Turkey hunters' feathers ruffled by board's decision
by David Atchison
A recent decision by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Conservation Advisory Board to close the fall turkey season has ruffled the feathers of turkey hunters across the state.

“When someone told me that the Conservation Advisory Board closed the fall turkey season, I thought to myself, ‘Come over here and let me smell your breath,’” said Tom Kelly, 85, of Spanish Fork, who is a renowned author of numerous non-fiction turkey hunting books. “I couldn’t believe it.”

At the March Conservation Advisory Board meeting in Birmingham, board member Bill Hatley of Gulf Shores made a motion to eliminate all fall turkey hunting in Alabama, and the board unanimously approved the motion.

The Conservation Advisory Board is composed of 10 members appointed by the governor for alternating terms of six years, and three ex-officio members in the persons of the governor, the commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, and the director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. The commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources serves as the ex-officio secretary of the board.

According to the Conservation Department website, current members who are appointed to the board include Chairman Dan Moultrie of Verbena, Austin Ainsworth of Guntersville, Grady Hartzog of Eufaula, T.J. Bunn of Tuscaloosa, Raymond Jones Jr. of Huntsville, Jeff Martin of Pell City, Joseph Dobbs Jr. of Bessemer, Dr. Bob Shipp of Mobile, Dr. Warren Strickland of Huntsville and Hatley.

Last fall season, hunters could legally hunt turkeys from Nov. 21-Jan. 1 in six counties: Clarke, Clay, Covington, Monroe, Randolph and Talladega.

The move by the board to close the fall season has turkey hunters calling up more than turkeys this spring.

Johnny Ponder of Munford, an avid turkey hunter who also makes and sells turkey calls, is one of the more vocal opponents of the closing of the fall turkey season.

Ponder said he has called members of the advisory board and other government officials in an attempt to reverse a decision he alleges was based on personal reasons, not on sound conservation practices or biology.

“This is a personal agenda being rammed down the throats of probably the most serious, responsible and law-abiding group of hunters out there,” he said. “My guess is that whoever is behind this wants to hunt deer in the fall, and they don’t want anyone hunting turkeys in the fall because they want to hunt them in the spring. That is the long and short of it.”

Ponder said Alabama hunters have been hunting turkeys during the fall for a long time without any adverse affect to the species.

“There is no biological reason to close the fall turkey season, none,” Ponder said. “None of these members live in any of the counties that are affected by their decision, not one.”

He said board members should have at least reached out to turkey hunters in those six counties before making such a drastic decision, which takes the rights away from a certain group of hunters.

“Nobody knew about this until after it was done,” Ponder said. “What burns me up is that they didn’t even contact Tom (Kelley). He is a nationally known author and expert in turkey hunting. I think they knew, like the rest of us, he would oppose it.”

Ponder said fall turkey hunting is as much a tradition as the November Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’ve been hunting fall turkeys ever since I can remember,” said Ron Watters of Wedowee, a former high school football coach. “I’ve been hunting turkeys in the fall for the past 42 years. We like to hunt turkeys in the fall.”

Watters said he and a lot of his friends hunt turkeys in the fall in Randolph County.

“It’s a way of life,” he said. “Now that I’m retired, they are going to take it away from me.”

Watters said there are more turkeys in Randolph County and elsewhere across the state than ever before, so it does not make any sense to eliminate this fall hunting activity that so many hunters enjoy.

He said while Alabama claims to have one of the largest populations of wild turkeys, other states have fall turkey seasons, and some states have either-sex turkey hunts.

“I was surprised this was already done,” Kelly said of the board’s action to close the fall turkey season. “I was horrified when I first learned about it.”

When asked if he still hunts turkeys in the fall, Kelly, who will turn 86 in May, said, “At my age, I don’t buy green bananas anymore, but I’m still breathing. Yes, I still hunt turkeys.”

Kelly was hunting turkeys as far back as 1938.

“Back then if you heard a gobbler once a year, you had a good season,” he said.

Kelly said in the 1940s it was more common for states to have fall turkey seasons, not spring turkey seasons.

“People thought the world would come to an end if you killed a turkey in the spring,” Kelly said.

He said back then, spring turkey hunting was taboo for some people, but hunters found it was easier to kill turkeys in the spring, and the spring turkey season evolved into what it is today.

Kelly believes Alabama has ventured away from fall turkey hunting in every county of the state because it conflicts with the deer season.

“I think deer hunters didn’t want turkey hunters walking around in the woods spreading their scent,” he said. “Old gobblers are infamously harder to kill in the fall.”

He said the fall turkey season is the best time to introduce young hunters to the sport.

“It’s more exciting and you are moving around, scouting a lot more,” Kelly said. “Look, if there was a biological reason for doing this, I would be in favor of it, but there is no rationale for it.”

While there is no biological reason to close the fall turkey season, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner N. Gunter Guy said there is no biological reason to support a fall turkey hunting season in those six Alabama counties.

He said for the past 40 years, the Alabama Conservation Department based deer and turkey population numbers on surveys randomly sent to 10,000 hunters each year, even though there are 200,000-350,000 hunters.

“We don’t have real numbers,” Guy said, adding that the department also depends on biologists and hunters on the ground to help determine the health and numbers of the deer and turkey populations.

He said the board felt there was no justification to warrant a fall turkey season in only the six counties.

