The population of wild turkeys, like the one pictured here, is declining across the country and West Virginia University researcher Chris Rota is working to find out why. (Submitted photo)

Unlike turkeys headed for Thanksgiving tables, wild ones are vanishing as a WVU researcher hunts for clues

The holidays mean turkey time, and although you will find plenty of farm-raised turkeys in your neighborhood grocery store, the wild turkey population is struggling. In fact, it’s disappearing in many states, and a West Virginia University researcher is working to find out why with help from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“In recent decades, there has been an apparent decline in turkey abundance,” said Chris Rota, associate professor in wildlife and fisheries resources at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “There’s a lot of interest right now in understanding the cause of that decline and what management actions we can take to potentially reverse it.”

Rota, with funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation, a hunting advocacy organization dedicated to turkey conservation, will capture turkeys in South Dakota to unravel what’s causing their numbers to fluctuate.

“We’re going to capture 260 turkeys per year and put VHF radio transmitters on them which will allow us to track their movements,” Rota said. “We’ll know whether they’re alive, whether they’re dead, whether they’re nesting. We’ll be able to track their survival and understand, if they die, what caused the mortality.”

In terms of nesting, signals will tell Rota and his colleagues whether the birds are walking or sitting on their nests. Once the researchers find the nests, they can determine how many chicks the birds are having and why a nest may have failed. This information, in turn, will help him develop management strategies that may potentially reverse the decline.

Turkey populations have risen and fallen over the past few centuries. Loss of habitat due to logging hurt numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s and, like many wildlife species, they were overharvested almost to the point of no return.

“That’s the story of a lot of North American wildlife,” Rota said. “Lots of wildlife were decimated due to unregulated hunting. And then in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we started realizing there was a conservation crisis happening.”

In response, many states, including South Dakota and West Virginia, began reintroducing turkeys in the late 1940s. Numbers climbed in response to the effort, but in 2009, wildlife researchers noticed a new trend — the turkey population started plummeting.

As a quantitative ecologist, Rota conducts statistical modeling of wildlife populations to understand the changes that occur. In the past, he’s assisted the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources on whitetail deer projects, and his current research with turkeys in South Dakota is emblematic of the work he does, collaborating closely with wildlife professionals to address questions of management and relevance.

This will be Rota’s third collaboration with the state of South Dakota and his second turkey project there.

Reversing the downward trend is crucial because turkeys play an important ecological role as prey for species like bobcats and great horned owls. They fulfill a societal role, too, having been part of many Native American food and cultural systems and, when white settlers arrived, an important game species.

While the turkey was not featured at the 1621 meal eventually known as the first Thanksgiving, the birds were easy to harvest and raise domestically and they became an economic staple of the holiday.

“Culturally, economically, as a game species for people — that’s where a lot of this interest comes from,” Rota said. It’s also where much of the research information comes from, as game hunters provide reports from the field about turkey numbers.

His newest round of research is only beginning, so while Rota has yet to draw any conclusions, his previous studies indicate population growth is sensitive, primarily, to small changes in hen survival and, secondarily, to reproduction. This past data suggested that hunting regulations may need to be examined.

“We can use that information in thinking about harvest,” Rota said. “Maybe we can tweak some regulations such that fewer hens are harvested. Small tweaks may potentially make some big changes in population growth rates.”

However, there’s no guarantee harvest regulations will have the desired effect on population numbers. In such a case, he and his colleagues would turn their attention to nest survival rates.

“The second most important thing we found in the past study was nest survival. We found quite a few nests that were in agricultural fields that were getting mowed. So, we can think about incentives for farmers to protect turkey nests.”

Such incentives might include habitat work that encourages the birds to nest in grasslands rather than agricultural fields or enrolling farmers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. Once Rota and his colleagues have collected and analyzed the data, they’ll make policy recommendations to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

While often perceived as unintelligent, researchers know turkeys are smart birds. Moreover, turkeys and hunters have a symbiotic relationship. A thriving turkey population means the hunting community will thrive, and vice versa.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but conservation in the United States is driven by hunters,” Rota said. “Public lands that we all use and love, and state wildlife management areas in West Virginia, are all funded by hunters. It’s important to keep species like turkey and deer abundant on the landscape, to keep hunters engaged.”

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