The S.C. Legislature continues to ignore the best available scientific information and the recommendations of natural resource management professionals when setting seasons and bag limits for wild turkeys, the South Carolina state wild game bird. This was done despite the fact that wild turkey populations have been declining steadily in South Carolina in recent years.
In 2015, the Legislature enacted Act 41 that set the statewide spring turkey season from March 20 to May 5. Previously the season began April 1 except on private land in 12 Lowcountry counties where the season opened March 15. A group of conservation professionals and turkey hunters expressed concern related to this change, and the Legislature mandated that the S.C. Department of Natural Resources conduct a research study to determine optimal season dates. It was understood that research results would be used to help define regulations regarding turkeys.
The research was conducted from 2015-18 by DNR staff and a prominent turkey researcher from Louisiana State University. The study compiled turkey harvest data, nesting and gobbling chronology and hunter information. The best techniques and cutting-edge technology available were used. Based on the research study, results were presented to the Legislature indicating the spring season should not open prior to April 9, the average date of nest initiation.
The findings of DNR and LSU researchers were backed up by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, made up of 15 southeastern states plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The association conducted an extensive literature review and recommended in 2016 that spring turkey season opening dates should coincide with average date of initial egg laying.
In 2019, the Legislature ignored the recommendations of DNR, SEAFWA and the results of the research, passing a bill that allows turkey hunting in the lower state from March 22 through April 30 and in the upper state from April 1 through May 10. Only one gobbler can be taken during the first 10 days of the season. During the hearings, some legislators attempted to question the results of the research, despite the fact that natural resource management professionals strongly supported the results. These attempts to discredit the research were without substantial merit and based on the l wishes of select legislators. One legislative member who supported the 2019 legislation remarked after the bill had passed that “sometimes science loses.”
This is not the first instance of the Legislature ignoring the recommendations of DNR’s wildlife professionals and the science they provide. One such instance occurred when a legislator, representing a Piedmont county, introduced a bill to allow baiting for deer in the Piedmont counties. DNR had conducted a study demonstrating that baiting deer actually resulted in a decreased likelihood of killing a deer, despite what the legislators and many hunters believed. Additionally, deer baiting is implicated in the spread of various parasites and diseases, including chronic wasting, a disease that is potentially devastating to deer populations. Despite data provided by DNR and over strong objections by the agency, a bill allowing baiting for deer in the Piedmont was enacted.
So once again, as a legislator said about the turkey bill, science lost. But, it wasn’t just science that lost. It is the resource and ultimately the people of South Carolina who lose when natural resource professionals are ignored.
So the underlying issue runs much deeper than turkeys. South Carolina is one of only a few states where natural resource management is controlled by the Legislature. In the vast majority of states, natural resource management is controlled by a governing board within each state’s natural resource agency, reducing political intrusions into resource management. Do South Carolinians want to continue with a system of natural resource management where science and professional judgment are often ignored and a system of legislative power, constituent favors and votes is maintained?
David Baumann, Steve Bennett, Billy Fleming, Robert Gooding and Skip Still contributed to this op-ed. All five are retired master’s-level wildlife biologists with a combined experience of over 160 years in South Carolina.