2018 Great Plains Turkey Hunting Outlook
March 09, 2018
Wild turkey populations seem to have plateaued and then backed off a bit in the Great Plains over the past decade. Still, for the most part, there are lots of birds. Far more than decades ago when they were wiped out of most of their range here. Hunters in most areas will have plenty of gobblers to call and hunt across the Plains. So many that multiple birds can be harvested in many places. Here's the update on this spring's wild turkey hunt:
This is the state hardest hit when turkey numbers go down. And in the case of North Dakota it has been a double-whammy as hard winters pound birds, and habitat destruction in eastern North Dakota takes away turkeys' places to live.
Eastern subspecies birds are mostly found in the eastern part of the state. Numbers have been going down there.
"In the area east of the Missouri it has been a steady decline since 2007," says R.J. Gross, upland game biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
The birds are doing best where they can have habitat, such as good pastures and timber, or shelterbelt edges mixed in with crops. But much of that has been disappearing as more trees and shelterbelts are being taken out for larger fields as crop prices have risen. Wetland draining also plays a part in diminished wildlife habitat here.
"They are doing OK right along the Missouri River, but that is about as far east," says Gross. "Everywhere else (east of the Missouri River) is not too good. There has been no reproduction since 2007. There has been a slight decline every year since then. Pheasants have been coming down since 2008 or 2009."
The reduced crop land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land has also cut into habitat. CRP acreage was 3.3 million acres in North Dakota in 2010. Last year it was 1 million acres.
"That affects the other upland birds, too," says Gross.
So, the best remaining turkey hunting in North Dakota now lies in the far west. It's a different habitat and is not well suited for plowing and crops. Most is still pasture, or wilder rougher breaks and draws.
"This past year there was an uptick in the Badlands," says Gross.
Merriam's turkeys are the subspecies out there, and they're doing well.
"There is habitat left," says Gross. "It is better overall for them. To the east there is not as much habitat. In the east it has gone. It's coming out or is heavily grazed."
Gross says one of the best areas in the state will be near Killdeer, including the state Killdeer Wildlife Management Area, which is open to public hunting for turkeys and other game.
But most turkey hunting in North Dakota is on private property where permission is needed to hunt.
The western birds are located in the kind of land Teddy Roosevelt liked when he rode a horse around here before he became president of the United States.
It is a cool area," says Gross, "to go out there and go hunting. There is a very high success rate."
Sportsmen can expect to see lots of deer and other wildlife as they pursue turkeys in the Badlands.
"It depends on spring and then winter for reproduction," says Gross, "but when the guys were doing pheasant routes they were just counting broods of turkey out there (in western North Dakota)."
Watch The Video Above for Great Turkey Calling Tactics
Three types of turkey hunting habitats lure hunters in South Dakota. There are the birds inhabiting the crop and farmland east of the Missouri River. Further west as grasslands come to predominate, wild turkeys are hunted on large ranches. And then in the Black Hills it is a different world in the pine covered mountains.
In most of this range the bird numbers have been running fairly stable. As in any place this far north the weather plays a big part. Cold winters with heavy snows make it hard for turkeys to feed and in some cases they have to venture into farmyards to eat waste grain or claw apart cow pies to survive the winter.
Late April and May snows can be even worse, burying turkey eggs or baby poults and devastating spring reproduction.
So, "stable" is not so bad when it comes to wild turkeys here.
"Generally they are doing about as good as last year," says John Kanta, regional terrestrial resources supervisor with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department in Rapid City. "We haven't seen any major increases."
Turkey licenses were reduced in recent years in South Dakota after populations fell. Spring seasons are still intact, but Kanta says the fall seasons are mostly gone.
"We cut back on licenses and basicially eliminated fall season across South Dakota," he says. "It's looking as good as last year. They are down. It is indicative of why we closed the fall season. We maintained the spring season and reduced licenses on the prairie."
The farther west in the state one goes, the more popular turkey hunting tends to be.
"On the (West River) prairie it is stable is what I would say," says Kanta. "On the West River prairie there are similar numbers to last year. We saw that decline out there as well. Similar impact to what we are seeing here in the (Black) Hills."
The Eastern birds in eastern South Dakota have never been as high a population as the Merriam's of the West.
The Black Hills is the main destination of avid turkey hunters who come here. The mountains echo gobbling and hen calls through the hunting season and beyond. It's a good place to call and to set up decoys in a very sporting hunt. Anyone can get a Black Hills license. And the Black Hills National Forest has more than 1 million acres of land to hunt and roam. Custer State Park also has a spring turkey season. And in that park sportsmen see lots of game of all kinds.
Black Hills turkey numbers are still well below their peak in 2008-10, but there are enough birds for hunting to be good.
