That’s the only word to describe the weather in the Northwest the last two springs in a row. 2010 was bad enough, but the spring of 2011 was even worse, with cold, wet weather persisting well into the summer months. The damp was hard on ground-nesting game birds, trashing the nesting success of grouse and pheasant. Understandably, wild turkey hunters in both Oregon and Washington are wondering if the same fate has befallen the turkey populations. Will gobblers be in short supply when the hunters head into the woods this year?
First, these are big states, and both of them have diverse habitats and climates spread over wide geographic areas. Where the winters are harder, or the habitat is marginal, the birds did not fare as well. Where the climate is milder, or the food sources more consistent, the negative effects were much less.
Second, wild turkeys nest later in the spring than any other upland bird, so their nesting season stretched into the better weather, and late broods found excellent conditions when they hatched. There may have been lower nesting production, but it may have been offset by better-than-usual brood survival.
Whatever affects the weather had on the turkey population, it definitely depressed hunter effort. One thousand less hunters took to the woods for gobblers in Oregon in 2011, and spent almost 7,500 fewer days hunting than 2010. Hunters took 4,132 toms in Oregon last year, a big drop from the 5,437 gobblers taken in 2010.
What follows is a breakdown of the different turkey flocks within Oregon and Washington, and how they have trended in recent years. While this may be a useful tool in deciding where to concentrate your efforts, keep in mind that the weather this spring may have more to do with your success, or lack of it.
Turkeys were first introduced into Washington in 1960, and now the Evergreen State offers hunters three subspecies of wild turkey spread through five main flocks. The birds are scattered through almost all the viable turkey habitat and hunters harvest over 5,000 gobblers every year.
Basically, there are Merriam’s turkeys in the northeast, central and south Klickitat regions. Rio Grandes can be found in the southeast, and Easterns can be found in the southwest.
Northeast Washington — A Turkey Bonanza
By far the best hunting in the state takes place in northeast Washington. More birds are harvested in the tri-county area of Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties than the rest of the state combined. In spring of 2010, the latest year for which harvest figures are available, hunters here took 3,197 of the state’s 5,700 gobblers.
Joe McCanna, a wildlife biologist with the WDFW in region 1, explains that northwest harvests peaked here in 2007. “We had hard winters back to back in ’07 and ’08,” says McCanna. “That dropped the birds a little.” He explains that the last two springs didn’t do much damage, but it held back a full recovery.
Dale Denny, of Bear Paw Outfitters (509-684-6294; www.bearpawoutfitters.com), is a first-class guide who has hunted this corner of Washington for decades, and over the last three years his clients have taken over 500 Merriam’s gobblers. From what he has seen in the woods, numbers are starting to rebuild. “The birds are recuperating from three poor years,” says Denny. “We are actually seeing more chicks. But they still are not as good as a few years ago.”
Denny hunts on private ranches as well as the public lands, and he has noticed one negative. While there is a lot of public land in the northeast, it really gets pressured. “The WDFW has done a really good job of selling this region as a turkey hotspot,” he says. “But that has put a lot of pressure on the birds on public lands. Over the years those public flocks have been decimated.”
Still, if the winter was not too bad, Denny is positive his clients will have another excellent season.
Southeast Washington — Rio Grande Country
The pine slopes of Washington’s Blue Mountains are perfect habitat for open-country Rio Grande turkeys, and while the 700 gobblers taken here in 2010 is a far cry from the harvest to the north, the success rates are almost identical.
A little less snow-prone than the northern counties, this flock has held up well. They are clustered along the river and creek bottoms and in the foothills within the Umatilla National Forest.
The Blue Creek Unit is always one of the best, and hunters took 164 gobblers there in 2010. Dayton was even better, giving up 181 toms. The Tucanon and Prescott Units gave up 58 turkeys each.
Columbia Gorge Toms — Doing Well, Thank You
David Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the WDFW, says that while the weather did hurt production of other upland species in this region, turkeys were affected less. “Of all our upland species, turkeys are the hardiest,” says Anderson, “and they appear to be doing fine.”
He further asserts that this year’s early fall was mild, and food sources in the woods were plentiful this winter. “There was a good acorn crop this year,” he says. He expects hunters will find the usual number of toms in the woods when the birds start gobbling.
This is one region where harvests continue to climb in all three units. In 2009, hunters took 448 toms. In 2010, the West Klickitat Unit alone provided 438 toms.
Central Counties Merriam’s
The eastern slope of the Cascades is home to a far-spread flock of Merriam’s turkeys that reaches from near the Canadian border south to the Yakima Indian Reservation. The birds are not found in high densities and are concentrated in the lowland river bottoms. Jeff Heinlen is an assistant district biologist for the WDFW in Region 2. When asked whether he thinks the flock was hurt by the weather, he admits that it may have been. “We believe it was,” he says, “but we have no formal turkey studies. We think the last two years have hurt the population a little.”
Granted, especially in the northern stretch of the east Cascades, the birds here were never thick. Heinlen says the birds survive best where there is supplemental feed, such as stock feeding areas and birdfeeders. “We do not have oaks or a good source of hard mast for winter survival,” he says. “That’s the biggest limiting factor for the birds.”
Look to the river valleys such as the Methow and Wenatchee drainages, and search the nearby foothills. The upper Yakima Valley also has some birds.
SW Washington’s Easterns
Hunters looking for the Evergreen State Slam, which includes a Merriam’s, a Rio Grande and an Eastern subspecies, will need to get lucky. The Eastern subspecies population of wild turkey in southwest Washington has never taken off. Habitat restrictions are the biggest limiting factor and the harvest is low, with only 71 Eastern toms taken in 2010 from a seven-county area
However, if you are intent on bagging an Eastern tom, you should look to clearcuts and the many tree farms in the southwest. Farmland and cropfield edges hold some birds, but with the densities so low, hunters will have to work hard for a mature tom.
Oregon’s forecast is on page two!
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