Turkey restoration in the Badger State began in 1976, and less than a decade later we held our first spring hunt. In the 30 years since that first season, wild turkeys have spread throughout the state and hunting opportunities have continued to increase. Today, Wisconsin stands among the top turkey states in terms of population numbers and stability, hunting opportunities, total harvest and hunter success rates.
The heart of the Wisconsin turkey hunting program is the spring hunt. Over the past 30 years, our spring hunt has evolved from three five-day periods in a handful of southwestern counties to six weeklong hunts in seven zones across the entire state. Permits are distributed by random drawing, and there are always permits left over to accommodate hunters who forgot to apply by the Dec. 10 deadline, or those who want the chance to hunt two or more periods or zones.
2013 HARVEST, 2014 PERMITS
Last spring, Wisconsin hunters tallied 37,798 turkeys. That was down about 9 percent from 2011, and well below the record harvest of 52,880, reported in 2008. In fact, last year’s total was the lowest this century. That fact doesn’t concern DNR upland game bird ecologist Scott Walter, however, who says the rise and fall is natural and is nothing for hunters to worry about.
“It’s important for hunters to recognize that turkey population size is most sensitive to variation in weather conditions,” Walter says. “Our best data suggest that harvest itself has little impact on turkey population trends. Therefore, even when populations dip, hunters should not be concerned that harvest will exacerbate declines, nor should they expect any reduction in their hunting opportunity. As conditions for production improve in future springs, turkey numbers will bounce back.”
About the same number of turkey-hunting permits are available this year as last. Last year’s overall success rate was 18 percent, down from 21 percent the previous year and way down from the average 25 percent success rate we have had for a decade or more. Seventy-three percent of the birds taken last spring were adult toms. That is the lowest rate since 2006. From 2007-2012, adult toms averaged 80 percent, which suggests brood production was low during those years, or that turkey hunters were very selective.
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Zone 1 led the state again last spring with 11,054 turkeys and a hunter success rate of 18 percent. The kill was down 9 percent from 2012, but the success rate was the same. In Zone 2, hunters registered 8,955 birds, down 9 percent from 2012. The success rate was 21 percent, the best in the state again, but down 8 percent from 2012. The Zone 3 harvest was 9,468, a drop of 9 percent from 2012. The success rate there was 18 percent, compared with 21 percent the previous year.
In Zone 4, hunters registered 5,093 turkeys, a drop of 8 percent from 2012. The success rate was 15 percent, again a decline from the 19 percent rate in 2012. Zone 5 hunters tallied 1,991 birds, down 9 percent from 2012. The success rate also dropped from 18 percent to 17 percent.
In Zone 6, hunters killed 634 birds, an 8 percent decline from 2012. The success rate there also dropped from 17 percent to 14 percent. Zone 7 hunters registered 448 birds, down 8 percent from the record high of 580 in 2012. The success rate there dropped from 16 percent to 12 percent.
The consistent 8 or 9 percent harvest decline in all zones suggests bird numbers were down across the state, but weather also played a huge factor last season. Spring was late in arriving, and more than a foot of snow greeted hunters in parts of the three northern zones well into May.
Hunter success rates are based on the total number of permits sold. In zones where more permits are available, many hunters buy extra permits and end up not using them, thus reducing the success rate.
In Zone 1, which covers the southwest corner of the state from the Illinois line north to Highway 10 and from Madison and the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi, 74,400 permits are available again this spring. There will be plenty of permits left over for the later periods. This is where modern turkey hunting got started back in 1983. Turkeys have become part of the landscape, however, so many locals take them for granted. They may buy a permit, but only hunt half-heartedly for a couple of days, and then go back to trout fishing, morel mushroom hunting, and spring chores.
Zone 2 covers the southeastern corner of the state north to Oconto, where the human population is highest and public land is at a premium. There are 42,000 permits available for that zone again this year. There most likely will not be any leftover permits available, as those usually are snapped up when sales first open. Success rates there are high because there are plenty of birds and fewer places for them to hide, and hunters are more eager to fill a tag than in Zone 1.
Zone 3 covers much of central Wisconsin. Bird numbers are very high and permit numbers are generous — 63,000 permits are available again this season. This is another zone where hunters can expect to buy leftover tags over the counter through the end of the season. Farmers there usually welcome turkey hunters, and so you should be able to get permission to hunt if you secure a tag.
Mark Grahn, who owns Mark’s Quality Marine in Wautoma, kills several turkeys every year in Zone 3. Bass-fishing legend Roland Martin sometimes comes to Wisconsin to hunt here with him during fifth and sixth periods, when most hens are nesting and the toms are still looking for action.
“Late season is Roland’s favorite time to hunt,” says Grahn. I have enjoyed several late-season hunts with Grahn as well.
Zone 4 is perhaps Wisconsin’s best-kept secret as far as turkey hunting goes. Stretching along the Mississippi River from Trempealeau County to northern Burnett County and east to the Wisconsin River, this zone offers a wide range of habitat types, from the hilly coulees to woodlots, farms and even big woods. Permit numbers are the same as last year — 34,920 — and there should be plenty left for the last two hunting periods.
Zone 5 encompasses most of northeastern Wisconsin’s big-woods country. Birds in the eastern half of the zone may share some ancestry with birds of game-farm origin released in nearby Michigan decades ago. Some people say they are easier to hunt, but I have not found that to be true. Permits number 12,000 again this year. There should be a few left for the later periods, but they will likely sell out before the end of the season.
