Apr. 17—ALBANY — Georgia turkey hunters who have been in the woods for a little over a month now should have a pretty good sense of the status of the turkey population across the state. With that in mind, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is currently holding a series of public hearings focused on proposed changes in hunting regulations aimed at ensuring the well-being of Georgia's turkey population for future generations.
The following recommendations have been proposed to the DNR Board as turkey hunting regulation changes in Georgia beginning in the fall of 2021 to run through 2023:
— Move the statewide opening date back a week from the first Saturday after March 19 to the first Saturday after March 26;
— Reduce the seasonal bag limit per hunter from three birds to two;
— Set a daily bag limit of one bird per hunter per day;
— Hunting on all Wildlife Management Areas would open the second Saturday in April;
— Limit harvest to one turkey per hunter per Wildlife Management Area.
While outlining these proposals during a recent public hearing broadcast on Facebook, Wild Turkey Program Coordinator for DNR Emily Rushton, explained. "This is not an effort to decrease hunters. We are always hoping to recruit new hunters and retain existing hunters. It is an effort to decrease the harvest. I also believe it is important that we move the season back so we shift the season till later in the breeding season when we are not interrupting the peak of their breeding. Peak breeding is before hens are incubating. The median date for hens to incubate in Georgia is April 10. ... We need to make this shift so the gobblers can breed."
In order to better understand the status of turkey populations in Georgia and the need to review and make changes to the regulations that are currently in place to manage this native species, a historical perspective might be helpful.
Archeological evidence and historical records indicate that the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) was important to the Native Americans living in Georgia. The birds were valued not only as a food source but for their plumage as well. European settlers followed their example, and the numerous turkey they found were an important food source.
However, an unregulated harvest and the manipulation and destruction of forests led to a rapid decline in turkey populations. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, their survival was threatened. On Dec. 19, 1859, Georgia enacted the first law to protect the wild turkey in the state, setting a closed hunting season from the 10th day of April until the first day of October. This and other early game laws were difficult to enforce and had limited impact on the problem.
In the early 20th century, many private land-owners in the state attempted to protect and restore the turkey populations on their property. However, it was not until the 1940s that the Georgia Game and Fish Commission began attempts to trap and relocate birds on what is now Berry College Wildlife Management Area. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the commission attempted to raise and release turkeys into the wild. In 1966, after raising and releasing more than 10,000 turkeys with no real success at establishing a truly wild population, the program ended.
In 1973 DNR began another attempt to restock turkeys in Georgia. This time the agency had a far better grasp on the biological needs necessary for success. This program would focus on restocking areas with a minimum of 8,000 acres of suitable habitat. These areas must be bordered by properties with suitable habitat for population expansion. The properties must have enforceable protection from poaching and illegal hunting.
In southwest Georgia many of the area plantations met the required criteria for these restocking efforts. During this period, the research and efforts in the field by DNR biologist Ron Simpson had a major impact in the program's eventual success. These efforts resulted in an estimated population of 17,300 turkeys in 1973 to an estimated population of 113,000 in 1984 and the determination that every county in Georgia now had a huntable population of turkeys.
In 1993, the results of the 1973 stocking efforts led state biologists to establish a statewide season with an opening date on the first Saturday after March 19 to run through May 15. Hunters are allowed to harvest three birds annually. In 2014 a "special opportunity" season was added for hunters 16 years old or younger, and hunters with defined mobility impairments. These hunters may hunt starting the Saturday before the standard opening date. They must be accompanied by a licensed adult "who can call but may not take or attempt to take a turkey." This season does not apply to public lands unless otherwise specified.
In 2011, DNR reported that 47,275 resident hunters harvested 34,001 turkeys during the 2010 season. The department estimated that the turkey population for the upcoming season would be 335,00 birds.
Southwest Georgia is part of the Upper Coastal Plains region and has the healthiest turkey population in the state. But biologists say the continuing drop in the number of polts per hen statewide are not sustainable for this valued natural resource and, as a result, have requested the DNR consider the proposed changes for approval. To date, eight public meetings have been held with 97 citizens attending, and virtual meetings were attended by 260 citizens. Email surveys were sent to hunters who purchased the Big Game tag required to hunt turkey in Georgia and more than 16,000 responded.
Anyone wanting to make an official comment to the DNR Board can do so by email at firstname.lastname@example.org through April 30. The DNR Board will vote on this proposal at its meeting on May 25. If approved these regulation changes will take effect with the start of the 2021 fall season.