Gobbling Up Turkeys at the Legislature

My turkey bill, LD 84, sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello, had its public hearing yesterday at the legislature. I was thrilled by the support the bill received, especially from the farming community. I’ve posted a report on the hearing in the outdoor news blog on my website georgesmithmaine.com.

Here is my testimony on the bill.

Maine has lost almost half its turkey hunters over the last seven years. That’s astonishing, because spring turkey hunting is an exciting experience. I’ve been hooked since my first day, when Harry Vanderweide accompanied me to a field near my house and called in a large gobbler. I shot the bird at about 5 yards.

“It’ll never be that easy again,” said Harry. And he was right! Turkey hunting is challenging, requiring lots of skill and a bit of luck, plus persistence.

I’ve found it to be a great way to introduce new hunters to our hunting heritage, because you’re interacting with – and seeing – turkeys almost all the time you’re hunting. There’s never a dull moment!

Despite all of that, Maine has lost almost half its turkey hunters, going from 24,050 in 2005 to 13,179 in 2012. This doesn’t include those who get free turkey permits including youth, seniors, and Supersports. While the number of permits sold to residents increased slightly last year, the number of permits sold to nonresidents continued to decline to just 714. Despite the fact Maine has the best turkey hunting in the nation, we’ve been unable to attract nonresidents here to hunt these wily birds.

Much of the problem with turkey hunting is the cost. I tried to address this 3 years ago, when the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine proposed to combine the fall and spring turkey hunts into a single permit and fee and increase the bag limit in the spring to two Toms. We also successfully advocated to allow junior hunters to hunt turkeys for free (at that time they had to pay the adult permit fee). Those changes were enacted as part of the agency’s budget in 2009 and took effect in 2010.

Unfortunately, some people got greedy and tried to turn this into a moneymaker, adding a second $20 fee to the second Tom in the spring. Consequently, DIF&W sold only 2,679 permits for second Toms last year. I bought one of them but didn’t end up shooting a second Tom. If my wife knew how much I spent on turkey hunting, I’d be doing all my future turkey hunting at Shaw’s Supermarket!

I’ve asked a lot of hunters why they don’t hunt turkeys, and almost always the answer is: it’s too expensive. So this bill addresses that problem by eliminating the turkey hunting permit and fee and adding the turkey hunt to the big game and small game licenses and other hunting licenses.

I’m not the only one who thinks the fees are too high. Brad Allen, DIF&W’s top bird biologist and the go-to-guy on turkeys, told me last March that “$20 for a turkey permit is horribly high, and $20 more for a second Tom is worse.”

Landowners

Turkeys are our best tool for accessing private land to hunt. Private landowners beg me to kill turkeys on their land – especially farmers. Here are two quick examples.

One year a strawberry farmer east of Augusta contacted us to hunt turkeys on his farm because turkeys searching for insects had dug up an entire field of strawberry plants. One other year, just before Christmas, a lady from Manchester called my hunting buddy Ed Pineau and begged him to shoot the turkeys that had eaten and destroyed the Christmas decorations on the deck of her house. She was very disappointed to learn that we could not harvest a few of those birds for our Christmas dinners!

It’s not overstating the case to say that many farmers and other private landowners hate turkeys. You’ll hear from some of them today.

You’ll also hear some interesting testimony on the impact turkeys are having on the fields, forests, and food that other wild critters depend on. I hunt turkeys and deer on a blueberry farm and woodlot totaling 150 acres, and there must have been 200 turkeys on that lot last November. They scoured the entire floor of the forest, leaving almost no acorns for any other critters that depend on them, including deer.

For the sake of Maine’s farmers and private landowners, we must get more hunters out after turkeys.

2012 Harvest

During the spring season last year, we killed only 5,938 turkeys. Let me say that again: we shot only 5,938 turkeys during last year’s spring season. That is an incredibly small percentage of the huge population of turkeys in this state. No one can argue that we cannot harvest a lot more turkeys!

And in the fall season, only 934 turkeys are known to have been registered – DIF&W is still waiting for 5 registration books to come in. The total harvest for 2012: 6,872.

