Drop in Nebraska's wild turkey population prompts $1.8 million study – York News-Times


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Nebraska wildlife officials estimate the state’s turkey population is down 45% from its peak about 15 years ago.
OMAHA — Give him a minute and veteran outdoorsman Chris Pokorny will happily tell you why turkey hunting is special.
It’s uniquely engaging because it requires the hunter to interact with individual birds. To lure a turkey into range, the hunter must call back and forth with the bird. (Male turkeys gobble when seeking a mate.) And, unlike wintertime deer hunting, it’s usually done in the spring, a great time to be outdoors.
Grant Zoucha of Schuyler (left), snagged his first turkey, a Merriam hybrid, on a mentored hunt with Chris Pokorny. The 2021 hunt was coordinated by the Platte Valley Strutters, the Columbus chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“It’s fun, it’s interactive,” Pokorny said. “When you hear that gobble deep in the woods and then you hear it getting closer, it gets your blood going.”
Wild turkeys are second only to deer for the economic value they bring to the state, according to Luke Meduna, big game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. They’ve been so important, Gov. Pete Ricketts has promoted Nebraska as the “Best Turkey Hunting Destination in the United States.”
One reason Nebraska is so popular is that it is home to the Merriam-hybrid, a type of turkey that is prized for the white tips on its feathers.
Now, though, the thrill of bagging a turkey has gotten harder as turkey numbers in Nebraska have dropped off sharply.
To better understand what is happening with the turkey population, Nebraska is launching one of its most expansive wild game studies. The state’s $1.8 million, five-year study of turkey behavior and habitat begins in January, Meduna said.
Other regions also are seeing a decline in turkeys, and the losses are part of a larger decline among wild birds across the U.S., said Kevin Ellison, Northern Great Plains program manager for the American Bird Conservancy.
Ellison describes the losses as alarming, saying they signal problems larger than wild birds.
“Birds are an indicator species,” he said. “This is cutting across all different types of species and habitat. The stressors are all around their life cycle. We’re having some widespread, pervasive impact.”
Nebraska’s study is one among a number that are being launched nationwide to ascertain why turkeys, which are popular among hunters, are in decline. Nebraska wildlife officials estimate the state’s turkey population is down 45% from its peak about 15 years ago.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the state-federal Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the University of Georgia are collaborating on the study. Most of the funding will come from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition.
The most significant cause is loss of habitat, researchers and others universally agree. Other factors that amplify losses include the weather (from drought to heavy rain/flooding), disease, ag practices and predation.
Pokorny and Andrew Little, the lead UNL researcher on the project, use the same language in describing what’s happening: “Death by a thousand cuts.”
“We probably won’t be able to single out one thing and say, ‘If individuals fix this one issue, the turkey population will rebound,’” Little said.
Wild turkeys have been a success story for Nebraska, Meduna said.
Virtually absent from the landscape more than 60 years ago, the state began reintroducing turkeys in 1959. That year, about 30 birds were stocked on the Pine Ridge, and within three years, the population was estimated at 3,000 — enough for the first official hunt.
From there, the population continued to grow, peaking between 2008 and 2012.
Nebraska game officials estimate the state’s turkey population has dropped by 45% in the last 15 years.

After 2012, Meduna said the turkey population began an overall decline. Population estimates are gleaned by rural mail carriers counting birds per 100 miles. Nebraska’s peak occurred in 2009 at 4.46 birds per 100 miles, Meduna said. This year, the state average was 2.35 birds.
Meduna said researchers aren’t sure why the turkey population boomed and declined, and the study isn’t designed to provide a definitive answer.
“We’ll probably never know,” he said.
Instead, the study should provide insights into the habits of turkeys and some of their challenges on Nebraska’s landscape. That information will be useful to landowners who want to improve habitat, and it will allow state game officials to fine-tune the hunting season and limits.
Grant Woods, a wildlife biologist and host of “GrowingDeer TV”, talks at length about the degradation and fragmentation of habitat in some of his videos. With habitat losses due to cropping, turkeys have begun nesting in the grassy strips farmers plant along streams to filter out pollutants and protect water quality. These corridors have become “de facto predator food plots,” Woods said. A fox or coyote on the hunt for dinner can travel along a creek, catch the scent of a nearby turkey nest and easily finish it off.
Additionally, pastures used to feed livestock are planted with grasses that form a thatch too thick for turkey chicks to negotiate, he said. Natural grasslands host a variety of grasses and flowers that create habitat and micro-corridors more conducive to physical abilities of young chicks.
If wildlife is part of the goal, their needs must be taken into greater account when the government provides farmers incentives not to plant crops, Woods said. “Habitat quality is a huge factor.”
Meduna said researchers will seek to catch and track about 120 turkeys each spring in western Nebraska.
They will take blood samples that will be analyzed for genetics and disease, and they will collar the birds with GPS devices to track their movements.
GPS information will help researchers learn where turkeys prefer to roost and nest and how those choices affect their ability to thrive.
If researchers can find carcasses of dead turkeys, they’ll try to determine cause of death. And once a clutch of eggs hatch, they’ll take eggshell fragments and analyze them.
Nebraska game officials estimate the state’s turkey population has dropped by 45% in the last 15 years.
Listening devices also will be placed in turkey habitat in an effort to correlate the gobbling — which intensifies during courtship — with breeding.
So far, state game officials aren’t talking about tackling a factor that some hunters blame: placing a bounty on predators. A decline in the fur market has meant that trappers no longer make money catching such predators as raccoons and coyotes.
Other hunters are critical of the state promoting turkey hunting to those from out of state.
While the state has no plans to add a bounty for predators, it does plan to curtail out-of-state hunting permits.
Meduna said his trail cameras aren’t showing an increase in raccoons, adding that turkey numbers were off sharply before the fur market crashed.
Instead, he says it all goes back to habitat.
“When you have good habitat, predators aren’t as much of a problem,” Meduna said.
Over several years, the out-of-state marketing campaign that started in 2015 led to about 8% more permits than the 12,708 issued in 2014.
A bigger surge in out-of-state hunting followed the lifting of a COVID-inspired 2020 suspension of out-of-state permits. In 2021, when Nebraska reopened the state to nonresident hunters, it issued them 18,829 permits.
To address that increase, the state next year will limit nonresident turkey permits to 10,000, a cut of 47% compared to 2021.
For all hunters, the state will reduce the spring turkey limit to two, down from three, and the fall limit to one, down from four, Meduna said.
Rick Payeur
Jackson Wichman near Sprague

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Grant Zoucha of Schuyler (left), snagged his first turkey, a Merriam hybrid, on a mentored hunt with Chris Pokorny. The 2021 hunt was coordinated by the Platte Valley Strutters, the Columbus chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Nebraska game officials estimate the state’s turkey population has dropped by 45% in the last 15 years.
Nebraska game officials estimate the state’s turkey population has dropped by 45% in the last 15 years.
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