WHILE PUBLIC CONCERN has been distracted by budget and trade imbalances, another troubling disequilibrium has been building -- the serious disparity between the number of wild turkeys and the number of people hunting them.

Although the turkey-supply side of the equation has long been under pressure from the encroachments of civilization, a crisis might have been avoided were it not for an explosion on the hunter- demand side. Spurred by the thrills and challenge of the sport, thousands have joined the wild-turkey hunt in recent years. So many, in fact, that The Wall Street Journal -- which drew attention to all this in a marvelous front-page story the other day -- reports the number of turkey hunters has now reached 2 million. This, by curious coincidence, is also the estimated size of the remaining wild-turkey flock.

Can this one-to-one ratio of hunters and hunted be sustained? We think not. More likely the seeds of the hunters' destruction are sown in the very successes achieved in tracking their prey. On their side, it is true, the turkeys have the advantage of sharp eyes, high foot and flight speed and excellent camouflage. Moreover, the average intelligence of the wild turkey is alleged to be on the rise -- one biologist reports that to improve their disguise, many birds no longer gobble.

But the hunters are a determined and dedicated pack. ("You can't think about your family, your business or anything. It requires total commitment," one hunter told The Journal.) Aided by technology (manufacturers of wild-turkey calls have increased eightfold in the last decade, specialized no-gleam weapons have been developed) and training (six schools now teach hunters turkey-attracting maneuvers, such as beating the arms against the legs) hunters have inexorably increased their yield.

Such slow-building problems as the turkey deficit can move rapidly to crisis proportions. Heavy-handed regulation, suggested by some, however, would only aggravate the situation. What is needed is a simple intervention that would allow the natural interplay of competitive forces to reach a desirable equilibrium. We're surprised The Journal didn't recommend it. Specifically, it is time to arm the turkeys.