About 50,000 people hunt wild turkeys in South Carolina. Photo provided/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The South Carolina legislature has passed new regulations governing the hunting of wild turkeys in an effort to slow the population decline. The major takes from the new legislation is a return to split seasons and a limit of one bird during the first 10 days of the season. The seasonal bag limit will remain at three birds, but non-resident hunters will be limited to two birds.

In Game Zones 1 & 2 (the upper part of the state) the season will run April 1-May 10; in Game Zones 3 & 4 (which include Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties) the season will run March 22-April 30. Each of the split seasons runs for 40 days whereas in the past the season was 47.

Another change that will take effect regards turkey tags, which historically have been free. There will be a $5 fee for a set of three turkey tags for residents, while non-residents can only purchase two tags at a cost of $100. Ruth said that DNR was having to pull money from other sources in order to provide the turkey tags, but the new fee not only will pay for tags but also fund turkey research. Also, beginning in 2021, electronic harvest reporting will be required.

The legislature changed turkey hunting regulations and enacted a statewide season running from March 20-May 5 in 2016, which opened the season earlier and added about 50 percent more hunting days to the season.

"There was some angst about that among some folks and I think that prompted the legislature to include a sunset provision, in other words a self-destruct mechanism that had the legislation time out," said Charles Ruth, Big Game Coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "It also included a provision for DNR to study the issue and report back to the legislature in November of 2018."

Ruth said DNR began a cooperative study with Louisiana State University professor Dr. Brett Collier, one of the top turkey researchers in the country. The federally funded study took place over four years at the Webb Wildlife Center in Hampton County. The research was to determine the timing of gobbling and the timing of nesting which allows biologists to recommend the best times for a hunting season.

"Understand, we're hunting turkeys at the same time they are trying to reproduce. People say that we hunt deer at the same time they are breeding, but deer don't have their offspring until seven months later. Turkeys are doing everything at the same time," Ruth said.

A hen turkey lays one egg per day until she completes her clutch, then begins incubation. Ruth said that the average nest initiation was April 9 and the average onset of incubation was April 22.

Ruth said that many experts feel that the early excessive removal of gobblers impacts the nesting success of hens. Based on that study, DNR recommended an April 10-May 5 turkey season to the legislature which sets game and fish regulations. After much work, they came up the the return to the split seasons and the one-bird per hunter during the first 10 days of the season.

"Historically, it was two birds per day within your limit," Ruth said, adding that many hunters doubled up early in the season.

"It was a good process," Ruth said of the interaction with the legislature. "I think all parties came away with the understanding that we're going to monitor this thing the next three to five years. If we don't see an increase in harvest at the same time we see an increase in reproduction, we're going to stay on top of it and tweak it, if necessary. There is no sunset clause but there is a provision that we must report annually on the status of turkeys."

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