Farm Horizons, May 2011

Minnesota wild turkey restoration is a great conservation success story

By Jennifer Kotila

Twenty years ago, it would have been rather difficult to find a wild turkey in this part of the state of Minnesota.

In the early 1900s, wild turkeys had been decimated in Minnesota, and throughout most of the US, due to habitat destruction and unregulated subsistance hunting, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).

Minnesota’s wild turkey restoration efforts began in the 1920s when 250 pen-reared turkeys from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas were released in 11 Minnesota counties, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) long-range turkey action plan.

In the mid-1930s conservation efforts in the state of Virginia began with research on the wild turkey’s breeding patterns and habitat needs, and to research restoration ideas. Many states soon followed suit and were also releasing pen-reared wild turkeys, according to the NWTF.

Again in 1957, 37 pen-reared turkeys from the Allegheney Turkey Farm in Pennsylvania were released in Minnesota’s Whitewater Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Winona County, according to the DNR.

All attempts at releasing pen-raised turkeys failed, not only in Minnesota, but all over the US, hindering the wild turkeys’ comeback for two decades.

It was not until the invention of the cannon-net, a large net shot by cannons to capture live wild birds, that flocks of live wild turkeys could be re-introduced to the Minnesota landscape, according to the NWTF.

During the 1960s, 39 Merriam’s and eastern wild turkeys, live-trapped in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, were released in the Whitewater WMA, according to the DNR.

While eastern wild turkeys were once native to extreme southeastern Minnesota, Merriam’s wild turkeys are a subspecies primarily found in ponderosa pine and western mountainous regions of the US and were not well-adapted to Minnesota’s forested habitat, so this effort was also unsuccessful.

Finally, in 1971 and 1973, 29 eastern wild turkeys, live-trapped in Missouri, were released in Houston County, MN. These turkeys demonstrated the eastern wild turkey’s ability to quickly flourish in the proper habitat, according to the DNR.

Throughout the 1990s, trap and transplant efforts filled the remaining primary habitat for wild turkeys in Minnesota.

With the successful re-establishment of wild turkeys in Minnesota, the trap and transplant program has been suspended.

The population has grown from a few wild turkeys in extreme southeastern Minnesota after transplant efforts in the 1960s, to more than 70,000 wild turkeys found throughout much of the state today, due greatly to the excellent habitat provided by a mix of forest and agricultural land.

The establishment of wild turkeys throughout more than half of southern and western Minnesota is considered a wildlife management success story, according to the DNR.

Wild turkey hunting in Minnesota

The first modern spring hunting season for wild turkeys occurred in 1978, with two permit areas in southeastern Minnesota.

There were only 420 wild turkey permits available that year, and 10,740 hunters applied for a permit, according to the management plan. Hunters bagged 94 wild turkeys that year, according to the DNR.

Throughout the 1980s, application numbers declined, hitting a low of 5,662 applications in 1985. The decrease in applications can be attributed to the limited number of permits available, according to the DNR.

Since the 1980s, with the rise in the wild turkey population leading to greater availability of hunting permits, more permit areas available, and greater success in the hunt, the number of applications for wild turkey hunting has steadily increased, according to the DNR.

Fall turkey hunting was first established in 1990, when 4,522 hunters applied for 1,000 permits. Fall turkey hunt applications reached its low in 1992, with 2,782 hunters applying for 2,200 permits. The number of fall turkey hunt applications has steadily increased since 1992, according to the DNR.

It was not until last spring that the number of permits available for the spring wild turkey hunt surpassed the number of applicants.

For the 2010 spring turkey hunting season, there were 51,312 applicants for 55,982 available permits in 77 permit areas. Hunters harvested 13,467 wild turkeys, a success rate of 29 percent.

The number of permits available for the fall wild turkey hunting season has been more than the number of applicants since 2006.

For the 2010 fall turkey hunting season, there were 6,869 applicants for 10,430 available permits in 67 permit areas. Hunters harvested 1,353 wild turkeys, a success rate of 20 percent.

Wild turkey trouble

With the successful re-establishment of a wild turkey population in Minnesota have come some problem turkeys.

Wild turkeys are active during the day, roosting in trees overnight. They nest on the ground, with the young able to leave the nest shortly after hatching to begin foraging for insects.

Often seen foraging for insects, grubs, and seeds, wild turkeys have sometimes been blamed for crop damage actually done by other animals, such as deer, raccoons, squirrels, or blackbirds, according to the DNR.

Studies in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio have shown that wild turkeys in crop fields eat mainly waste grain, rarely causing significant crop damage. Wild turkeys can instead benefit farmers by eating insects and weed seeds.

Problems with wild turkeys can occur if they become acclimated to humans, according to the DNR. Although illegal, well-intentioned people have created problems when they release pen-raised turkeys into the wild.

Not only can the pen-raised turkeys pose a potential disease threat to wild turkeys, they also create problems with humans.

Pen-raised turkeys, as well as those that have become acclimated to humans, will roost on roofs, in trees near homes, on decks, and are occasionally known to damage the paint on automobiles, according to the DNR.

Because turkeys have a “pecking order,” those that are acclimated to humans may treat a human being or pet as they would another turkey, becoming aggressive and chasing homeowners, children, and pets.

The DNR provides some tips to avoid common problems with wild turkeys:

• Don’t raise and release turkeys.

• Don’t feed turkeys. This can cause turkeys to act tame, leading to aggressive behavior, especially in mating season.

• Keep bird feeder areas clean. If turkeys become a nuisance around bird feeders, temporarily discontinue feeding birds.

• Don’t allow turkeys to become comfortable in the presence of humans. Chase them away by scaring them with loud noises, swatting with a broom, or spraying with a hose.

• If a turkey is pecking at a shiny object, such as a vehicle or window, cover or disguise the object and chase the turkey away.

• Educate neighbors by passing the information along. The whole neighborhood has to be involved in keeping wild turkeys wild if there is a flock nearby.

In the spring and early summer, for reasons unknown, some turkeys choose to stand, walk, or pace back and forth in the center of a busy highway, dodging vehicles and blocking traffic. These turkeys usually are not easily dispersed, and may have to be forcibly removed if posing a hazard.

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