Despite poor hatches from 2007 to 2010, production in three of the last four years has improved enough to stabilize turkey numbers throughout much of the state. Because of Missouri's diverse landscape, however, turkey population trends often vary regionally. Turkey numbers in northwest Missouri remain well below the peak numbers observed 10–15 years ago. Similarly, turkey numbers in northeast Missouri have struggled to rebound from the population declines that occurred in the past decade. Despite northern Missouri having the best regional turkey production in 2014, it will take several years of good hatches to bolster the population. An increase in jake numbers should be evident in northern Missouri this spring, but harvesting an adult gobbler will continue to be more challenging than it was when turkey numbers were higher.
Turkey numbers in the Ozarks have been relatively stable for the past several years. The Eastern Ozark Region, in particular, has had some of the state's best turkey production. Good gobbler numbers and an abundance of public land make this region a good choice for hunters. The Western Ozark and Ozark Border regions continue to contain many of the top harvest counties in the state, and this will likely be the case in 2015.
Prospects are also good for the River Breaks Region, which lies just south of the Missouri River and west of the Mississippi River from Osage County east to Jefferson County and south to Cape Girardeau County. This region encompasses some of the state's best turkey habitat, and its counties consistently rank among the highest in spring turkey harvest.
Missouri's turkey population has undergone a transition during the past several decades. In the 1970s and 80s, when the recently-restored population was expanding rapidly, people often reported seeing flocks of turkeys that numbered well into the hundreds. During that time, production was extremely high as turkeys took advantage of vacant, highly suitable habitat. But, a basic ecological principle eventually caught up with Missouri's turkeys. As wildlife populations grow, factors that limit their size exert ever-greater influence. Habitats become crowded, predators find easy prey, and disease spreads more quickly. By increasing mortality, decreasing production, or doing both, each limiting factor puts the brakes on an expanding population.
Missouri's wild turkeys were no exception. Although population increases are possible given good production, it's unlikely turkey numbers will increase to the peak populations observed following restoration. Wild turkey populations are dynamic, and turkey reproductive success is rarely constant. In the future, there will be periods when poor production reduces turkey numbers for several years and periods when improved production will increase turkey numbers.
The Conservation Department takes a comprehensive approach to managing the state's turkey population. In addition to analyzing harvest data, brood surveys and wildlife observation surveys are conducted each year to monitor trends in turkey production and abundance. The Department also has conducted a number of research projects to study wild turkeys, including an ongoing study in northern Missouri. Data from these studies provide important information used to make management decisions. The Department also surveys thousands of hunters each year to learn about hunter opinions, success, and satisfaction. The Department's approach to turkey management is guided by its Wild Turkey Harvest Management Plan. Along with management objectives, such as ensuring the long-term well-being of the turkey population, allowing harvest within sustainable limits and providing opportunity to enjoy the resource, the plan outlines criteria that are evaluated each year to establish harvest regulations.
Hunters should expect similar opportunities to those encountered during the past several seasons. Bagging a gobbler will continue to be more challenging than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Two-year-old gobblers won't be as abundant as they were in 2014, but carry-over from previous years should provide some great hunting. Although the 2015 spring harvest is unlikely to surpass the record set more than 10 years ago, this year's harvest is likely to be among the highest in the nation. Missouri continues to offer great turkey hunting, and most of Missouri's hunters should have a good spring season.