wild turkeys

A flock of wild turkeys gathers on the Welsh Mountain south of New Holland.

What started out as a promising new hunting opportunity in Lancaster County and the rest of Wildlife Management Unit 5B quickly has turned abysmal.

The 2021 fall turkey season here ran last week from Nov. 2-4.

Biologists are hopeful this year’s take across WMU 5B is better than it was the past two years, because those were pretty bad years.

With turkey populations in Lancaster County and the rest of WMU 5B expanding in number and location, the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 2017 authorized the first fall hunt here in modern times.

That high-water moment in efforts to grow wild turkey numbers in the unit came quickly when you consider that less than two decades earlier, the Game Commission captured 138 turkeys in other parts of the state with plenty of birds and released them in Lancaster County from 2001-2003.

The releases were done to “plant” turkeys in areas with good habitat that had few or no birds.

The transplants took hold, flocks grew and expanded, and by 2017 the Game Commission felt confident about allowing fall hunting – for three days only – throughout WMU 5B.

Fall hunting is scrutinized more heavily when it comes to managing turkeys than the spring hunt, because the fall season allows for the taking of hens.

The spring hunt is intended for gobblers only, although hens that grow beards may be legally taken. But those birds are rare.

Biologists have to feel very good about the health of turkey populations to allow fall hunting.

Residents in good turkey country throughout Lancaster County certainly knew how healthy the populations were around 2017.

Established flocks were well known in places like the Welsh Mountain, Conestoga, Holtwood, Quarryville and the Furnace Hills.

That first fall hunt in 2017 was popular. An estimated 1,642 hunters hit the woods across WMU 5B, according to Mary Jo Casalena, the Game Commission’s chief turkey biologist.

And they bagged 213 birds, for a 13 percent success rate.

In 2018, the harvest dropped to 123 turkeys, but hunter numbers also fell to 1,048. The success rate was right at 12 percent, so the hunt effectively held flat.

But then the bottom starting falling out in 2019.

That year, 1,075 hunters hunted WMU 5B’s fall turkey season and bagged 92 birds for an 8.5-percent success rate.

Things got even worse in 2020, when a record 1,744 fall turkey hunters went afield – probably a pandemic-related increase - and bagged only 65 birds for a 4-percent success rate.

At the same time, the spring turkey harvest across WMU 5B tumbled as well.

According to Casalena, the Game Commission has set a three-year spring harvest goal of .35 turkeys per square mile for WMU 5B.

The 2018-20 average was .41 turkeys per square mile, but the 2019-21 average was .32.

That last number is bad news for the WMU 5B fall turkey season.

“If the spring harvest density remains below goal for three years, then (fall) season closure will be recommended,” Casalena said.

That recommendation could come at the January meeting of the Board of Game Commissioners as the members set hunting seasons and bag limits for the 2022-23 hunting year.

But calling for the closure is not a lock just yet, because Casalena said 2021 was a banner year for turkey reproduction, and turkey populations here might have gotten a shot in the arm as a result.

So why the declines?

According to Casalena, turkey populations are on the decline in many parts of Pennsylvania and throughout the eastern wild turkey’s range.

In a document posted on the Game Commission’s HuntwildPa.com page, Casalena listed five main reasons for turkey declines throughout their range – including WMU 5B and Lancaster County.

They are:

  1. Landscape-level habitat changes dominated by a loss of forest diversity. That is, the forests are mainly older and lacking younger trees and growth needed for food and nesting cover.
  2. Climate change, which causes severe weather, including heavy spring rains when turkeys are nesting and raising broods.
  3. Unforeseen effects from disease. Biologists simply don’t know how disease affects productivity or how it interacts with issues such as climate change and habitat loss.
  4. Increased predator densities and wider distribution.
  5. Harvest regulations that allow fall hunting and the taking of hens. Fall hunting plus predators, poor reproduction and loss of habitat equals declining turkey numbers.

Casalena said the Game Commission next year plans to launch a four-year study focused on hen turkeys to “help determine the root causes of our turkey population declines in Pa; how varying landscapes may impact the dynamics differently; and possible management implications to aid in population increases.”

In the meantime, she said landowners can help by improving the habitat on their properties – select cutting older trees, planting important native species such as oaks, etc.

And hunters would be wise during fall seasons to target young-of-the-year birds instead of adult hens, which should be left for breeding. The adults have the best chance for nesting success, Casalena said.

The fall turkey season in WMU 5B has only existed for five years.

Whether it goes to six and beyond is unclear, because one of the first things biologists do to address  turkey declines is to cut fall hunting.

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