If nothing else spring hunting of Eastern turkeys in East Texas has been a season of change.

Hunted to extirpation by the early 1900s by settlers and market hunters, hunter funded efforts to return the birds throughout their native range in the state have been an ongoing process since the 1950s. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that the turkey population gained any traction thanks to a regional stocking effort that saw more than 7,000 birds released. Those stocking led to a first modern-era season starting in 1995.

Hunting eventually expanded to 48 counties, but many of the early turkey populations turned to busts and in 2013 the season was contracted to just 28 counties.

This year Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has jump-started its turkey restocking effort going back into three areas in closed counties with so-called super stockings of as many as 80 birds per site compared to the original 15 in 1980s and 90s.

"We stocked 247 birds. We stocked a couple more hens and a few less males than what was planned, but that is the nature of the beast," said Jason Hardin, TPWD's turkey program leader.

Unlike the initial stocking project, turkeys released this time were fitted with transmitters that allow biologists and Stephen F. Austin State University researchers to monitor survival and movement during the first several months the birds are on the ground.

"We have had good survival other than a few birds that came to us beat up, and the birds have stayed put for the most part. The juvenile males have been making the largest movements as expected. There has been nothing too unexpected yet," Hardin explained.

The big test will come during nesting season, when biologist should be able to determine how many are building nests and ultimately how successful they were at pulling off a brood.

Unlike previous stocking programs in which the birds were released as fast as they arrived in the state, the department is making a better effort to evaluate sites that require a minimum of 10,000 acres. Only three passed inspection for this year's release. Only one currently remains in the running for 2015, but an on-the-ground inspection won't be conducted until May or June. Others could be nominated and still pass muster before winter when other states conduct their trapping.

Although the original restocking project hasn't resulted in a robust turkey population through the Post Oak and Pineywoods regions, there are areas where populations are viable. In some cases it is easy for biologists to look at the habitat and see why the birds did or did not thrive. At other sites it is harder to evaluate.

"Some of it is a mystery, but some of it makes more since. We see birds on large tracks of industry land that have a regular disturbance (fire and timber harvest) regime. Turkeys love disturbance as long as they have access to the greater landscape. The disturbance provides regular and available brood habitat and nesting cover.

"We also see birds in close proximity to larger established populations. Red River and Lamar County, Newton and Jasper County, are all in close proximity to Oklahoma and Louisiana. The birds are part of a larger population and when something happens to a local population over time there is a seed source to repopulate those areas," Hardin explained.

Failure often occurs when something bad happens to island populations where there are no adjacent birds to supplement losses.

To insure populations and allow them to expand, TPWD is working through Texas AgriLife Extension Service and with landowners individually to encourage the reuse of fire to thin forest understory. To encourage the use of fire as a wildlife management tool, the department has hired four regional fire coordinators to help landowners and has developed cost-share initiatives.

"The department is dedicated to the long term effort of increasing the use of fire on the landscape for both habitat management and wildfire mitigation," Hardin said.

Looking at this season, which opens Tuesday, Hardin said he isn't concerned that winter's late departure will have any impact on the peak breeding period which should just be ending. He is more concerned about the more-recent weather and what will happen as the hens go to nest. Part of the concern is that rain makes it easier for predators to locate nests.

"We prefer to see weather either remain at long-term norms or even somewhat dry during the nesting and brood rearing period in the eastern portion of the state for the purposes of nest and poult success. We always need rain, but hopefully we will not get any extremely cold periods or any gully washers during the May-June period," he said.

Hunters are required to take their turkeys to check stations to be officially recorded. Last year hunters reported just 185 birds. A list of check stations is available at http://tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/season/stations/.

The Eastern turkey season will remain open through May 14. The bag limit is one gobbler per spring season. Hunting is not permitted over feeders, and all hunting is by shotgun only.


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