2012 Washington/Oregon Turkey Forecast
March 30, 2012
That's the only word to describe the weather in the Northwest the last two springs in a row. 2010 was bad enough, but the spring of 2011 was even worse, with cold, wet weather persisting well into the summer months. The damp was hard on ground-nesting game birds, trashing the nesting success of grouse and pheasant. Understandably, wild turkey hunters in both Oregon and Washington are wondering if the same fate has befallen the turkey populations. Will gobblers be in short supply when the hunters head into the woods this year?
First, these are big states, and both of them have diverse habitats and climates spread over wide geographic areas. Where the winters are harder, or the habitat is marginal, the birds did not fare as well. Where the climate is milder, or the food sources more consistent, the negative effects were much less.
Second, wild turkeys nest later in the spring than any other upland bird, so their nesting season stretched into the better weather, and late broods found excellent conditions when they hatched. There may have been lower nesting production, but it may have been offset by better-than-usual brood survival.
Whatever affects the weather had on the turkey population, it definitely depressed hunter effort. One thousand less hunters took to the woods for gobblers in Oregon in 2011, and spent almost 7,500 fewer days hunting than 2010. Hunters took 4,132 toms in Oregon last year, a big drop from the 5,437 gobblers taken in 2010.
What follows is a breakdown of the different turkey flocks within Oregon and Washington, and how they have trended in recent years. While this may be a useful tool in deciding where to concentrate your efforts, keep in mind that the weather this spring may have more to do with your success, or lack of it.
Turkeys were first introduced into Washington in 1960, and now the Evergreen State offers hunters three subspecies of wild turkey spread through five main flocks. The birds are scattered through almost all the viable turkey habitat and hunters harvest over 5,000 gobblers every year.
Basically, there are Merriam's turkeys in the northeast, central and south Klickitat regions. Rio Grandes can be found in the southeast, and Easterns can be found in the southwest.
Northeast Washington — A Turkey Bonanza
By far the best hunting in the state takes place in northeast Washington. More birds are harvested in the tri-county area of Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties than the rest of the state combined. In spring of 2010, the latest year for which harvest figures are available, hunters here took 3,197 of the state's 5,700 gobblers.
Joe McCanna, a wildlife biologist with the WDFW in region 1, explains that northwest harvests peaked here in 2007. "We had hard winters back to back in '07 and '08," says McCanna. "That dropped the birds a little." He explains that the last two springs didn't do much damage, but it held back a full recovery.
Dale Denny, of Bear Paw Outfitters (509-684-6294; www.bearpawoutfitters.com), is a first-class guide who has hunted this corner of Washington for decades, and over the last three years his clients have taken over 500 Merriam's gobblers. From what he has seen in the woods, numbers are starting to rebuild. "The birds are recuperating from three poor years," says Denny. "We are actually seeing more chicks. But they still are not as good as a few years ago."
Denny hunts on private ranches as well as the public lands, and he has noticed one negative. While there is a lot of public land in the northeast, it really gets pressured. "The WDFW has done a really good job of selling this region as a turkey hotspot," he says. "But that has put a lot of pressure on the birds on public lands. Over the years those public flocks have been decimated."
Still, if the winter was not too bad, Denny is positive his clients will have another excellent season.
Southeast Washington — Rio Grande Country
The pine slopes of Washington's Blue Mountains are perfect habitat for open-country Rio Grande turkeys, and while the 700 gobblers taken here in 2010 is a far cry from the harvest to the north, the success rates are almost identical.
A little less snow-prone than the northern counties, this flock has held up well. They are clustered along the river and creek bottoms and in the foothills within the Umatilla National Forest.
The Blue Creek Unit is always one of the best, and hunters took 164 gobblers there in 2010. Dayton was even better, giving up 181 toms. The Tucanon and Prescott Units gave up 58 turkeys each.
Columbia Gorge Toms — Doing Well, Thank You
David Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the WDFW, says that while the weather did hurt production of other upland species in this region, turkeys were affected less. "Of all our upland species, turkeys are the hardiest," says Anderson, "and they appear to be doing fine."
He further asserts that this year's early fall was mild, and food sources in the woods were plentiful this winter. "There was a good acorn crop this year," he says. He expects hunters will find the usual number of toms in the woods when the birds start gobbling.
This is one region where harvests continue to climb in all three units. In 2009, hunters took 448 toms. In 2010, the West Klickitat Unit alone provided 438 toms.
Central Counties Merriam's
The eastern slope of the Cascades is home to a far-spread flock of Merriam's turkeys that reaches from near the Canadian border south to the Yakima Indian Reservation. The birds are not found in high densities and are concentrated in the lowland river bottoms. Jeff Heinlen is an assistant district biologist for the WDFW in Region 2. When asked whether he thinks the flock was hurt by the weather, he admits that it may have been. "We believe it was," he says, "but we have no formal turkey studies. We think the last two years have hurt the population a little."
Granted, especially in the northern stretch of the east Cascades, the birds here were never thick. Heinlen says the birds survive best where there is supplemental feed, such as stock feeding areas and birdfeeders. "We do not have oaks or a good source of hard mast for winter survival," he says. "That's the biggest limiting factor for the birds."
Look to the river valleys such as the Methow and Wenatchee drainages, and search the nearby foothills. The upper Yakima Valley also has some birds.
