Opinion Extra

Op-ed: SC Legislators ignore science, research in regulating natural resources

Wild turkeys are popular game birds in South Carolina. This turkey was sporting his feathers in Orangeburg County in 2018.
Wild turkeys are popular game birds in South Carolina. This turkey was sporting his feathers in Orangeburg County in 2018.

The South Carolina Legislature continues to ignore the best available scientific information and the recommendations of natural resource management professionals when setting seasons and bag limits for wild turkeys, the state wild game bird. This is done despite the steady decline in recent years of wild turkey populations in South Carolina.

In 2015, the Legislature enacted Act 41 that set the statewide spring turkey season from March 20 to May 5. Previously the season began on April 1 except on private land in 12 Lowcountry counties, where the season opened March 15. A group of conservation professionals and turkey hunters expressed concern about this change and the Legislature mandated that the state Department of Natural Resources conduct a research study to determine optimal season dates. It was understood that research results would be used to help define future turkey regulations.

The research was conducted from 2015-2018 by DNR staff and a prominent turkey researcher from Louisiana State University. The study compiled turkey harvest data, nesting and gobbling chronology, and hunter information. Results were presented to the Legislature indicating the spring season should not open prior to April 9, the average date of nest initiation.

The findings of DNR and LSU researchers were backed up by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The association conducted an extensive literature review and recommended, in 2016, that spring turkey season opening dates should coincide with average date of initial egg laying.

In 2019, the Legislature ignored the recommendations of the association, DNR and and the research, passing a bill that allows turkey hunting in the lower state from March 22 through April 30 and in the upper state from April 1 through May 10. Only one gobbler can be taken during the first 10 days. During the hearings, some legislators attempted to question the research, despite the fact that natural resource management professionals strongly supported the findings. These attempts to discredit the research were without substantial merit and were based on the individual wishes of select legislators. One legislative member even bragged after the bill passed that “sometimes science loses.”

This is not the first instance of the state legislature ignoring the recommendations of DNR’s wildlife professionals and the science they provide. One legislator, representing a Piedmont county, introduced a bill to allow baiting for deer in the Piedmont counties. DNR had conducted a study demonstrating that baiting deer actually decreased the likelihood of killing a deer. Additionally, deer baiting is implicated in the spread of various parasites and diseases. Despite data provided by DNR and over strong objections by the agency, a bill allowing baiting for deer in the Piedmont passed. So once again … science lost. But, it wasn’t just science that lost, it was the resource and ultimately the people of South Carolina who lose when natural resource professionals are ignored.

As the previous example illustrates, the underlying issue runs deeper than turkeys. South Carolina is one of only a few states where natural resource management is controlled by the Legislature. Do South Carolinians want to continue with a system of natural resource management where science and professional judgment are often ignored and a system of Legislative power and constituent favors is maintained?

The information and opinions presented here were developed by retired natural resource professionals representing game management, fisheries management, nongame and endangered species management and forestry. These contributors — all masters level wildlife biologists or foresters — represent a combined 200 years of natural resource experience.

David Baumann is a retired turkey biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Steve Bennett is a retire nongame and endangered species biologist with the SCDNR.