Wisconsin big-bird enthusiasts have come to depend on the Badger State’s turkey population to provide good hunting opportunities year after year. For the first 20 years of the state’s “modern” hunting era, which began in 1983, turkey numbers steadily increased and the harvest kept pace. Over the past decade, our turkey population has reached a level of dynamic stability: turkeys inhabit just about every corner of the state, and year-to-year fluctuations in the harvest reflect a normal rising and falling of a population responding to changes in local habitat and weather conditions during the critical winter and spring periods.
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LAST YEAR’S HARVEST
Last year was a case in point. The spring 2012 turkey harvest totaled 42,612, a modest 6 percent increase over the previous year. The statewide hunter success rate was 21 percent, up from 19 percent the previous year, but still down from the 25 percent success rate Wisconsin hunters have enjoyed for the past decade or so.
Zone 1 hunters again led the state, with a total kill of 12,075 and a success rate of 18 percent. In Zone 2, hunters tallied 10,486 turkeys and again logged the highest success rate — 26 percent. That total was up 2,075 birds (25 percent) over 2011. Zone 3 was next, with a harvest of 10,253 turkeys and a success rate of 21 percent. In Zone 4, hunters registered 6,040 birds, with a success rate of 19 percent. In Zone 5, hunters took 2,232 turkeys in 2012, with a success rate of 18 percent. Zone 6 hunters registered 775 turkeys in 2012, with a success rate of 17 percent. In Zone 7, hunters took 580 birds, a jump of 198 (52 percent) over 2011. The success rate remained stable at 16 percent.
Harvest totals reflect the number of permits available. Success rates include all permits sold, preference drawing and leftover permit sales.
Zone 1, which covers all of southwest Wisconsin, is the heart of our traditional turkey country. This is where the first wild birds from Missouri were released in 1976. Hunters here have the longest tradition of gobbler hunting in the state. More permits are available for this zone than for any other, which helps explain the high harvest and low success rate. This spring, there are 74,400 permits available — the same number as in 2012.
Zone 2 covers southeast Wisconsin from Madison east to Lake Michigan and north to Door and Oconto counties. This zone has the highest human population and limited forest habitat, and so birds have a hard time avoiding hunters. Permit numbers here have jumped from 40,800 last year to 42,000 this year, due to high demand and a couple of other factors.
“Success rates have been the highest in this zone the past few years, and there’s been no indication from hunter surveys that interference or conflict among hunters is a problem,” says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources upland game bird ecologist Scott Walter. “We felt confident we could bump permits upward slightly to help accommodate the demand. We’ll continue to monitor hunter surveys to see how hunters respond with respect to perceived interference or crowding issues.”
Zone 3 encompasses much of central Wisconsin. Turkey density is high here — perhaps the highest of anywhere in the state — because there is an ideal mix of woodlots and farmland. Permit levels remain at 63,000, but demand is lower than in other zones. Nearly half the permits remain after the preference drawing.
Zone 4 runs from the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi and has a mix of forest, farmland and hill country. This zone has 34,920 permits available — the same number as last year. Because of its excellent turkey habitat and proximity to Minnesota, this zone attracts many hunters from the Gopher State.
Zones 5, 6 and 7 cover northern Wisconsin. Turkeys are scattered over the vast blocks of forest here, so hunting is more challenging than elsewhere in the state. Fewer permits are available for these zones, and most are sold out in the preference drawing. Turkeys have moved into these northern counties, thanks to DNR trap-and-transfer efforts and a succession of mild winters. Weather plays a greater role in brood production and survival this far north, so turkey numbers here fluctuate more than in southern Wisconsin.
“Zones 1, 3, and 4 have had permits left over at the end of recent spring seasons, so we’re already meeting demand in these zones and no increase is warranted,” says Walter. “In the northern zones (5, 6, and 7), we also maintained stable permit levels, as we’d like to understand the distribution of both turkeys and turkey hunters a little better before discussing further increases to permit levels.”
Walter cites reports from field staff and hunters that turkeys can be concentrated around areas with open, agricultural lands in the northern zones.
BROOD PRODUCTION, WINTER LOSSES AND PREDATION
A mild winter and early spring helped turkeys pull off successful broods across the state, according to Walter.
“The extremely mild winter of 2011-2012 likely allowed our hens to come into the spring nesting period in good shape, and certainly contributed to the outstanding production we saw this year,” he says. ”With little snow on the ground, turkeys should have been able to move to find food throughout the winter; over-winter losses should have been minimal.”
As a result, Walter describes last year’s production as “absolutely fantastic.”
“I’ve heard from hunters in all corners of the state, and people saw more and larger turkey broods last year than in the recent past,” he says. “The 10-week game-bird brood survey corroborated these observations, with over twice as many turkey broods seen as in 2011; the observation rate for turkey broods was the 3rd highest since 1987. This is just reflective of how important weather is to game bird production. The early spring and dry conditions throughout much of the brood-rearing period really led to outstanding production. I would anticipate this will translate into great opportunities and good success for turkey hunters.”
Last spring’s harvest was composed of 82 percent adult toms, up from 2011 (77 percent) and 2012 (79 percent), but still below the record 86 percent logged in 2009. In a spring that follows a year of good production, adult toms normally represent about 70 percent of the harvest. It’s a safe bet that more jakes, and thus fewer toms, will show up in this year’s harvest.
Turkey populations tend to be most sensitive to variations in poult production and hen survival, Walter says.
