2017 Great Plains Turkey Forecast

Turkey hunting and bird populations in the Great Plains will not be consistent across the region this spring. The ups and downs of this popular game species can vary quite a bit from one state to the next.

Photo By Ron Sinfelt

However, even in the areas that have been on a downward trend, wild turkeys have had such phenomenal success in the past several decades that there will be good hunting in every state. Hunters will generally have no difficulty in getting a turkey tag and seeing and hearing wild birds in the field.

Wild turkeys increase their numbers relatively quickly. The birds have expanded their range and provided greatly increased hunting opportunity in all plains states.

As such, they are now one of the top game species here. They have created a big game hunt for a bird. What follows is a rundown of what hunters can look forward to this spring across the region.

NORTH DAKOTA

North Dakota is at the very far northern end of the range where wild turkeys can consistently survive from year to year. Even at that, long snowy winters will kill adult birds. And cold wet springs here doom chicks and clutches of eggs.

To survive this, turkeys depend on good habitat. Unfortunately, that habitat is on the decline.

So, it's no surprise that turkey reproduction and bird numbers have been slipping since 2007. Of all the Great Plains states, North Dakota is probably having the most difficult time keeping turkey numbers up.

"We are on the most northern range for them, and they have been struggling," said Rodney Gross, NDGFD upland game biologist in Bismarck. "We have been on a downward trend."

There is more demand for turkey licenses than the current situation can handle. So, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department has a lottery for turkey tags.

The best hunting is in good cover or timber.

"North Dakota is very much a prairie state, and turkeys like trees," noted Gross. "River bottoms where there is woody habitat is where you will find turkeys in our state."

All of the little drainages with cover will also hold North Dakota turkeys. They live and roost there. Turkeys like to use their legs, and they'll scatter into farmyards, pastures and fields looking for food.

The population this spring will likely be somewhat stable.

"I don't think it will go up or down much," advised Gross. "We are certainly losing habitat. I don't think we will see more birds in our state. We haven't seen much change."

The best areas include Dunn County in the Killdeer Mountains of western North Dakota.

"That is where we get a lot of reports of turkeys," said Gross. "It has better wooded habitat. There is not as much grazing. Our northwest has been doing good for production for everything."

Another area with some hunting is McHenry County around Minot.

Lots of the Missouri River and the creeks flowing into it will have birds. There is plentiful public land and access. The Washburn area north of Bismarck often has good turkey numbers.

And the long stretch of river below Bismarck flowing into Lake Oahe and eventually South Dakota has wooded banks and cover for birds. Much of it is near state highways on the west side of the river, so access is good.

It would even be possible to canoe or boat down river during the season, calling birds and stopping to hunt along the way on public land.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Turkey populations are doing well in South Dakota, and hunters can expect good numbers of birds and excellent hunting this spring.

The Black Hills appears to be trending better than the prairie. But that's where much of the turkey hunting pressure goes, and where a big proportion of out-of-state hunters concentrate each spring on more than 1 million acres of public land.

"We have some brood data coming in, and in the Black Hills are in pretty good shape again," said Chad Lehman, senior wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. "On the prairie it is mixed. I have seen some areas where we have produced some poults, and some places where it is not so good."

The southern Black Hills turkey populations are doing better than in the northern Hills, Lehman reported.

He has been following radio-collared turkeys as part of a turkey study. And the northern Black Hills turkey population has been on the decline. The birds are fitted with a small radio backpack that allows Lehman to follow their movement and study their habits.

"It is not looking very good there," he said. "The average weight of turkeys in the northern range is down."

It may be a combination of factors causing that — more severe winters in the northern Black Hills where spring nesting is sometimes buried under snow, and pine nuts that are less available in winter there.

In contrast, turkeys in the southern and central Black Hills are doing well.

"In mild weather they go out and scratch for pine seeds," noted Lehman. "Then it snows and covers the pine seeds. It's not like the southern and central Hills where they have pine seeds most of the time. It is related to nutrition."

A similar turkey study is planned for Grant County to get more scientific information on wild turkeys on the South Dakota prairie.

The Merriam's subspecies pre-dominates in the Black Hills and the western part of the state. There were Rio Grande turkeys stocked decades ago, but they didn't take hold nearly as well as the Merriams's have.

The hunting extends across the entire state. Eastern subspecies are found mostly in farming areas of the East River.

