How many wild turkeys live in southeastern North Carolina, and why should anyone care?

Well, the answer to that question may give life - or death - to a back-door attempt to install an early turkey season for six counties into the Wildlife Commission's regulations digest in 2007.

Apparently, District 4 hunters believe there are plenty of turkeys in their region because they convinced their local WRC commissioner, Stephen Windham of Winnabow (a Gov. Mike Easley appointee), to push for a 2006 split season and later a statewide April 10 opener for 2007.

A majority of N.C. sportsmen and the N.C. chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation opposed both ideas at the WRC's 2005-06 public hearings, and they weren't approved.

Earlier turkey seasons don't make much sense biologically. After Wayne Bailey was hired as the WRC's first wild-turkey project leader in 1971, the WRC set a spring season that opened the fourth Saturday of April. Why? Because it gave male birds a chance to breed with hens and produce more turkeys for the future. Since then, the WRC has allowed the season opener to creep toward the second Saturday in April. The 2006 spring season began April 8, which is the earliest date possible under current regulations.

But Windham's constituents apparently want an even earlier opening day. After the March 1, 2006, WRC rejection of his April 10 proposal, he offered a substitute - a special, six-county early-opening (first Saturday in April) season for Robeson, Bladen, Pender, Columbus, Brunswick and New Hanover counties. The rest of the state still would open the second Saturday in April. The special "youth-only" early turkey hunt for his six counties would be the last Saturday in March - an astoundingly early date.

"He's probably reflecting the wishes of hunters in his district," WRC executive director Dick Hamilton said. "They're hearing birds gobble, and they're close to South Carolina, which opens its spring gobbler season March 15."

The problem is South Carolina has nearly double the number of wild turkeys as North Carolina. S.C. hunters killed 16,000 turkeys in 2005; Tar Heel hunters kill from 8,000 to 9,000 birds per year. And we're just 10 years from a 2,600-kill year (1996), so our flock remains in the growth stage at some regions, including southeastern N.C. Can turkeys there withstand an earlier season? Who knows?

With an earlier season, how many gobblers wouldn't breed, hens wouldn't lay a clutch of eggs, be killed accidentally, or how many extra hunters would flock to those six counties, increasing harvest pressure? And how long before another commissioner wants an earlier season for his district - and damn the biology?

A spring turkey season so early might set up a disaster.

The Legislative Rules Review Committee may find Windham's request to be unconstitutional. He obviously didn't bring this proposal to the Jan. 2005 public hearings. Or it may OK his proposal.

There may be enough wild birds to support Windham's early season. What upsets most observers is he apparently tried to avoid public scrutiny of this idea, which gives his tactics the appearance of favoritism and an end-run past sportsmen and biologists.

That's an appearance N.C.'s public servants don't need.