Experts warn killing raccoons & opossums won’t boost the over-hunted turkey population––but new open season will give hunters animals to shoot year-round
ATLANTA, Georgia; BERKELEY, California––Lest anyone doubt that sport hunting is all about finding the opportunity to kill something, anything, on any pretext, both houses of the Georgia state legislature in late March and early April 2022 passed HB 1147, creating an open season on raccoons and opossums on the pretense that this will boost a purportedly declining wild turkey population––despite the advice of wild turkey experts that it will not.
Georgia governor Brian Kemp is imminently expected to sign HB 1147 into law on behalf of the 630,000 licensed hunters in the state, just 6% of the Georgia population, but reportedly up from a low of 400,000 circa 2015 as result of political pandering to the hook-and-bullet crowd.
Georgia hunters are allowed to shoot twice as many wild turkeys as exist
Coincidentally, the Georgia wild turkey population is also estimated at about 400,000, occupying about 90% of the potentially viable turkey habitat in the state. Georgia hunters shoot upward of 44,000 wild turkeys per year.
If two Georgia hunters out of three shot a wild turkey, wild turkeys would be gone. But the Georgia wild turkey bag limit is two per hunter.
Only Missouri wild turkey hunters, killing about 47,000 of an estimated state population of about 317,000 wild turkeys per year, shoot more.
“This is not going to increase the number of game birds”
Explained Suzanne Lawler of WMAZ-TV in Macon, “State legislators who love to turkey hunt came up with Bill 1147, which makes it a little easier for folks who like to take aim in the spring to to hunt and exterminate raccoons and opossums year round. Folks who have private land and hunt clubs now don’t have to get a permit to get rid of the problem predators.”
Georgia state wildlife biologist Emily Rushton “admits this isn’t going to increase the number of game birds dramatically across the state,” Lawler reported, but it does give hunters something to kill.
“Rushton says you cannot hunt or trap raccoons and opossums on public land or wildlife management areas year round,” Lawler finished, “but they will expand the season on public lands when squirrel season begins in August.”
A wild turkey chase makes a wild goose chase look easy
Yes, raccoons and opossums eat wild turkey eggs, and even wild turkeys when they can. But raccoons tend to find wild turkey eggs only when the turkeys abandon their nests, chiefly because the eggs are for whatever reason unlikely to hatch and tend to be able to eat wild turkeys only when cars have hit them or hunters have shot and not retrieved them.
Otherwise, catching a wild turkey––as anyone who ever watched a dog try to catch one can testify––is an exercise in futility.
Wild turkeys will invite a chase, elude the dog for as long as the dog is fool enough to follow, then fly up to a tree limb and see how long it takes the exhausted dog to recover sufficiently to wobble away.
“Production, not predation, drives turkey populations”
Recently offered Field & Stream writer Ken Perrotte, a hook-and-bullet writer for more than a quarter century, “When the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, there were approximately 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America,” only about 17,000 of them in Georgia.
“After 40 years of effort, that number reached a historic high of about 6.7 million turkeys,” Perrotte wrote.
“But, today turkey numbers are down and are estimated at between 6 and 6.2 million birds,” about a 15% drop in a decade.
“Production, not predation, drives turkey populations,” Perrotte explained.
“Hens are nesting in sub-optimal habitat”
“With high population densities,” as were achieved circa 2013, “ a significant number of hens won’t access quality nesting habitat and may not successfully hatch or raise a brood.
“Carrying capacity becomes an issue. Productivity is declining because hens are nesting in suboptimal habitat.
“Vegetation measurements contribute to the success or failure of nesting sites,” Perrotte continued. “Little vegetation means little chance at poult survival. If the habitat conditions decline across multiple counties and states,” as has occurred in much of the U.S. due to droughts associated with global warming, “then birds have no choice but to decline.”
California meanwhile has wild turkey boom
But the U.S. wild turkey population has not declined everywhere since 2013––not even in drought-stricken northern California, where wild turkeys are not native, yet per square mile outnumber wild turkeys in Georgia by anywhere from three-to-one to five-to-one.
Simultaneously, throughout the California wild turkey boom, raccoons have maintained their highest population densities precisely where the turkeys are doing best, taking advantage of many of the same abundant sources.
Further, the steepest increases in both wild turkey density and raccoon density in California appear to have come in the Berkeley hills, where neither wild turkeys, raccoons, nor opossums are hunted.
“Berkeley’s wild turkey population took off”
“Berkeley’s wild turkey population took off about nine years ago in the more suburban neighborhoods of the city,” University of California, Berkeley campus professor of conservation biology Steven Beissinger told Annette Choi of Berkeleyside in October 2018.
“I can remember seeing my first one on campus around 2003,” Reginald Barrett, U.C. Berkeley emeritus professor of environmental sciences said.
Choi found that in 1877, “the California Fish & Game Commission — now known as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife — introduced farm-raised Arizona turkeys into the state for trophy hunting.
“But the birds struggled to survive in the wild. They were too tame, and they didn’t recover from hunting seasons.
Wild turkeys introduced from Southwest
“In the late 1950s,” Choi wrote, “the commission started transporting live-trapped Rio Grande wild turkeys from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas instead. They were released in more than 200 locations across the state,” including the Berkeley hills, “and they prospered where the farm-raised turkeys had died out.
“The practice continued until 1996, when the California Native Plant Society, unhappy that the animals were chewing up native plants, sued the commission.”
By then the Berkeley hills wild turkey population was long since thriving.
“Neighborhoods from the hills to the flats provide the acorns, slugs and grasses the birds feed on,” Choi explained,
Raccoons also thrive in Berkeley
“Turkeys typically nest on the ground, in dead leaves and dense shrubbery, and roost at nighttime in trees. Berkeley neighborhoods offer places to nest as well as protection from coyotes, snakes, and other predators found in woodlands and forests,” but raccoons have long been conspicuously abundant in Berkeley, equally conspicuously not harming wild turkey abundance.
In 1992, Choi paraphrased Barrett, “plentiful rainfall and an abundant acorn yield led the Tilden Park turkey population to skyrocket,” Tilden Park being a 2,000-acre expanse of Berkeley Hills habitat protected from development since 1936.
“Since then,” Choi said, “the birds’ numbers have gone up and down — but they’ve stayed generally high in the Berkeley area.
Wild turkey expansion “isn’t unique to Berkeley”
“The population expansion isn’t unique to Berkeley,” Choi finished. “Though it does not keep a specific count, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife says California’s turkey population is growing.”
Affirmed California Department of Fish & Wildlife public information officer Peter Tira, “There seems to have been a boom in the suburban and urban areas,” wherever no one shoots wild turkeys, raccoons, or opossums, but where wildlife tends to be appreciated for qualities other than affording target practice to the trigger-happy.
Statewide, California hunters shoot just over 22,000 wild turkeys per year, half as many as are killed per year in Georgia.