Turkey tags are available across the counter for the Black Hills hunt. Lehman said spring hunting has little effect on the population because in a gobbler-only season, the hens survive to lay their eggs and bird numbers repopulate every year.

In fact, the gobbler harvest in the Black Hills increased last year from 1,200 to 1,400.

"The Black Hills is an island of habitat," said Lehman.

That's why wild turkeys are not native to the Black Hills. They couldn't make it up the rivers far enough to get into the area and establish a population. Once introduced here, they thrived.

"We can produce a lot of ponderosa pine and pine seed, and that is good habitat for Merriams's turkeys," said Lehman

NEBRASKA

Wild turkeys are generally doing well in Nebraska this spring and the hunting should be good, said Jeff Lusk, upland game biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The spring mail carrier survey last year turned up slightly lower bird numbers.

"But after the population peaked in 2010, it would fall back some," noted Lusk. "It was a good spring and summer. Production was high. There were no adverse weather conditions."

And birds hatched last spring are now coming into the harvest picture for Nebraska. That's why the hunting should generally be good this spring.

There are many Merriam's subspecies turkeys in Nebraska, particularly out west where the Fort Robinson area has prime habitat for this more Western bird.

Eastern subspecies turkeys inhabit the farming country of eastern Nebraska. And there are crossbreeds with some domestic turkey thrown in.

"There are probable crosses," said Lusk. "Their offspring did really well. With that kind of parentage ... you cannot usually to tell the difference. Merriam's birds would be in the Pine Ridge of the Panhandle."

Hunter success has been high in southwest Nebraska, from North Platte up through central Nebraska and through Custer County. The Broken Bow area is good.

Lusk also recommends the Pine Ridge area of the Panhandle.

"There is lots of public land out there, so there is no issue of overcrowding," reported Lusk. "There are more turkeys and fewer hunters."

Nebraska is mostly private land, but there is some public land, especially out west.

"There are 20,000 acres in Fort Robinson State Park," said Lusk.

Wild turkeys have spread all over Nebraska. Even the Sandhills has birds, with its mostly treeless terrain that isn't normally thought of as turkey habitat.

"We were kind of surprised that they have spread over the entire state, with record harvests," said Lusk. "What we used to think about the percentage of trees that were needed isn't the case here in Nebraska.

Wild turkeys live longer than smaller species such as pheasants or quail. Still, wet and cold springs can hit birds hard, devastating spring production.

"If chicks get wet they don't survive too well," said Lusk. "That first week of their life they can't regulate body temperatures, so if they get wet they are pretty much toast. They will nest a second time, but the number of eggs they lay will decrease as the season progresses."

KANSAS

The turkey population across Kansas is in decline right now. However the hunting will still be quite good because the state has lots of habitat and a robust bird population in place.

"Generally we have been seeing some declines in terms of overall numbers that we are getting from our surveys," said Kent Fricke, small game coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

That shouldn't be seen as poor hunting. There are lots of wild turkeys in Kansas. The many stream courses running through crop fields and pastures are ideal habitat.

The weather, too, is more kind to Kansas turkeys than in the states to the north.

"Since the drought in 2012 our production has kind of ebbed-and-flowed in the last four years," advised Fricke. "During 2012 from our summer mail carrier survey it was one of our highest population estimates."

But as the dry weather hit there have been a few years of dropping turkey numbers.

"With dry weather and drought we started seeing a big decline," said Fricke. "This year we are quite a bit below average. It could be a number of factors. Certainly first we look at habitat and availability of food. A number of things can play into that."

One of the best hunting regions, noted Fricke, will be the north-central unit. That is mixed farmland-pasture country.

"The north-central unit is certainly still one of the more productive areas," stated Fricke.

That hunting unit generally runs from Hays to the east.

"The north-central and northeast are historically areas with the highest number of turkeys," said Fricke.

The weakest area is the southwest, where there aren't many trees and there just isn't much habitat available for birds. That's the only part of the state where hunters are allowed to bag only one turkey. In the remainder of Kansas, hunters are allowed to harvest two birds.

"Compared to other states we are doing really well in terms of hunter success," said Fricke.

That has been running 49 percent success for resident hunters, and 55 percent success for nonresidents.

Even with lower turkey numbers the Kansas harvest has been on the rise. In 2015 a record 36,000 birds were taken. In spring of 2016 there were 30,000 turkey harvested.

Now that we've covered a number of good hunting prospects across the Great Plains states, it's time for you to get out and explore one of these areas or another hotspot near you.

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