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John McCoy: W.Va.’s spring turkey kill not as dire as it seems

The roller-coaster path of West Virginia’s spring turkey hunting season has taken another dip.

Hunters killed 9,017 gobblers during the four-week season, 19 percent fewer than they killed in 2013. Despite the sharp drop, state wildlife officials say hunters shouldn’t be alarmed.

Curtis Taylor, chief of the Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife section, attributed at least part of the decline to the natural ebb and flow of turkey reproduction.

“In most years, a significant portion of the spring gobbler harvest is composed of 2-year-old birds,” he said. “Poor wild turkey reproduction in 2012 resulted in fewer [2-year-old] birds available to hunters during the spring season.”

Taylor traced the poor reproduction of 2012 to what he called “a horrible stretch of cool and wet weather” during the time of year when turkey poults are just starting to sprout feathers.

“When poults at that stage get soaked to the skin with cold rain, they succumb, which is what happened that year,” he said.

This year’s season also featured horrendous weather during the season’s first two days, and Taylor believes that, too, helped depress the harvest. “I’m sure it had at least some effect, because a lot of hunters focus on the first few days of the season and never go into the woods after that,” he said.

He added, however, that weather probably wasn’t the only dynamic at work.

“Fewer people are turkey hunting today than during the 1990s [when West Virginia enjoyed higher harvests]. We’re losing hunters because of age. We recruit more new hunters than most states, but for every nine new hunters we gain, we lose 10. That’s having an effect.”

Taylor said he can remember hunting on Summers County’s Bluestone Wildlife Management Area when many more hunters were in the woods.

“It sounded like the opening day of deer season, there were so many shots,” he recalled. “Nowadays I don’t hear many shots. The birds are still there, but the hunters aren’t.”

Last fall’s sparse acorn crop might also have helped keep down this year’s gobbler kill.

Taylor said the lack of acorns caused turkeys to come through the winter in poorer-than-normal physical condition.

“When that happens, gobblers tend not to put as much effort into pursuing hens. If they aren’t pursuing hens, chances are they aren’t coming to hunters’ calls,” he explained.

This spring’s harvest decline will affect the upcoming fall season too. DNR officials require so-called “non-traditional” turkey counties to produce a pre-established number of turkeys per square mile before they can be hunted during the fall. Counties that produce at least 0.75 gobblers per square mile during the spring season get two-week fall seasons, and counties that produce at least 0.50 birds per square mile get one-week seasons.

Last year, a record 28 non-traditional counties qualified for fall seasons. This year, the number will drop to 20.

Counties that will get two-week seasons include Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marshall, Preston, Wirt and Wood.

Counties that will get one-week seasons include Barbour, Harrison, Jackson, Marion, Mason, Monongalia, Pleasants, Ritchie, Summers, Taylor, Tyler, Wetzel and Wyoming.

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