It was a tough spring gobbler season for many Virginia turkey hunters.

A total of 16,186 turkeys were killed in Virginia during the 2018 spring gobbler season, down 14 percent from 2017, according to recently released statistics from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

It’s unrealistic to expect higher numbers year-to-year when it comes to wild game populations. The DGIF turkey harvest trend chart reflects that (chart below).

“The statewide wild turkey population is high and stable,” said Gray Anderson, DGIF chief of wildlife, “and the 14 percent decrease in harvest is normal annual fluctuation we would expect in a healthy managed population.”

DGIF Wild Turkey Biologist Gary Norman cited two main culprits in the drop in hunter success: recruitment of young birds and crappy weather, both for hunting and turkey brood rearing. Bad weather contributed to fewer young turkeys making it to adulthood in 2016. This resulted in fewer 2-year-old gobblers, a hunter mainstay, in 2018.

Two-year-old gobblers normally gobble a lot, Norman explained. Spring turkey hunters like to hear those gobbles and use them to execute set-ups on enthusiastic toms. Plus, he said, younger gobblers are typically not with hens as much as the more dominant, older birds, making them are more likely to respond to a hunters’ calls.

Norman noted, “Virginia experienced a long string of years with low recruitment of young turkeys into the turkey population; we’re over-due a good hatch like the one we had in 2011.” He also remarked, “Unfortunately, turkey recruitment in 2017 was lower than 2016, so hunters may be facing another challenging year in 2019 as the number of 2-year-old gobblers will once again be lower than normal.”

I’d add that this extremely wet May we experienced likely impacted the 2018 hatch, meaning hunters might need to adjust expectations for a couple years.

This latest hunting season saw extended stretches of very hot days, cold and windy days, plus rainy days. Poor hunting conditions dominated the Youth and Apprentice weekend. Hunter success dropped 26 percent, Norman added.

The top counties were Bedford with 511 birds, followed by Pittsylvania and Franklin with 393 birds each. County harvest totals and harvest per square mile of suitable habitat are available on the DGIF web site at dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018-spring-gobbler-harvest.pdf.

Outdoors Plan Out for Review

A draft of Virginia’s comprehensive plan for outdoor recreation, land conservation and open space is posted online for public review.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation produces the Virginia Outdoors Plan every five years. Part of the plan’s development is conducting an “Outdoors Demand” survey of Virginians’ outdoor recreation use, preferences and attitudes. Input also is collected from a range of outdoor recreation providers and the conservation community.

Virginia must create a plan to participate in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund program, which provides 50 percent matching funds to state agencies and localities for buying and developing outdoor recreation resources. Virginia’s highest LWCF apportionment amount of $7.5 million was received in 1979. Since the year 2000, Virginia’s average apportionment is $1,345,209, with 2017 seeing $2,134,167.

In addition, it helps guide land protection efforts through the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation.

The 2017 random survey was administered by the University of Virginia's Center for Survey Research. It was sent to 14,000 random households. Only 3,252 responded, a 23 percent response rate. Researchers stated this reflects a 2.3 percent margin of error and 95 percent confidence level. About two-thirds of the respondents were women. Only 16 percent were between age 18-39.; the rest were people 40 and older. This means only 520 people below the age of 40 are cast to represent opinions of that demographic statewide. The researchers indicated they “weighted” the survey results to compensate.

Virginia’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau was 8.47 million in 2017. I have some scientific survey experience from previous jobs and while survey statisticians may say the response numbers are sufficient, the low numbers returned in this survey give me pause. When you must weight, normalize, correct, etc., to compensate for short samples, I think you lessen the degree of confidence, especially in a state as geographically and sociologically diverse as Virginia. We hear much about national political polls that just survey a few hundred people – and we saw how accurate those could be during the 2016 presidential election.

As part of the 2017 survey, a “crowd-sourced” version was also available for anyone via social media and “interest groups.” Such surveys are wholly anecdotal and often have high response bias reflective of respondents pushing for certain agendas. The researchers, rightfully, didn’t fold this crowd-sourced product in the overall calculations but they did use the information comparatively against the random sample data in their report to the state.

Here are a few things the survey indicated.

Younger respondents rank importance of outdoor recreation access higher than those 65 and older. Seventy percent consider it very important, an increase of 15 percent since the 2011 survey. Both urban and rural residents think natural areas, followed by parks, are the most needed outdoor recreation.

Somewhat humorous - to me, anyway - was that “Driving for Pleasure” was listed as a top 3 outdoor activity across almost every planning district in the state. This isn’t played up in the state report but shows up in the full survey report (dcr.virginia.gov/recreational-planning/document/vosexecsum.pdf).

I guess taking a Sunday drive is an outdoors activity, but it seems a stretch to include it in a needs demand survey. Also, I don’t know if such prominent placement for this “activity” reflects the aged state of survey respondents or the fact we’re becoming a nation of couch potatoes, experiencing life through a windshield.

People generally support preserving or increasing state spending for outdoor recreation. Two-thirds support public spending to prevent loss of natural areas and open spaces. Tourism has a reported annual economic impact of $24 billion. A 2011 study showed outdoor recreationists spending more than $8 billion within the state annually.

We already know hunters and anglers spend a lot on outdoors pursuits and passions, including buying multiple licenses and permits annually, not to mention paying excise taxes on all that gear. These taxes are apportioned back to states for conservation via the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration and Sport Fish Restoration Acts.

Hunting is briefly mentioned in this voluminous 239-page document. Page 37 makes cursory mention of DGIF owning 42 wildlife management areas, exceeding 203,000 acres. Hunting is mentioned as an occasional activity on WMAs, which the document stresses are “for the benefit of all citizens for a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. The public is encouraged to utilize management areas and enjoy the bountiful natural resources found in each area.” Hunting isn’t mentioned at all as an activity in state and federal forest.

A link to the draft plan is available at dcr.virginia.gov/recreational-planning/vop-comments. Comments must be submitted through the online form by June 29.

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