Wisconsin's wild turkey program continues to be one of the greatest success stories in the Badger State's modern wildlife management efforts. Since they were reintroduced in Vernon County's Bad Axe watershed back in 1976, wild turkeys have expanded their range to cover virtually every chunk of available habitat from the Illinois border to Lake Superior.
The state's modern spring turkey hunting seasons began in 1983, and hunters set harvest records for 22 consecutive years. Over the past seven years however, the spring harvest has fluctuated, reaching an all-time record in 2008, when hunters registered 52,880 birds. Since then, the take has declined as permit numbers were adjusted downward to reflect an apparent decrease in the statewide turkey population.
"We don't estimate turkey numbers in Wisconsin," says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife ecologist Scott Walter, "but it's clear that turkey numbers have leveled off in the southern part of the state after an extended period of rapid increase following reintroduction, and turkeys have now expanded into the farthest reaches of northern Wisconsin. Our turkey population remains healthy across the state, and state turkey hunters can look forward to great hunting opportunities on into the future.
"However, the era of constant population growth and expansion that followed our reintroduction effort is near an end. With populations now stabilizing at levels supportable by the local habitat, hunters should expect to see their chances of bagging their spring gobbler ebb and flow a bit from year to year as the local turkey population responds to annual production levels and winter survival."
That "ebb and flow" might seem disturbing to hunters who've come to expect to see more and more birds every year, but Wisconsin remains one of the top four or five turkey-hunting states, with six spring hunting periods and ample opportunities for hunters to take more than one bird. In short, a stable yet dynamic population is far better than one subject to periods of boom and bust.
LAST YEAR'S HARVEST
Last spring, hunters took a total of 40,103 turkeys, down from 47,722 in 2010. That was the largest single-year drop ever. The total number of permits issued was 210,059. That's fewer than the year before, but about a thousand more than in 2008, when the harvest record was set. The statewide success rate was 19 percent, down from 22.3 percent in 2010 and considerably off the 25 percent success rate that has been the norm for a decade.
Zone 1 hunters led the state with a total of 12,253 birds registered, but had a success rate of only 18.2 percent. In Zone 2, hunters killed 8,411 birds, but had the highest success rate of any zone — 24.6 percent. In Zone 3, hunters tallied 9,848 birds, for a success rate of 18 percent. Zone 4 hunters killed 6,156 turkeys and had a success rate of 17.6 percent. In Zone 5, hunters registered 2,158 birds, for a success rate of 18 percent. In Zone 6, hunters tallied 786 birds and had a success rate of 17.5 percent. Zone 7 came in last, as expected, with a total harvest of 382 birds and a success rate of just 15.9 percent.
The harvest totals for each zone are largely a reflection of the number of permits available. You can't put too much significance on overall success rates, as these percentages are based on the total number of permits issued, including the leftover permits sold after the preference drawing is completed. Some hunters purchase more than one leftover permit, and hunter effort generally declines with each successive permit a hunter has available.
Zone 1 encompasses all of southwest Wisconsin. This zone had the greatest number of both permits available (74,400) and leftover permits sold (26,769), which helps explain the high total kill but modest success rate. This is the state's "traditional" turkey country, where birds were first released and where populations have stopped growing. Many of the state's most savvy turkey hunters hunt here, but many end the season with a couple unfilled tags in their pocket.
Zone 2 spans southeast Wisconsin from Madison east to Lake Michigan and north to Door and Oconto counties. Zone 2 had only 34,200 permits available in total, which included 3,383 leftover permits, all of which were gone in a matter of minutes when sales opened. Because more people live in Zone 2 than in any zone, there is a lot of competition for permits and so hunters tend to hunt more seriously than those in other zones. Turkey numbers are high here and forestland is limited, so hunters have good access to birds.
Zone 3, located in central Wisconsin, has an ideal mix of farmland and forest, and thus a lot of turkeys. Permit levels are high (63,000 total), but demand is not as strong as in Zone 2. There were nearly 30,000 leftover permits available, but only 20,515 sold.
Zone 4 includes a good chunk of central forestland, along with five Mississippi River counties. This is prime turkey country, but the human population is relatively low. A total of 34,900 permits were available, with 24,222 issued through the preference drawing. By the end of the season, all but a handful of the 10,698 leftover permits were sold.
Zones 5, 6 and 7 cover northern Wisconsin, which is heavily forested. Turkeys are relative newcomers there, and fewer birds are scattered across a vast landscape, making them harder to find and pattern. Turkey hunting is still a novelty to many hunters in these zones, but far fewer permits are available and they get snapped up quickly. Success rates in these zones have generally been lower than those in other zones, but last year, that was not the case in zones 5 and 6.
