When Texas Parks and Wildlife Department starting restocking Eastern wild turkeys in the 1980s it was hoped that by now the woods would be resonate with gobbles each spring.
The department ultimately stocked more than 7,000 birds and eventually opened 48 counties to spring hunting, but the plan did not work. During the first modern season just 41 turkeys were taken in Red River County, the only county open to hunting in 1995. The harvest increased to a record 443 in 2005, but dipped to 185 in 2013 after the season was reduced to just 28 counties.
Originally stocked in flocks of 15 and 18 over 5,000 acres the turkeys were never able to build sustainable populations in about half of the counties stocked.
Now armed with research from other states and their own studies that calls for more saturated stockings and other new concepts, TPWD is hoping to jump-start the program with a new round of releases. It is beginning with three 10,000-acre sights in Anderson, Henderson and Rusk counties.
The biggest difference between now and the previous stocking efforts in the 1990s is that each site will be stocked with 80 birds, 20 toms and 60 hens, trapped just days earlier from cooperative states around the country.
“The original super stocking model was published in 2000 at the tail end of the block-stocking era, which ended in 2003,” said Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader. “TPWD funded research through Stephen F. Austin in 2007-2008 to test the model. They found similar survival and production to that realized in southeastern states with established populations. Following the results of the research TPWD spent two years developing our new Habitat Suitability Index, which we use to rank and prioritize restoration sites.”
With enough funding to purchase turkeys at $525 each, the department sent out calls for possible stocking sights in 57 counties currently without a season. It included private landowners, government agencies and corporate landowners. Four applied, but only three scored high enough to qualify for stocking this year including the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, a private landowner in Henderson County and a mining reclamation site in Rusk County.
The Rusk County site has already received some of its birds. The first batch, a combination of 20 juvenile and adult hens and toms, was released Wednesday at the Engeling area.
The birds, missing feathers from the nets used to trap them or during shipment from Missouri or Tennessee to Texas, were a scraggly lot when they took to the air. Biologists involved in the project are confident they will fare well.
While the Engeling site and location in Henderson County are in proximity, the hope is that initial stockings will bloom to larger populations much the way wild pigs expanded by being moved from site to site then back filling.
“My hope and expectation is that the sites stocked will serve as source populations and expand beyond the boundary to occupy other surrounding landscapes that may be more marginal turkey habitat. That said, if I have sites with quality habitat in close proximity and both apply for a stocking and pass the evaluation, I do plan to stock both sites if the funding and brood stock is available,” Hardin said.
The Engeling area was one of the sites stocked in the 1990s. The population failed after the majority of the initial nesting sites were raided by predators, most commonly wild pigs.
“We got stocked in the block stockings in the either 1996 or 1997,” said Jeff Gunnels, area manager. “We had transmitters on the hens, and had locations on their nesting sites. We lost 77 percent to feral hogs that first year.”
Gunnels said at that point war was declared on the pigs, and while that eventually led to some nesting success there wasn’t enough birds left to overcome the early losses.
“We haven’t seen a turkey here in five years,” he declared.
Dr. Chris Comer, assistant professor of wildlife management at Stephen F. Austin State University, has been working with the department on the super stocking research. Although changed from a hundred years ago, he believes the eastern Texas landscape should still be able to maintain turkeys.
“If you flew over East Texas it is not that different from Alabama or Mississippi,” Comer said.
Eastern Texas was once flush with wild turkeys. Subsistence and market hunting, along with the first generation harvest of timber eventually took its toll. In the early 1900s hunters had an ridiculously liberal 25-bird daily bag limit and a five-month season. In 1941 the season was closed. It was believed less than 100 birds still existed at the time.
Comer and Hardin both acknowledge there is concern about turkey numbers through the South, but don’t think it is related to quail declines. Turkeys are better able to adapt to landscape changes than quail.
A more likely suspect is that restocking efforts resulted in populations peaking at abnormally high numbers, and in recent years the populations have settled down to numbers that more likely to match habitat availability.
Nationwide, wild turkey numbers were down to an estimate 30,000 birds in 1900. That led to a successful restocking program throughout the country. Today there are an estimated 7 million-plus turkeys found across every state but Alaska.
Currently biologists in Alabama, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia are attempting to trap birds for the Texas project. In many cases the birds come from flocks that are considered nuisance birds that have moved into urban areas, on airport grounds or other sites where they come into conflict with humans.
With funding for the birds coming from the department’s Upland Gamebird stamp and other sources, Hardin said there is enough funding at least for this year and 2015. This spring department biologists will be looking at new sites in Angelina, Houston, Trinity and Polk counties. A site in Panola County has already been rejected. Turkey hunting will not be allowed for at least five years after stocking.
Both Hardin and Comer admit this attempt at restocking Eastern wild turkeys may be the last if it isn’t successful.
“I think it would be pretty hard to sell (another plan) if this doesn’t work,” Hardin said. “I don’t know that, but I don’t know how to address it if this doesn’t work.”
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