“Poult production, as we’ve seen in 2012, is very weather-dependent, so we can expect turkey numbers to bump upward following years with dry, warm springs and early summers, and dip in years with cool, wet conditions during this time.”
Hen survival tends to be lowest during the nesting season, with a second dip during the fall either-sex season.
“This is why mandatory registration is so important in turkey management — so we can keep tabs on fall hen harvests, and alter permit levels if needed,” Walter says.
A hen study recently completed by UW-Madison staff found that about 1 in 4 hens in Wisconsin successfully hatches her nest. Most interesting in this research, however, was that both hen and poult survival appears to vary according to the composition of the surrounding landscape.
“In more heavily forested regions, both hen and poult survival is lower than in areas with relatively more open ground,” Walter explains. “This may have important meaning for how we allocate permits within our turkey management zones, as they vary considerable in terms of percentage of forest cover, and this is currently being explored using population models by staff from the DNR and UW-Madison.”
MANAGEMENT PLAN UPDATE
The current wild turkey management plan, written in 1996, is being revised to reflect the expanded turkey population, growing interest in turkey hunting, and other changes in the past two decades. As part of the revision process, DNR staff solicited input from hunters and other interested parties who responded online or attended one of 11 public input sessions held last spring. The revised plan, now in draft form, will be available this summer.
A total of 2,124 surveys were completed, 2,047 online and 77 at in-person sessions. Responses were received from hunters who reside in all counties in the state except Menominee. Responding hunters indicated they had hunted turkeys for an average of 13.3 years. Turkey-hunting experience ranged from 1 to 44 years.
Most hunters apparently like the seven-zone management structure. Eighty-one percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question “Do you think the current seven-zone structure provides enough opportunity to hunt different locations?”
A total of 31 percent of respondents said they believe the seven-zone structure increases a hunter’s chances of receiving a permit, and 39 percent said they believe the current zone structure has no impact on a hunter’s chances of receiving a permit. Thirty-one percent said they strongly agree and 31 percent said they somewhat agree that the current zone structure is necessary to manage the number of turkeys harvested. Similarly, most said they strongly agree (33 percent) or somewhat agree (29 percent) that the current zone structure is necessary to reduce hunter interference rates.
Seventy-five percent of respondents want the spring season to start at the same time it does now, and 55 percent like the Wednesday opening date. Fifty-nine percent strongly favor and 18 percent probably favor the current system with six one-week time periods. Other season-structure options, such as four one-week periods followed by one two-week period and three one-week periods followed by one three-week period drew a mixed response. Fifty-three percent strongly oppose a season that runs for six weeks straight with no separate time periods.
Hunters also believe the preference drawing should be retained for the spring season, even if time periods are eliminated; most hunters strongly agree or somewhat agree that Wisconsin resident landowners should have top priority in the drawings.
Seventy-nine percent said the cost of the wild turkey stamp ($5.25) is reasonable. Sixteen percent said it should cost more, while 5 percent said less. Seventy percent said the stamp program should continue.
Hunters also like the current leftover permit distribution system.
“This seems to be working very well,” Walter says. “Hunters have repeatedly expressed satisfaction with the availability of over-the-counter tags, and the ability to extend their season by purchasing one.”
The revised management plan will reflect these responses and more, and hunters can rest assured their input is being taken seriously.
“This won’t be a plan that sits on a shelf and is referred to only by biologists,” says Walter. “It’s going to be a fairly complete summary of the history of turkeys and turkey hunting in Wisconsin, as well as an explicit set of goals and strategies regarding where we go in the future. It will be produced in an attractive, easy-to-read style, and copies will be made available for hunters and others interested in turkeys.”
When the state reduced the number of turkey-management zones a few years ago, some hunters expressed concern that more popular hunting areas would become crowded as hunters flocked to them, but this apparently is not the case. Walter says he has heard primarily positive comments from hunters with respect to the larger zones, with most suggesting they’ve explored new hunting areas as a result.
“Crowding is one of the things we consider when setting permit levels, but of course we can only do this across entire zones,” he says. “Within zones, I think landowners generally act to limit the number of hunters on their lands at any one time, and this serves to reduce interference problems and maintain a quality hunt.”
Walter encourages hunters looking for a new place to hunt to check out the Voluntary Public Access program, which has opened walk-in access on more than 40,000 acres of private lands in the southern two-thirds of the state to hunters. Lists of VPA lands, by county, can be found at www.dnr.wi.gov, under keywords “VPA lands.”
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SPRING AND BEYOND
Applicants for preference-drawing permits have already been notified. If you did not receive a postcard indicating you were awarded a permit, you can check your application status online at https://jc.activeoutdoorsolutions.com/wipublic/goHome.do. You can also contact any DNR service center or call 888-WDNR-INFO.
If you did not get a permit in the drawing, you can still purchase leftover permits at the rate of one per day until they are sold out. Leftover permits went on sale in March, but some are still available in several zones for periods C, D, E and F.
Wisconsin turkey numbers appear to be gradually increasing, especially in areas where they have recently become established.
“Long-term, the trend has certainly been upward across the state,” Walter says. “When you drill down to individual zones, however, it seems as though our turkeys shot upward following establishment, declined a bit, and have been fairly stable since. This is the classic ‘overshoot’ we see in reintroduced wildlife populations as numbers stabilize around the landscape’s carrying capacity.”
Walter expects to see turkey numbers within each zone ebb and flow in response to weather conditions during the winter and spring reproductive period. This year, he sees a statewide swing upward in response to the recent mild winter and dry spring. Hunters across the Badger State certainly hope Walter is right.