Bill declaring open raccoon season to protect turkey eggs could miss the mark

There’s a battle raging in Georgia between turkeys and raccoons, lawmakers say. They’re stepping in on the gobbler side, but some experts doubt their plans will do much to help the turkeys or hinder the raccoons.

Turkey hunters in much of the state are struggling to bag the birds. Just ask Republican Greensboro State Rep. Trey Rhodes.

“There aren’t many things in this world that I love more than turkey hunting,” he said at a recent committee meeting. “I’ve been doing it with my dad since I could walk, it’s just one thing we’ve always done together. And I can tell you, over the last few years, our turkey population in our state, we no longer have the number of turkeys we had before.

Wild turkey restoration had once been a conservation success story. Through restocking and anti-poaching efforts, Georgia’s turkey population grew from just over 17,000 in 1973 to 113,000 in 1984, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.

But this trend could be reversed. Biologists determine turkey population strength by averaging the number of poults or juvenile turkeys per mother hen, and that number is going down — it dropped 9% statewide between 2019 and 2020, the Northeast western Georgia with the steepest drop of 47%, according to the DNR.

“There are several reasons for this,” Rhodes said. “One of the things we need to do, some people say, is we’ve had a population boom of our creatures that like to eat our eggs, basically our nesting animals, our sea turtles, our turkeys and our bobwhite quail.”

Rhodes and others blame it on the tiny shoulders of Georgia’s raccoons and opossums, which munch on the gooey fowl orbs whenever they get the chance.

Republican Chickamauga State Representative Steve Tarvin said the decline in turkeys in northwest Georgia has coincided with an increase in raccoons.

“It seems like a long time ago when I was 20, but if you had a really good dog in northwest Georgia, you’d have 20 coons a year,” he said. “I could almost sport 20 a night now, if I had a good dog, but 20 a week wouldn’t be a problem.”

Part of the problem, says Rhodes, is that hunters don’t really consider small vermin as game anymore, preferring to focus on animals like deer and turkeys.

“Last night I thought, I counted 18 of my friends chasing the coon, all the time, that’s all they did,” he said. “And now there are only two who have left this raccoon hunt. People don’t hunt the coon anymore.

Rhodes hopes a bill he drafted that now awaits Governor Brian Kemp’s signature will give Georgia turkeys a break by eliminating some of the raccoons and opossums ransacking their nests.

House Bill 1147 passed the Senate last week with a 44-10 vote and passed the House last month 141-17.

The bill would allow year-round hunting and trapping of raccoons and opossums on private lands and empower MNR to change the length of the season on public lands.

Georgia lawmakers shortened the turkey season last year to help the birds repopulate, and aligning Georgia’s raccoon hunting season with neighboring states like Alabama and Florida will likely help more, said Rhodes.

Other experts are less sure.

What kills turkeys?

“What we don’t know is how, at a landscape level, if controlling these animals will actually improve turkey populations,” Georgia DNR wildlife biologist Emily Rushton said during the interview. a committee meeting.

“The fundamental problem is more than anything else a habitat problem,” she said. “Raccoons and opossums really exploit these urban, developed habitats, and we’ve recently created a lot of really good habitats for them in Georgia. Honestly, it would be hard to say how long it would take to see an effect, because it depends so much about the amount of trapping that occurs on a property, the number of years of trapping. There are a lot of factors that come into play.”

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Georgia Wildlife Federation President Mike Worley was more blunt.

“As far as we can find, there is no science to back up this bill,” he said. “There is no science that indicates where they are going with this bill – no science that I have found – indicates that it will be successful.”

If a homeowner has a raccoon or opossum problem, they can already get a permit from the DNR to trap at any time, Worley said.

“The challenge is always that it’s a very intensive operation, the traps have to be checked daily, that sort of thing,” he said. “So from a management point of view, it really turns into, if you want to trap enough to have an impact on the population, you have to work long and very hard, and the traps have to be checked daily. It’s a big business. So my challenge with the bill is that you already have options to control those pressures on your individual property if you want to, and it just won’t have an effect, I don’t believe, on the populations.

There’s also the reality that most hunters in Georgia don’t seem interested in hunting raccoons for sport, Worley said.

“It’s a tradition that’s been going on for generations here in Georgia, and the people who practice it are passionate about it,” he said. “But there are certainly not as many raccoon hunters as there are deer, quail or turkey hunters. It’s kind of a niche group, if you will, and that’s also one of the other arguments I would say there just aren’t enough people interested in raccoon hunting scrubber to really make a difference in the population.

It is also unclear to what extent raccoons are responsible for the decline in the turkey population. Habitat degradation likely plays a big role, and raccoons and opossums are far from the only creatures that enjoy a fresh turkey egg for breakfast, said John Eberhart, a member of the Wildlands Committee of the Georgian section of the Sierra Club.

“Eggs are so nutritious that in nature anything that can get an egg will eat it, including snakes, all kinds of songbirds, everyone eats eggs because they are ideal nutrition,” did he declare. “If there were no raccoons, that would be exploited by other species that eat those eggs. There are too many turkey hunters vying for too few turkeys, and turkeys can’t just be generated by a machine.

blame the corn

Another enemy of the turkey could be law-abiding deer hunters who inadvertently poison the birds.

Georgia allows deer hunters to use bait to attract the creatures, and for many that means corn, but bait sold as deer corn can contain a fungus called aflatoxin, which can be deadly to birds.

Some brands of deer corn sold as bait may harbor a fungus that is harmful to birds. Jill Williams

“Deer hunters spread this corn, sometimes they just throw it out of a bucket on the ground, and it rains and gets wet,” Eberhart said. “It was warm, and that helps the fungus to grow on the corn. Some of them use fancy automatic feeders, but the corn can still get wet that way, and it’s the profusion of this deer bait that poisons very many wild turkeys.

Worley said aflatoxin poisoning could indeed be a contributing factor in harming birds, but corn could also help raccoons.

“It will really be the birds that will be affected by this,” he said. “Your mammals won’t really be affected by this particular toxin, so it will be a bird problem. It could be turkeys. It could be quail, it could be your songbirds. If they’re eating corn, this could cause problems, but it is mainly our feathered friends who will see a problem.

“We are probably seeing an increase in raccoons, rather than raccoons organically popping up out of nowhere, due to the incredible amount of corn that is strewn across the landscape these days,” he said. -he adds. “The pigs take advantage of it. Raccoons, those types of omnivores that eat everything. Our bear populations are encouraged by the amount of corn distributed there.

The bill probably won’t do much to save turkeys, Worley said, and it probably won’t do much to deter raccoons either. Still, he fears it was a bad public relations decision.

“The evil I see is really more PR than anything else,” he said. “When you allow raccoons or opossums to be hunted all year round, these animals will have babies, they have babies out there in the landscape in May, June, April, May, June. It’s just an awkward time to allow hunting. The reality is, from a grassroots perspective, I don’t think the bill will have an impact on the raccoon or opossum population, but that’s a matter of optics as much as something else.

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