It is turkey season in East Texas. Not hunting season, but release season in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ongoing attempt to return eastern wild turkeys to the region.
The department has already stocked one site this winter along White Oak Creek in Titus County with 57 birds. It hopes to do another stocking within the same drainage in Franklin County in the coming weeks if wildlife agencies in other states are able to trap birds. If not, it will be conducted or completed first next winter.
Since switching to the super-stocking regimen in 2014, the department has released 855 eastern turkeys. That number does not include the 320 birds released during research into super stocking in 2007-08. Once the Franklin County site is complete, eastern birds will have been released in nine counties having previously been stocked in Angelina, Anderson, Camp, Cherokee, Henderson, Rusk and Trinity counties.
Although populations have yet to explode, there is optimism that the stockings are working.
“We have observed recruitment at all sites. Predators continue to be an issue, but we are hopeful recruitment will outpace predation. The sites that are doing the most burning seem to have the best success. As you would expect, some sites are doing better than others,” said Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader.
Eastern wild turkeys were once plentiful in the Pineywoods and the eastern edge of the Post Oak regions of the state. However, because of reasons including a one-time daily bag limit of 25, first-generation timber harvest and changing land use, the birds completely disappeared in the 1940s.
The department has attempted to restock turkeys several times, with different levels of success. Prior to the super stocking, the best effort began in the 1980s when ultimately more than 7,000 birds were restocked. At that time, the department was releasing only about 15 birds on 5,000 acres at a time. Ultimately, a spring season was opened in 48 counties, but not all had huntable numbers.
The department learned the stockings were too small to overcome losses to disease and predation, especially with some of the birds released being too young to reproduce immediately. Today only 13 counties remain open.
The super-stocking program calls for the release of 50 to 80 birds per site with approximately three hens for every tom.
With habitat similar to that found in southeastern states that have viable populations, Hardin is optimistic about the program going forward.
“The project remains viable. I always worry about getting out of state birds, but we have managed to completely restock all our approved sites so far. It is also important that we identify release sites in between past restocking locations so we can better tie populations together along our priority watersheds,” he explained.
A number of the released birds are fitted with GPS backpacks so biologists can track their movement. The department recently contracted with Louisiana State University’s wildlife department for an analysis of the 10 years of data already collected. One thing already known is that after release, the birds may travel about 10 miles before returning to the area they were originally stocked.
This super stocking effort comes at a time when turkey numbers are on the decline throughout the South. However, at one time in the 1900s, there were only an estimated 30,000 turkeys of all species nationwide. Today, there are an estimated 6 million in 49 states. That is down about 15 percent from a high number less than 10 years ago.
Reopening additional East Texas counties to hunting is ultimately the plan, but that may not happen anytime soon.
“TPWD has discussed how we will approach this when the time comes. We are monitoring populations, developing alternative monitoring techniques, and developing models and decision variables that can serve to trigger when populations can sustain some level of harvest,” Hardin said.
Along with stocking eastern turkeys in their original range, TPWD has also released 396 Rio Grande turkeys on five sites along the Trinity River watershed in Kaufman, Navarro, Anderson and Henderson counties. That is the eastern range for Rios, and in similar locations, such as Grayson County, restocking efforts have been successful.