Zones 6 and 7 cover the far north. That area is the most recent to have turkeys, and it is the only part of the state where turkeys were not native originally. Birds are scattered across vast unbroken forests, although isolated farms may have a small flock or two as well. The few leftover permits available for these zones sell out within minutes. Bird numbers fluctuate greatly, depending on brood production and winter severity.
The sale of leftover permits online and over the counter appears to be working out very well, according to Walter. Surveys conducted as part of the turkey management plan review asked hunters if they would prefer a different option, but most seem to prefer the current system.
“Hunters have frequently commented about how over-the-counter permits expand their hunting opportunities,” Walter says. “The option to purchase a permit for a later time period really provided benefits during last spring’s hunt, as hunters faced poor hunting conditions during the early time periods. Many of those hunters took advantage of leftover permits to hunt again later in the season, and we saw a significant up-tick in sales and late-season harvest.”
WINTER’S IMPACT, BROOD PRODUCTION & PREDATION
Temperatures and snow depths were pretty typical across much of the state last year, but the late warm up last spring extended cold weather into the turkeys’ normal breeding period. That likely did not impact adult turkey survival where they had ready access to food near roosting areas, but could have reduced body condition and survival in areas where food resources were not accessible for an extended period of time. However, there may have been an impact on brood production last spring.
“While most of the winter was normal, a snowy late winter with lingering snow cover into early spring led to a later than normal spring green-up,” Walter says. “June was also wetter than normal. These conditions do not favor good production in upland game birds, as chicks are very susceptible to chilling during their first few weeks.”
Widespread and heavy precipitation was the norm for much of the state in June, with areas in southwestern Wisconsin 4 to 7 inches above normal for the month. Precipitation levels returned to normal or below for the months of July and August and ended about average for the period.
Early June weather is the most critical for turkey broods as that is when recently hatched chicks are most susceptible to hypothermia if they get wet. Large rainfall events in much of Wisconsin could have affected brood survival during June, while much of July and August weather was excellent for brood rearing and survival.
DNR field personnel are asked to report game-bird brood sightings in June, July and August each year. The observation rate for turkey broods fell 49 percent last year, compared with 2012. Broods seen were also smaller on average than in 2012.
“There were many reports of turkeys having broods with small chicks late in the brood observation period, an indication of late nesting or re-nesting due to the harsh nesting and early brood-rearing conditions,” Walter says. “While many hunters question the ability of these late-hatched chicks to survive, turkey poults grow very rapidly. A poult that’s only 1/3 adult size even as late as September still has time for adequate growth to occur before cool weather sets in.
“Abundant grasshopper populations in late summer and early fall likely provide sufficient protein to fuel this rapid body growth,” Walter says. “Re-nesting is a great adaptation that allows upland game birds to buffer the effects of poor spring weather on annual production. However, not all hens will re-nest, and overall production levels were certainly down in 2013.”
Despite the fact that the majority of turkeys that hatch eventually end up being taken by predators, predation does not appear to have a significant impact on turkey populations. A literature review conducted by the National Wild Turkey Federation concluded that “predation has not been a regulating factor for most turkey populations, nor has predator control been shown to have long-term benefits.”
A recent study conducted by researchers at UW-Madison and the DNR revealed some interesting information regarding how landscape composition influences turkey population dynamics.
“The researchers followed radio-marked turkeys in areas predominantly forested, and other areas comprised of predominantly open habitats,” Walter says. “Survival rates for nests, hens and poults were lower in the more heavily forested landscapes. This provides us information that may lead to more refined management approaches in future years. Important, too, this study provided information that we can use in subsequent analyses to investigate how harvest may differentially affect turkey populations in areas of the state that have different land cover types. This latter work is currently ongoing by WDNR research scientists.”
SPRING OUTLOOK & BEYOND
The revised turkey management plan should be available before the spring season opens.
“In general, hunters expressed satisfaction with the current season structure and permit allocation systems,” Walter says. “Many hunters showed up at the meetings simply to express their desire to see no changes made to the current season framework.”
Walter calls the long-term outlook “absolutely excellent.”
“We have turkeys statewide, and both spring and fall seasons offer exceptional opportunities from the Illinois border to Lake Superior,” he says. “We increasingly understand the impact of harvest, and hunter surveys have provided a clear picture of what factors contribute to a satisfying experience for hunters in the state. Turkey numbers may move up or down from year to year, but the opportunity to experience one of the greatest events in the sporting world — a spring turkey hunt — will continue to be there for Wisconsin’s hunters.”
In addition to leftover permits, which are available to any hunter, there are opportunities for new hunters to try turkey hunting through the Learn-To-Hunt program, mentored hunts, and Youth Turkey Hunt.
NWTF volunteers and other turkey hunters organize Learn-To-Hunt events. These are open to anyone 10 years old or older who has not had a turkey permit in a prior year. LTH participants do not need hunter education certification or a valid turkey permit.
The Youth Turkey Hunt is scheduled for April 12-13 this year and is open to any hunter aged 10 to 15 who has a valid turkey permit. Hunters who have not yet received hunter-education certification must be accompanied by a mentor who is at least 18 and who has hunted turkeys for at least five years.
Details on these programs can be found on the DNR Web site: dnr.wi.gov. Type in keywords: Youth Hunt, Mentored Hunt, and/or Learn to Hunt.
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