By David Baumann, Steve Bennett, Billy Fleming, Robert Gooding, and Skip Still
All writers are retired master’s-level wildlife biologists with combined experience of over 160 years in South Carolina.
The South Carolina 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 state wild game bird. This has been done despite the steady decline in wild turkey populations in recent years in South Carolina.
In 2015, the Legislature passed Act 41, which set the statewide spring turkey season from March 20 to May 5. Previously the season began on April 1 except on private land in 12 Lowcountry counties, which opened March 15. A group of conservation professionals and turkey hunters expressed concern related to this change, and the Legislature mandated that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conduct a research study within Act 41 to determine optimal season dates. It was understood that the research would help define future regulations regarding turkeys.
The research was successfully conducted from 2015-18 by SCDNR 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 were used. Research 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 SCDNR and LSU researchers were backed by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, made up of 15 Southeastern states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. SEAFWA conducted an extensive literature review and recommended in 2016 that spring turkey season opening dates should coincide with the average date of initial egg laying.
In 2019, the Legislature ignored the recommendations of SCDNR and 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 tried to question the results of the research, despite the fact that natural resource management professionals strongly supported those results. These attempts to discredit the research were without substantial merit and were based on the individual wishes of select legislators. One legislator who supported the 2019 legislation even bragged 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 employ and provide. One such instance occurred when a legislator representing a Piedmont county introduced a bill to allow baiting for deer in Piedmont counties. SCDNR 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 disease, which is potentially devastating to deer populations. Despite data provided by SCDNR and over strong objections by the agency, the bill was passed. So once again, as a legislator said about the turkey bill, science lost. But it wasn’t just science that lost; it’s the resource and ultimately the people of South Carolina who lose when natural resource professionals are ignored.
So as the previous example illustrates, the underlying issue runs much deeper than turkeys. South Carolina is one of only a few states in the nation where natural resource management is controlled by the Legislature. In the majority of other states, natural resource management is controlled by a governing board within each state’s natural resource agency, reducing political intrusions. 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?