SW Washington's Easterns
Hunters looking for the Evergreen State Slam, which includes a Merriam's, a Rio Grande and an Eastern subspecies, will need to get lucky. The Eastern subspecies population of wild turkey in southwest Washington has never taken off. Habitat restrictions are the biggest limiting factor and the harvest is low, with only 71 Eastern toms taken in 2010 from a seven-county area
However, if you are intent on bagging an Eastern tom, you should look to clearcuts and the many tree farms in the southwest. Farmland and cropfield edges hold some birds, but with the densities so low, hunters will have to work hard for a mature tom.
Oregon's forecast is on page two!
Oregon's gobblers are pretty much doing okay, in spite of the weather. Dave Budeau, the upland game bird coordinator for the ODFW, reports that while they do not do a comprehensive turkey population survey, the department does keep track of turkey sightings during other surveys. While there was a drop in harvest, he feels that it was more a result of poor spring weather than low bird numbers. "Certainly there was some loss of early production," he says, "but we are not far below our five-year average." Instead, Budeau believes the poor harvest was the result of weather and access. "When snow lingers on the northern exposures, it blocks the roads. Hunters can't get at the birds."
Southwest Oregon — Wild Turkey Central
The oak-covered hillsides of southwest Oregon are the center, the cradle, of the state's wild turkey population. From this population, birds have been trapped and transferred all over the state. A mixed population of Merriam's and Rios thrives in the oak woodlands, pastures and farmlands.
At the very center are Douglas County and the Melrose Game Management Unit, where a huge chunk of the yearly harvest comes from. In fact, 4 of the 5 best GMU's for turkey harvest can be found here in the Southwest, with the Rogue, Applegate and Evens Creek units each producing good harvests. Between these four units, 1,203 turkeys were harvested, about 25 percent of the state total.
Even here in "turkey central," the weather depressed success last year. In the Melrose Unit, harvest dropped by 200 gobblers from 2010, with 150 fewer hunters taking to the woods. The Applegate harvest was only 72 percent of the year before, and the Evens Creek harvest dropped by 34 percent.
Other southwest units, such as the Alsea, Dixon and Siuslaw, are perennially among the best in the state.
Mild Climate — Lots Of Turkeys
The climate in the southwest favors turkeys, and this flock enjoys the warmest winters of the two states. Between that and the plentiful winter food, turkeys here have done just fine.
Tod Lum, the ODFW southwest region wildlife biologist, doesn't think hunters will notice any change. "They'll find plenty of birds," he says. "We weren't as hard hit as other areas. It's warmer, somewhat drier, and we have lots of good oak woods." The oaks provide acorns, an important winter food source for turkeys.
Unfortunately, most of the Melrose Unit and Douglas County is in private hands, and public options are few.
White River's Savvy Toms
The White River Unit in north-central Oregon consistently has the second-highest turkey harvest by unit. However, because of its close proximity to Portland, the hunting pressure is intense. The number of hunters drives the high harvest, but dilutes success rates, which are usually below 20 percent. These are educated birds and they can most certainly be tough to hunt.
The flock centers on the east side of Mt. Hood, but the birds spread south almost to Bend. According to Jeremy Thompson, the district wildlife biologist, this flock was not hurt by weather. "We didn't have a lot of snow last year, and that helped," Thompson explains. "The weather hasn't really hurt the birds."
One of the few units where harvest was higher in 2011, hunters took 381 toms in the White River Unit, up from 342 in 2010.
Northeast Oregon — Public Lands Gobblers
The pine-covered Blue Mountains and the Wallowa Mountains of northeast Oregon are home to a thriving population of wild turkeys. Harvests here are starting to rival those in the southwest parts of the state. Unlike Douglas County, there is plenty of public land to hunt up here. That is one of the reasons this region's popularity is growing with turkey hunters.
Mike Hansen is the wildlife biologist for the Enterprise ODFW office. "We were seeing some young birds last summer," says Hansen "But the numbers are definitely down from a few years ago." Hansen also believes the reduced harvests in this area have been more a result of bad hunting conditions than a big drop in birds.
The Sled Springs unit is one of the most popular, but harvest dropped from 189 toms in 2010 to 95 in 2011. However, the harvest in the Ukiah Unit jumped from 90 gobblers in 2010 to 173 in 2011. Other perennial producers in the northeast include the Wenaha and Mt Emily units. Also, success rates are good for the Walla Walla (61 percent) and Imnaha, (100 percent) units.
The public land in the northeast counties is mostly on higher elevations, and when the snows linger the birds won't move off the private river bottoms up into the public lands until late in the season.
Central Oregon's Ochoco Toms
The turkeys that inhabit the Ochoco and Malheur Mountains of central Oregon have filled most of the available habitat. However, spring weather really depressed harvests here in 2011, and popular units such as Desolation, Ochoco, Heppner and Northside all posted lower harvest totals and success rates than the season before.
The Murderer's Creek Unit is always one of the best central units, and the harvest in 2011 was just 20 gobblers less than in 2010.
Public lands options here are mostly higher elevation national forest lands, and late snows keep the birds on private river bottoms. Another cold, wet spring would undoubtedly have a negative effect on this spring's hunt.
Weather Depending '¦
The lesson to take away from this is that these wet springs affect hunters far more than they do the turkeys. With that in mind, we all need to cross our fingers '¦ and hope for sunshine and more sunshine when the toms turn on this spring.