Even if you believe DIF&W’s population estimate of 50,000 turkeys is accurate, we could easily kill 20,000 birds a year without impacting the total population. I personally think that estimate of 50,000 birds is very conservative.

I’ve looked at a lot of research over the past couple of weeks, to figure out just how many turkeys we could harvest in Maine without impacting the population. The quick answer: a lot!

A 2010 report on a four-year study of male wild turkeys in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania estimated the annual harvest of male turkeys at 24 to 28 percent in New York and Ohio and 35 percent in Pennsylvania, without any impact on the total population.

In Missouri, where the total turkey population is estimated to be 500,000 and where they’ve been hunting turkeys for 51 years, and where consequently they have a lot more experience with turkeys than we do, from the state agency’s website I learned:

“Hunting regulations have very little effect on over-all year-to-year turkey population levels. Yearly fluctuations in abundance are driven primarily by reproduction and recruitment, which are impacted by weather and habitat quality. Wild turkey populations are dynamic in nature and have the potential to experience rapid increases or decreases.”

Rest of the Bill

This bill is designed to attract more turkey hunters, but the proposed changes are really modest. The bill would allow all-day hunting in the spring, like we do now in the fall. That way, if you can’t hunt in the early morning before work, maybe you’ll go out at the end of the day after work.

South Carolina, where the wild turkey is the official state game bird and they are blessed with a population estimated to be 100,000 turkeys, hunters are blessed with all day spring hunting. The state agency’s 2012 turkey harvest report noted, “Traditionally, spring turkey hunting was primarily carried out during the first few hours of the day. As the popularity of turkey hunting has increased, many hunters now hunt in the afternoon as well.” The report says 75% of harvested turkeys are still taken in the morning.

In 2011, South Carolina had 41,420 turkey hunters, each of whom had a 5 gobbler bag limit. Those hunters harvested 21,552 turkeys, and only 3.7 percent took more than 3 gobblers. So you can see, this is not all about killing turkeys. It’s about expanding hunting opportunity. A longer season and higher bag limit won’t exponentially increase the turkey harvest in Maine.

The bill before you would expand the fall season from one week to the entire month of October. Really – we only allow hunters to shoot one turkey in the fall, so why do we care when that turkey is shot? If it were up to me, I’d give them three months to shoot their turkey. It might be fun to go out the week before Thanksgiving and get your own turkey. Upland bird hunters should certainly have the chance throughout their season to take a turkey or two, when they encounter them.

Some will raise an issue of concern that we would shoot too many hens by increasing the fall bag limit. As you know, only Toms can be shot in the spring. In 2011fall hunt, hens comprised only 48 percent of the harvest and in 2012 only 52 percent. Hunters in the fall still seem to prefer toms. In 2012, only 488 hens were shot in the fall season.

The bill also requires the department to allow turkeys to be registered by phone or on their website. But we’d encourage a lot of hunters if you go further than that by eliminating the registration requirement all-together, or at least the $5 registration fee. Wildlife biologists can gather the data they need by simply surveying turkey hunters after the season – like the feds do for migratory bird hunting.

Finally the bill calls for a very modest increase in the bag limit by adding one turkey of either sex in the fall to the current bag limit of a single turkey. I’m being very conservative here with these changes.

Conclusion

I want to conclude by telling you that I have great admiration and appreciation for the Maine members of the Wild Turkey Federation. They deserve great credit for working with DIF&W to establish turkeys here, and for advocating for turkeys and turkey hunters since the first hunting season in 1986. I understand why they feel a sense of ownership in the turkey population, and I don’t fault them for taking a consistently conservative approach when it comes to expanding turkey hunting opportunities in Maine.

Likewise, I have great respect for DIF&W’s wildlife staff, especially Brad Allen. I know Brad supports some parts of my bill and opposes other parts. He is very knowledgeable, an avid hunter himself, and someone you should hear from before you complete your work on this bill.

For my part, I’ve done what I can do, as a private citizen, to bring this issue to your attention, and give you a vehicle to address the problems and opportunities I see as a turkey hunter and advocate for our hunting heritage. Good luck!

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.