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Lawmakers explore decline of Oklahoma wild turkey population

 A wild turkey.
Y. S.
A wild turkey.

Predators, weather extremes, disease and habitat changes are threatening the survival of the state’s wild turkey population, experts told lawmakers during an interim study Monday.

Lawmakers met at the Capitol to discuss the steady decline of the turkey and learn whether state legislation might help stem the loss while allowing for continued hunting.

While Oklahoma’s wild turkey population has been declining since 2018, officials are hopeful that increasingly aggressive regulatory action, including limits on the number of birds hunters can kill, will help the species rebound.

Bill Dinkines, chief of wildlife at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said multiple states across the country have also experienced declines in their wild turkey populations and are working together to try to come up with solutions to save the birds.

“It’s happening across the nation, different levels, different calibers, but for the most part, turkey, especially Eastern turkeys, have declined quite a bit in their range,” he said.

He said the losses have been particularly acute in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas.

Dinkines said while some states have banned fall wild turkey hunting completely, Oklahoma wildlife officials want to continue to allow it on a limited scale while also increasing opportunities for the birds to breed and nest.

Turkey hunts have long been an Oklahoma tradition, he said.

Dinkines said wild turkeys were first documented in the region in 1832, but by 1925, the population was extinct.

In 1948, the agency began working to rebuild the population by bringing in wild birds from Texas. Birds were also later brought in from Missouri and Arkansas.

In 1996, the state ended its restoration efforts because there were huntable populations in all 77 counties, Dinkines said.

Today, the bird’s survival is again in jeopardy. Cedar trees and uncontrolled predator populations are also encroaching on natural turkey habitats, experts said.

Dinkines said legislative funding is needed to hire a full-time turkey biologist to oversee conservation and restoration efforts.

Scott Alls, state director of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said predators like raccoons, skunks, crows and feral swine, have been wreaking havoc on nesting turkeys, which are critical to rebuilding the population.

He said there’s a high chance of a nest being depredated when there’s a food source — like a deer feeder or corn — nearby.

Alls said additional predator management is needed, particularly on private lands. He said that could include increased education on trapping feral swine and raccoons or perhaps programs that encourage it.

Colter Chitwood, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Oklahoma State University, is in the middle of a several-year research study probing the issue.

About two years into the study, he said about half of all hens, or female turkeys, being tracked have died.

He said he’s hopeful the information gleaned from the study, which is looking at things like predation, the impact of weather and climate change, land use and the loss of genetic diversity, will help shape future hunting and conservation regulations.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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