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Hunting seasons sometime bring unexpected results.

For an example, check out West Virginia’s 2020 fall turkey hunt. Hunters bagged 1,038 birds, fewer than the state’s turkey project leader thought they would.

“With statewide mast conditions 35% below the long-term average, I was expecting the harvest to be a little higher,” said Mike Peters, game bird biologist for the Division of Natural Resources.

“During poorer mast years, turkeys normally need to move across the landscape more in order to fulfill their dietary needs, which makes them more susceptible to harvest. But 2020 has been anything but a normal year.”

Last spring, Peters and his DNR colleagues wondered if the high number of people shut in by the COVID-19 pandemic might trigger a higher-than-normal gobbler kill. That didn’t happen.

“We didn’t see it in the spring, and we didn’t see it in the fall, either,” Peters said.

The fall harvest came in 6.7% below the 2019 season’s total, and 13.4% below the 10-year average.

Peters said the fall harvest generally reflects the state of the state’s turkey population. By that measure, the number of birds appeared to have been down a bit.

That’s not terribly surprising, considering the deleterious effect an early-spring snowstorm must have had on nesting success. Peters said there was evidence some of the hens re-nested and were able to raise poults.

“Our turkey brood observations are in June, July and August,” he told me early in the fall. “In June we saw lots of hens and not many poults. But then, during later observations, we started seeing more poults.

“That’s unusual, and we think the birds re-nested and the [second batch of] poults showed up in July and August.”

Even so, the brood count declined slightly from last year. With only that factor in consideration at the time, Peters forecast a slightly lower harvest.

But then, the state’s annual mast survey revealed a sharp decline in the acorn crop. The only oak species that produced at above-average levels were red/black oak and scarlet oak. The rest — white oak, chestnut oak and scrub oak — came in well below average.

All the other hard- and soft-mast species were below average, too, and when Peters saw that, he figured the lack of food would cause turkeys to roam far and wide across the landscape.

“Fall turkey hunting is an opportunistic game,” he said. “A lot of hunters are out looking for other game. Then, when a turkey comes along, they try to harvest it.”

Fewer hunters than expected actually did that, and the harvest fell a bit, but not enough to cause alarm. In the past 10 years, the fall kill has averaged 1,197 a year.

The high-water mark during that period came in 2016, when hunters bagged 2,066 birds. The low, 948 birds, occurred in 2017.

Peters said West Virginia’s turkey population has held steady since 2004.

“Compared to other states in the northeast and in the south, we’ve been very stable,” he said. “A lot of states have suffered declines in their populations. They open their seasons earlier, and they allow hunters to harvest more birds. Our regulations are pretty conservative, and we’re enjoying the advantages of that.”

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