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Wisconsin turkeys

Despite a tough spring turkey season and a smaller flock in recent years, Wisconsin remains one of North America’s best areas for turkeys and turkey hunting.

Wisconsin’s turkey hunters shot 38,886 birds during this past spring’s weather-ravaged season, which unleashed April blizzards and May heatwaves to spark a 10 percent decline from 43,305 turkeys killed in 2017.

This spring’s kill was also 26.5 percent below 2008’s state-record 52,880 turkeys, and ranks as the third lowest spring harvest of the new century. Further, it was only the fifth time since 1999 that the spring harvest didn’t reach 40,000 birds. The lowest kill this century was 37,804 in 2013.

Wisconsin’s six weeklong turkey hunts, which run Wednesday through Tuesday, began April 18 and ended May 29. Those hunts didn’t get the worst weather, however. That distinction belongs to the April 14-15 youth-only (under age 16) turkey season, which featured a historic blizzard that dumped 30 inches of snow across much of Wisconsin. The youth-only harvest of 950 turkeys was 69 percent lower than 2017 when they bagged 3,039 birds.

Mark Witecha, the Department of Natural Resources’ upland wildlife ecologist, said many parents and mentors canceled group programs and individual hunts that weekend rather than fight the storm.

Many other hunters stayed home the next week during the first period of the regular season (April 18-24), rather than hunt atop snowshoes. The DNR documented the dropouts by monitoring how many hunters went online or visited license vendors to print their assigned harvest permits.

“Based on that information, participation was down 5 to 15 percent during the first time period, varying by which zone you were in,” Witecha said. “People with permits for Northern zones dropped out at the higher rates.”

In turn, the kill during the first period was 9,147, down 17.26 percent from 11,055 during the same period in 2017. Hunters during the second period fared better than a year ago, Witecha said, and the final four periods were similar to 2017.

Wisconsin’s modern era of wild-turkey hunting began in the early 1970s when the DNR began restocking southwestern counties with birds from Missouri. As the flocks flourished, the DNR trapped and moved turkeys across the state from 1976 through 2006.

The birds exceeded expectations nearly everywhere, helping hunters set records each year from the first season in 1983 through the 22nd season in 2004 when the kill reached 47,477. The harvest dipped to 46,183 in 2005, but resumed climbing in 2006 with 46,662.

The kill jumped above 50,000 the next three years, peaking at 52,880 in 2008 before dipping back below 50,000 in 2010 with 47,722 turkeys. Since then, the spring season has stabilized to average 42,100 annually.

Witecha said the turkey population’s steady increase, strong peak and eventual drop-off to long-term stability is a textbook growth curve for restoring a wildlife species in an open niche.

“Once a viable population gets established, it takes off and overshoots the land’s carrying capacity for a short time,” Witecha said. “Then nature corrects itself and the species settles in at a stable level. That’s why we’ve consistently stayed in the low 40,000 range most of the past decade.”

Mark Hatfield, a wild turkey biologist at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s headquarters in Edgefield, South Carolina, echoed Witecha. He likened the turkey’s boom years to football fans packing a stadium’s entrances before a game, and then spreading out once they push inside and head for their seats.

Predators also play a role in how turkeys settle into new habitats. Foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons and raptors might not be as numerous at first, nor are they fully aware of the turkey’s potential as a food source, especially its eggs and poults. That pendulum swings once predators learn to key on turkey nests and poults, and swings again as turkeys stabilize their numbers by adapting and learning where best to nest and feed to counter nest-raiders and poult rustlers.

Hatfield said that’s a standard, natural predator-prey relationship. Without a doubt, raccoons are the turkey’s chief nemesis, but even they can’t drive turkeys to the brink. Raccoons, after all, get hammered regularly by canine and feline distemper, a contagious virus that can sweep the population.

Hatfield said turkey numbers often jump following distemper outbreaks, and deliver excellent hunting two years later. Inevitably, though, turkey numbers again stabilize in response to changes in predation, weather and habitat.

“It’s a very fine line between a growing flock and a stable flock,” Hatfield said. “If you end the summer with a 3-to-1 poult-to-hen survival ratio, the flock grows. If that ratio falls to 2-1, the flock stabilizes. If it drops below 2-1, the flock declines.”

Witecha said DNR staff conduct brood counts each summer, logging observations of turkey, grouse and pheasant broods into August. He said brood counts for turkeys generally range from 4-1 to 4.5-1 ratios.

Hatfield said all indicators suggest Wisconsin’s turkey population is solid, and basically mirrors what’s occurring from Canada through Mexico. He said the NWTF estimated North America’s turkey population at 6.9 million in 2009, and then 6.3 million in 2015, about a 9 percent decline.

“The continent’s population is pretty stable,” Hatfield said. “Some areas are up and some are down, but the overall shift is less than 10 percent. Those changes could be caused by any number of factors, including habitat, weather, disease, hunter numbers and hunter effort.”

The NWTF’s numbers help explain why Wisconsin maintains one of North America’s strongest turkey populations. According to NWTF data on spring hunts, Wisconsin ranked No. 1 in 2009 and No. 5 in 2014, when it fell behind Missouri, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Alabama.

Those 2014 data also placed Wisconsin in a fifth-place tie with South Carolina for the highest harvest by range size, with hunters registering one gobbler for every 0.87 square miles of habitat.

If you take no comfort in such appraisals, study the NWTF’s 2014 data for our neighboring states. Michigan hunters registered one tom for every 0.64 square miles of range, while Illinois hunters registered one per 0.33 square miles, and Minnesota one per 0.20 square miles.

There. We can all sleep better tonight, right?

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981; or by e-mail at patrickdurkin56@gmailcom.