larry Deas of the Turkey Federation. “Y’all legislated the change .... with no research, and it has devastated the turkey population.”
In addition to the longer, earlier hunting season, the decline of turkeys also could be attributable to more efficient hunting techniques by the state’s 50,000 turkey hunters, Ruth told the Senate committee.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he plans to introduce legislation this year to move the date of the turkey hunting season.