"I think they will bounce back," says Kanta. "What will help is if we have good nesting success and poult survival. Mild winters will help as well. In pockets, they are coming back.
Nebraska hunters are going after a turkey population that is also expected to be stable this spring.
There aren't as many birds as during the height of the wild turkey upswing in 2011, but that isn't necessarily bad because there are still lots of wild turkeys and lots of hunters getting licenses.
"When we had peak populations we had turkeys in Lincoln," says Jeff Lusk, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission upland game program manager.
Around Omaha, Lusk remembers rampaging wild turkeys chasing some people and scaring them.
"There were lots of calls for urban problems," he says.
Those incidents are less common now, at least when someone is toting a shotgun in good turkey range.
Rather unusually, the turkeys that seem to do the best in Nebraska are a hybrid bird, what Lusk calls a "super turkey hybrid" that took off in the 1970s and 80s.
"When they discovered the super turkey hybrid in late 70s or 80s, the hybrid was really good," he says. "Ecological theory is that they have hybrid vigor. The offspring do much better."
The Nebraska wild turkey population in more recent years started heading up in 2006 before peaking in 2011. It has stabilized and fluctuated since.
"The last mail carriers' survey showed they were down 10 percent," says Lusk.
Birds have been harvested in every county in Nebraska. The hybrid birds have a lot of the Merriam's turkey in them, but just how much is unknown. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is presently doing a genetic study to find out the makeup of these hybrid birds. They did so well they were later stocked by the NGPC.
"They did better than Merriam's, Rios and Easterns," says Lusk. "The variation in the feather color varies from dark copper of Eastern, to the white tips of the Merriam's. You have the white tips of the Merriam's and the dark copper Eastern, and sometimes in the same flock."
Lusk anticipates the south-central part of Nebraska will be good turkey hunting this spring. There are lots of wooded draws there.
"A good portion (of harvest) also comes from the southwest in wooded canyons and so forth," he says. "As long as there are roosting spots, the turkeys aren't as dependent on forested areas as we thought."
Another nice area will be the public lands at Fort Robinson in the west.
Hunter number remain constant. Lusk says most hunters don't have a problem finding a place to hunt in the state. The biggest tracts of public land are in the Panhandle which also has the least dense human population. Hunters can have secluded hunts there, particularly on weekdays.
There is some pay hunting and guiding in the state. Most of the outfitters who do turkey hunts are in north-central Nebraska in the Loup, North Platte, Platte and Niobrara river drainages. No commercial hunting is allowed on public land in Nebraska.
Lots of turkey will be available this spring in Kansas. Like the rest of the Great Plains the number of birds is down from peak, but not dramatically so.
The overall decline across most of the Great Plains is somewhat mysterious. The Kansas harvest rose to 36,500 birds in 2015. It has declined somewhat since then, with 30,000 harvested more recently.
"Overall like much of the Midwest we have been experiencing lower numbers of production for turkeys in the last 5 or 10 years," says Kent Fricke, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism small-game coordinator out of Emporia. "The overall number of birds indicates that as well. We don't have any population estimates, but in terms of numbers of birds seen on our surveys, we have seen a decline."
For Kansas sportsmen who have been around long enough, it all can be rather amusing because decades ago there wasn't a solitary turkey track to be found in the creek mud where birds flourish today. The stocking and comeback of wild turkeys has been outstanding. So, even this drop-off leaves lots of birds.
"There is still lots for hunting," says Fricke. "That is indicated by our hunter success as well — about 50 percent hunter success. That is pretty good. Other states would be happy with 30 percent success. The point being we still see good numbers as far as harvest. "
Despite its reputation as being a flat treeless landscape, Kansas actually has fair acreages of Eastern-type hardwood forest remaining along streams when compared to other Great Plains states.
The forest and crop and pasture combination in eastern Kansas is excellent for these birds.
As far as hunting goes, unit 4 in the southwest has lowest turkey density. But its short-grass prairie, which is less than ideal for wild turkeys. The units in the north and east are doing best.
"If you look at the number of birds — north-central and northeast units have the highest number of birds," says Fricke. "The Smoky Hills with a nice mixture of pasture and farming and riparian and upland. A mix of habitats. Further east you get more hardwood forest, an increased number of roost trees and interspersion of farm ground. It is just a little more of a stronghold as far as turkey numbers and overall habitat."
Some of the best public hunting will be on state wildlife areas and on Corps of Engineers land along the big federal reservoirs.
But the bulk of hunting opportunity remains on private property where permission must be granted. Some good hunting areas are now leased out for hunting, but not nearly so much yet as is the case with pheasant hunting in Kansas.
In the meantime, sportsmen can get some turkey variety. Eastern birds, naturally, are in eastern Kansas. Rio Grandes are in the west. And hybrids of these two subspecies mix in the middle, roughly in a line from Salina down to Wichita.