Wisconsin’s wild turkey program continues to be one of the greatest success stories in the Badger State’s modern wildlife management efforts. Since they were reintroduced in Vernon County’s Bad Axe watershed back in 1976, wild turkeys have expanded their range to cover virtually every chunk of available habitat from the Illinois border to Lake Superior.
The state’s modern spring turkey hunting seasons began in 1983, and hunters set harvest records for 22 consecutive years. Over the past seven years however, the spring harvest has fluctuated, reaching an all-time record in 2008, when hunters registered 52,880 birds. Since then, the take has declined as permit numbers were adjusted downward to reflect an apparent decrease in the statewide turkey population.
“We don’t estimate turkey numbers in Wisconsin,” says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife ecologist Scott Walter, “but it’s clear that turkey numbers have leveled off in the southern part of the state after an extended period of rapid increase following reintroduction, and turkeys have now expanded into the farthest reaches of northern Wisconsin. Our turkey population remains healthy across the state, and state turkey hunters can look forward to great hunting opportunities on into the future.
“However, the era of constant population growth and expansion that followed our reintroduction effort is near an end. With populations now stabilizing at levels supportable by the local habitat, hunters should expect to see their chances of bagging their spring gobbler ebb and flow a bit from year to year as the local turkey population responds to annual production levels and winter survival.”
That “ebb and flow” might seem disturbing to hunters who’ve come to expect to see more and more birds every year, but Wisconsin remains one of the top four or five turkey-hunting states, with six spring hunting periods and ample opportunities for hunters to take more than one bird. In short, a stable yet dynamic population is far better than one subject to periods of boom and bust.
LAST YEAR’S HARVEST
Last spring, hunters took a total of 40,103 turkeys, down from 47,722 in 2010. That was the largest single-year drop ever. The total number of permits issued was 210,059. That’s fewer than the year before, but about a thousand more than in 2008, when the harvest record was set. The statewide success rate was 19 percent, down from 22.3 percent in 2010 and considerably off the 25 percent success rate that has been the norm for a decade.
Zone 1 hunters led the state with a total of 12,253 birds registered, but had a success rate of only 18.2 percent. In Zone 2, hunters killed 8,411 birds, but had the highest success rate of any zone — 24.6 percent. In Zone 3, hunters tallied 9,848 birds, for a success rate of 18 percent. Zone 4 hunters killed 6,156 turkeys and had a success rate of 17.6 percent. In Zone 5, hunters registered 2,158 birds, for a success rate of 18 percent. In Zone 6, hunters tallied 786 birds and had a success rate of 17.5 percent. Zone 7 came in last, as expected, with a total harvest of 382 birds and a success rate of just 15.9 percent.
The harvest totals for each zone are largely a reflection of the number of permits available. You can’t put too much significance on overall success rates, as these percentages are based on the total number of permits issued, including the leftover permits sold after the preference drawing is completed. Some hunters purchase more than one leftover permit, and hunter effort generally declines with each successive permit a hunter has available.
Zone 1 encompasses all of southwest Wisconsin. This zone had the greatest number of both permits available (74,400) and leftover permits sold (26,769), which helps explain the high total kill but modest success rate. This is the state’s “traditional” turkey country, where birds were first released and where populations have stopped growing. Many of the state’s most savvy turkey hunters hunt here, but many end the season with a couple unfilled tags in their pocket.
Zone 2 spans southeast Wisconsin from Madison east to Lake Michigan and north to Door and Oconto counties. Zone 2 had only 34,200 permits available in total, which included 3,383 leftover permits, all of which were gone in a matter of minutes when sales opened. Because more people live in Zone 2 than in any zone, there is a lot of competition for permits and so hunters tend to hunt more seriously than those in other zones. Turkey numbers are high here and forestland is limited, so hunters have good access to birds.
Zone 3, located in central Wisconsin, has an ideal mix of farmland and forest, and thus a lot of turkeys. Permit levels are high (63,000 total), but demand is not as strong as in Zone 2. There were nearly 30,000 leftover permits available, but only 20,515 sold.
Zone 4 includes a good chunk of central forestland, along with five Mississippi River counties. This is prime turkey country, but the human population is relatively low. A total of 34,900 permits were available, with 24,222 issued through the preference drawing. By the end of the season, all but a handful of the 10,698 leftover permits were sold.