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Florida wild turkeys: Conservation success story face pressures again

A male wild turkey walks on a golf course in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In 2018, 32,700 hunters bagged an estimated 20,300 wild Florida turkeys, but the annual harvest wasn’t always so bountiful.

The restoration of Florida’s wild turkeys is one of the great conservation success stories, but new environmental stresses could be putting the population at risk once again.

Turkeys might not be the first animals to come to mind when you think Florida wildlife, but they have a long rich history in the Sunshine State.

“We have two subspecies and those are the Eastern and the Osceola turkey. Something that's really special about the Osceola turkey is that it's only found in the Florida Peninsula and nowhere else in the world,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Spokesperson Rebekah Nelson.

Florida hasn’t always been kind to its avian friend. Their numbers were once estimated to be a quarter million, but 70 years ago only 26,000 remained because of overhunting.

“It was because they're so tasty. There was a lot of hunting and it wasn't sustainable,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.

What followed was a success story as the state embarked on a concerted restoration effort.

“With science-based management, we’ve gotten back to a robust turkey population,” said Nelson.

But according to FWC reports, turkeys could soon face a new threat.

“Habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are definitely concerns,” said Nelson.

Climate change and urban sprawl stand to destroy 2.1 million acres of turkey territory by 2060.

"Certainly, as our state urbanizes, we will see changes to the distribution of those birds,” said Wraithmell.

For now, the birds are still safe to hunt.

The FWC has also developed a 10-year strategic plan for managing Florida’s wild turkeys, to ensure their population stays healthy for future generations to sample on their Thanksgiving plate.

It’s too late to sign up for a permit to hunt your own Thanksgiving turkey this year, but hunters still have until Nov. 30 to get a permit for the Spring season.

They can be purchased at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com.