January 16, 2011

Hunting: Turkey vs. deer turns out to be a rural myth

By BOB HUMPHREY

The developed areas of our state may vary from the hinterlands in some ways, but urban and rural areas also share some similarities.

A case in point is the perpetuation of myths and legends.

People seek simple solutions to phenomena that are not easily explainable. Speculation turns to rumors, and once they've taken hold, they can be hard to dispel.

If there is a viable population of wild mountain lions in Maine, then why, after all this time, hasn't anybody been able to produce a single shred of substantiating evidence? Some folks (who have never received a permit) insist the moose lottery is rigged.

Through DNA analysis, trapping records and countless other data sources, we can accurately track the coyotes' eastward expansion, yet there are those who still maintain the state trapped coyotes from out west and transferred them here.

Perhaps the most widespread rural myth is that turkeys are having a negative effect on the state's deer population.

In some ways it's understandable that folks might think this way. The decline in our deer herd coincides rather nicely with the boom in our turkey population.

But that circumstantial evidence alone is insufficient for assigning cause and effect. From 1952 to 1976, when the American League won the World Series, the next president elected was a Republican. If the National League won, the election went to the Democrat.

About five years ago, I asked Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Keel Kemper about the issue.

"If turkeys were negatively impacting deer, as alleged, diet quality for deer would be substantially reduced. A reduction in diet quality would naturally lead to a reduction in deer weights and deer density on the landscape," was his response. He added, "There are no indications that diet quality for deer has been reduced. We examine thousands of deer each year and this empirical data has consistently shown no overall reduction in weight or density of deer at the statewide level."

I think most folks would agree that turkey numbers have remained stable or increased since then. Yet after seeing results from deer check stations this fall, Kemper -- whose central Maine region contains the highest turkey densities in the state -- remarked that deer are in excellent condition.

Numbers have gone down, but that's more a result of severe winters, larger predator populations and generous any-deer permit allotments.

It's easy to see why folks view turkeys as competition for deer. They eat many of the same foods, particularly acorns and beechnuts. But as Kemper points out, they are "a prized, yet very unstable commodity." Annual mast production in any given area can vary from bumper crop to nonexistent. Yet severe winters not withstanding, local deer populations do not fluctuate in relation to mast availability.

Furthermore, vast areas of Maine lacking any appreciable oaks or beech still support relatively stable deer populations. And according to Kemper, "Deer still fatten up for winter even in years when the mast crop is poor or absent." That's largely because deer eat a lot more than just nuts.

Do they compete? Absolutely. In the fall and winter, turkeys flock up, forming large groups. Thirty or 40 birds scratching across an oak ridge could be a mighty intimidating sight and sound to a couple deer; and it's likely many a hunter has seen deer flee in front of such an onslaught.

But does it really have any appreciable effect on the deer? Probably not. The turkeys will soon move on, leaving behind plenty of unexploited nuts. And the birds are limited to feeding in daylight hours, while deer can potentially feed 24-7-365. If either creature has a competitive advantage, it would be the deer.

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