Asked why the Conservation Department doesn’t offer fall turkey seasons in the other or all Alabama counties, Guy answered, “There is no biological evidence to support fall turkey seasons.”

He said a new law requires hunters to call a number within 24 hours after a deer or turkey is killed by a hunter. The hunter must call a certain number to report their kill after filling out their harvest information card.

Guy said the new reporting system will provide real time information about game that is killed, county by county.

Guy said just because the board is eliminating the fall turkey hunting season now doesn’t mean that the season won’t open again in the future.

He said data collected from the number of turkeys killed during the spring turkey season could justify a fall turkey season in the six counties, as well as in other counties in the state.

Ponder said state game officials need to do biological studies before closing the fall turkey season, which has been in existence for more than 80 years without any adverse affects on the turkey population.

“If they can do this without any public input and no credible reason, don’t be surprised what’s next,” Ponder said.

Guy said it is important to manage game and protect the state’s natural resources while the department collects information that will help game officials determine hunting seasons based on real numbers.

He also said the fall turkey season would make it less cost effective for the department to collect data for turkey kills for the six counties in the fall, since the game-check is a statewide registration.

Ponder said the cost for adding another menu level, “punch one for deer, punch two for turkey,” is minimal.

“How much would it cost?” he asked. “They are paying too much if they are paying a bunch of money for that, if anything. With today’s technology, no way this could cost that much. This is just another excuse, a lame one at that.”

Ponder said the Conservation Department should give Alabama taxpayers as much benefit of the state’s natural resources as possible, as long as that benefit has no negative impact on those resources.

“Provide for today without compromising tomorrow,” he said. “The Conservation Advisory Board needs to adopt this as their goal.”

Former Conservation Advisory Board member Grant Lynch of Talladega, who represented three of the six counties with fall turkey seasons, said the issue of eliminating the fall turkey season in Alabama came up last May but the matter was tabled after he voiced opposition.

Lynch said that was the last time he was involved in any discussions about the closure of the fall turkey season.

Lynch resigned from the board just prior to its February meeting, which was when a motion was made to close the fall turkey season in Alabama.

Newly appointed member Jeff Martin, an avid fisherman, was appointed to the board and attended his first meeting in March when the matter came up for a vote.

“It was a speedy vote, in my opinion,” Lynch said. “I’m a little frustrated about it.”

He said the board should have given Martin more time to consider the matter so he could go back and talk to the people he represents.

“The majority of public land is in our district,” Lynch said.

He said he told the board chairman and other members of the board last May he knew people who were avid fall turkey hunters and the proposal would meet opposition.

“In my 11 years on the board, I never had one complaint about fall turkey hunting,” Lynch said.

Guy, who was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley two years ago, said he has had complaints from people in other counties. He said hunters have questioned the fairness of only six counties in the state offering a fall turkey season.

Lynch said it was his opinion that the board should try and offer as many opportunities to as many groups as possible, so more people utilize Alabama outdoors during a time the state has seen declining numbers of people participating in hunting sports.

Martin said he voted in favor of closing the turkey season to make it more uniform throughout the state.

He said there was no opposition to the closing of the fall turkey season at his first board meeting in March, but he has since received numerous calls from turkey hunters in his district who are opposed to the elimination of the fall turkey hunting season.

One local hunter claims the elimination of the fall turkey season will impact local economies.

Ray Robbins of Talladega said the six rural counties that offer fall turkey hunting do not have the manufacturing and tax base of many of the more populated counties in the state.

“What these six counties do have is a large population of turkeys and other wildlife,” said Robbins, who is an attorney and businessman. “The financial impact to these counties will be significant and will result in less income with which to operate for these counties and local governments. This will also result in job losses in the private sector. Alabama needs jobs and any action by a department of the state that eliminates jobs in the private sector should be carefully scrutinized.”

Robbins estimates an economic loss with the elimination of the fall turkey season at $2.4 million.

“This does not include the domino effect to indirect revenues generated, such as increases in jobs, taxes and tourism,” he said. “Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina do not have fall seasons, so these turkey hunters may very well come to Alabama to hunt. In fact, I know of several fall turkey hunters who come every year from North Carolina and hunt in the Talladega National Forest.”

He said out-of-state hunters produce much higher revenues for the local economies because they spend money on hotels, gasoline and food.

Robbins said Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida all have fall turkey seasons.

“The action taken by this board may well result in not only no out-of-state hunters coming to Alabama, but Alabama hunters now going out of state to hunt turkeys in the fall,” he said. “I believe this board has not fully considered the reasons for eliminating the fall turkey season in Alabama and it has failed to consider the far-reaching ramifications of its action.”

Guy said there are only a small number of fall turkey hunters, and the economic impact for those counties that once allowed fall turkey hunting is minimal.

But Robbins said fall turkey hunting is not only about money.

“Those of us who hunt turkeys in the fall do so not only for the sport and outdoor activity, but as part of a long tradition,” he said. “We see pictures of our earliest Thanksgiving celebrations. Those pictures always include a turkey. If turkeys have been hunted in the fall for so long, what is the data to support its elimination?”

Turkey hunters are expected to address the Conservation Advisory Board at its Saturday, May 4, meeting at Joe Wheeler State Park about the closing of the fall turkey season in Alabama. The meeting will start at 9 a.m., but individuals wishing to address the board must register between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

© 2013