Turkey hunters in South Carolina could soon be required to reduce the number of birds they kill each year under a bill headed to the governor.
A compromise bill that cleared both the state House and Senate last week will decrease the number of male turkeys that can be killed each year from five birds to three. Wildlife officials have pushed for the change the past few years, warning the population appears to be in decline.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports more than 16,000 male turkeys were harvested in 2014, a 36 percent decline from more than 25,000 estimated kills in 2002. Hunters cannot kill females or “hens.”
“I want to be able to conserve these resources where our children and grandchildren can continue to have turkeys in our state,” State Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, told South Carolina Radio Network shortly after the bill’s passage.
DNR is in the second year of a study with Louisiana State University as it tries to determine the health of South Carolina’s Eastern wild turkey population. Turkey project supervisor Charles Ruth said the numbers of turkeys reaching adulthood has dropped over the past decade. He said the decline comes despite careful management that allowed the population to flourish throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Biologists believe the decline it is likely due to an increase in predators such as coyotes or bobcats, along with maturing pine forests that are no longer as good habitat for the birds as younger pine stands.
The LSU study centered in Hampton County will monitor hens and gobblers through sophisticated GPS devices that DNR officials hope will provide more accurate information about nesting seasons. Ruth said DNR is also looking for data on the birds’ declining reproduction habits. “If you talk to most turkey hunters, most… will tell you we absolutely don’t have the number of turkeys that we once did in South Carolina,” he said. “Certainly we’ve still got a strong turkey population. It’s just not what it used to be.”
It has taken two years to pass the bill, as a small number of lawmakers said they wanted to delay a vote last year until the public could weigh in on the idea. “We didn’t need to rush this through (last year) and get heartburn from our constituents,” State Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, said. Martin had voted against the bill last year, but supported its passage this session after meetings between state wildlife officers and hunting groups.
The compromise version passed the House unanimously and the Senate in a 43-1 vote. State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, was the sole legislator to oppose the bill.
The bill would reduce the statewide limit from five birds to three, and no more than three birds per day. The legislation also creates a statewide hunting season from March 20-May 5. Previously, the season varied across the different regions of the state. Legislators also agreed to eliminate language that would have allowed hunters to kill a fourth bird with a bow and arrow. The bill also increases the fine for illegal turkey kills from $100 to $500.
Governor Nikki Haley is expected to sign the bill.
Senate Fish, Game, and Forestry Committee Chairman Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said lawmakers need to view the birds as a “public resource” that should be conserved. “We have to steward this resource to make sure the resource itself survives and thrives and is not over-exploited when it comes to hunting,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And the reason why is because it belongs to the public.”