OKMULGEE, Okla. – The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Wildlife Program was awarded the Wild Turkey Restoration Effort grant. The $200,000 grant will allow the department to participate in turkey research on the reservation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife FY 2021 Tribal Wildlife Grant programs over the next two years.
According to Wildlife Program Coordinator Jacob Rippy, multiple agencies from different regions are participating in the research study to determine what is causing the current population decline in turkeys in the southern region of the country.
“Oklahoma is one of the places where there’s quite a bit of knowledge being brought to the table and we want to be a part of that,” Rippy said.
The program is partnering with Oklahoma State University Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management for the project. Faculty involved with the project include OSU Extension Wildlife Specialist Dr. Dewayne Elmore and Assistant Professor Dr. Colter Chitwood. OSU Wildlife Conservation Graduate Student Nicole De Fillipo also assisted Rippy’s small crew directly.
Although there are many theories regarding the turkey depletion, Rippy claims there are many factors.
“There is no silver bullet, so it’s not like just one thing that’s affecting them,” he said. “That’s what this (research study) is for.”
Awarded in June 2021, the program waited to receive funds from the grant until February 2022 to begin research. Rippy said the delay was due to the fact that the MCN is not an academic institution.
Taking nearly a year to receive funding, the program assisted other participating agencies, gaining knowledge in their down time.
The grant funds were used to purchase equipment to capture the turkeys and purchase transmitters that track the birds. Equipment purchased included rocket holders, rockets, nets, traps, transmitters, feed, and bird calls.
A year after receiving funding in 2022, the program was able to initiate the first turkey capture on the reservation on March 10 and the last capture event on April 12.
Turkeys are captured on the Nations’ trust property in McIntosh County.
Rippy said the crew has captured anywhere from 12-20 turkeys at once with the net launching rocket.
Once the net has caught the turkey, Rippy said each turkey will be placed in a box and taken to the data collection area. Wing measurement, weight, breast feathers, fecal and mouth samples were taken during the process. The birds received a transmitter and band, then were released. The process took less than ten minutes.
“Usually it goes almost seamlessly,” Rippy said.
If the crew notices the bird is struggling, they will go ahead and release the bird without the transmitter to reduce the stress of the capture.
“We know it’s not an easy thing to be captured by these humans,” Rippy said. “The purpose of this project is for the birds.”
Transmitters are about the size of a hand-held radio and have a battery life of 270 days. The transmitters reveal each turkey’s location when Rippy pings it using a global positioning system (GPS).
Since turkeys are now nesting, Rippy and his crew are able to currently study their nesting habits.
Rippy will ping locations daily, then he goes out to find the turkey and observe it while taking notes, photos, and even video. Given the opportunity, he may try to view the nest to count the poults (eggs) and see what environmental factors are affecting the poults including predators, weather, and mothering habits.
The transmitters include mortality signals, notifying them immediately. At that point, Rippy can find the turkey immediately to determine the cause of death for data.
The mortality rate data thus far has determined that interactions with coyotes and bobcats have affected the turkey populations.
One signal that sent the crew out was a hen that was still alive, but had not physically moved for a great amount of time. This instance gave the crew somewhat of a laugh.
Rippy claims that the turkeys usually don’t travel far outside of their home range.
“They pretty much stay within a ten-mile radius,” he said.
Rippy claims that flocks have depleted almost in half. Turkeys used to travel in flocks of 70-80, now they travel in flocks closer to 30-40.
“We are lucky to see a flock of 50 now,” he said.
Rippy himself has pulled long days of work that have included early mornings and late evenings in the office, however he enjoys the project.
This is a developing story. For more information on turkey research on the Mvskoke Reservation call Rippy at 539-244-2220.