Last spring's harvest was composed of 77.1 percent adult toms, down slightly from 2010 when toms made up 79.8 percent and a considerable improvement over 2009, when toms made up a record 86 percent of the total kill. In a season that follows a year of good brood production, adult toms make up about 70 percent of the harvest. This shift suggests brood production has continued to improve over the past two years.
BROOD PRODUCTION, WINTER LOSSES, PREDATION
The main factors besides hunting that affect turkey numbers are recruitment, weather and the impact of predators.
The DNR estimates brood production via a number of surveys that incorporate data from biologists, landowners and the general public. Walter says these surveys suggest production levels have tapered off a bit over the past few years. That after years of relative stability. Last year's late spring and damp June made biologists think brood production levels might be severely depressed, but that scenario changed in late summer.
"After seeing relatively few early on, many people were reporting an increase in brood sightings late in the year," Walter says. "Whether this simply reflects a later-than-normal hatch, I don't know, but it suggests that brood production in 2011 was better than anticipated, given the weather."
Winter weather appears to be an issue predominantly in northern Wisconsin. In the southern part of the state, lighter snow cover and adequate forage make it easier for turkeys to survive.
"It's difficult to define a specific impact of winter weather without the ability to closely monitor individual turkeys," Walter says, "but previous research in central Minnesota suggests that turkey survival can be significantly reduced during hard winters, principally in areas where flocks lack access to waste grain. In northern Wisconsin, I would expect turkeys to respond similarly, and artificial foods such as those found at bait piles and bird feeders might be important to allowing individual flocks to make it through the winter."
Predators do take some turkeys. Coyotes and bobcats can easily kill adult birds. Poults can fly well enough to elude most predators at about a week of age, but hawks, owls and smaller mammalian predators take poults before they are able to fly. Skunks, raccoons and opossums take a toll on eggs, but hens often renest.
Chris Pollentier, a graduate student working with professor Scott Lutz at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has been following a sample of radio-marked hens on four study areas in western Wisconsin over the past two years. Pollentier is just beginning to compile his results, but Walter anticipates a summary of the work will be released next summer.
"Some of Pollentier's preliminary findings support the results of the first Wisconsin hen turkey research project, conducted by WDNR staff back in the early 1990s," Walter says. "About half of the hens survived from one year to the next, with the nesting season being the period of highest mortality. About 25 percent of the marked hens successfully hatched their nests, somewhat lower than turkey nest survival estimates in other regions but still high enough to allow population growth, given the remarkable reproductive potential of wild turkeys."
Only 1 hen out of more than 100 monitored during the course of Pollentier's study was shot by a hunter during the fall either-sex turkey season.
"This is encouraging," Walter says, "as hen harvest is known to be capable of influencing turkey population size, but generally speaking, over 10 percent of hens need to be harvested to have any measurable impact on turkey numbers. Pollentier's data suggests that our hen harvest rates may be well below this level in Wisconsin."
Pollentier also found some interesting differences in survival between hens in predominantly forested landscapes and those in predominantly open landscapes, and he's currently looking at what factors might be responsible.
"Biologists will certainly be able to use these findings to better understand and manage turkeys in our state," Walter says. "It's a great example of how interdependent research and management are in the wildlife arena."
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SPRING
Walter anticipates another good spring turkey season. Permit levels are the same as last year, and 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 on the DNR Web site at https://jc.activeoutdoorsolutions.com/wi_public/goHome.do. You can also contact any DNR service center or call 888-WDNRINFO.
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.
Some hunters prefer the later periods for several reasons. The weather is usually better; there is less competition from other hunters; there is more foliage for concealment and many hens are incubating a clutch of eggs by mid-May. However, toms are still eager to breed, so they are more susceptible to calling.
NEW AND RECENT LAWS
This spring, successful hunters will be required to register their birds online or by telephone. Instituted last fall, this streamlined system worked flawlessly and met with hunter approval, so it will continue. Details are available at http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/hunt/Turkey/register.htm.
Three recent changes — the hunting hours sunset closure, seven-zone structure and leftover permit sales — will also continue, as they appear to be working and are popular with hunters.
More changes may be coming soon. The addition of two days to each spring hunting period was proposed by the DNR at the Spring 2011 Fish & Game Rules Hearings and approved by a 3-to-2 margin. That won't be in effect this year, but expect to see it in another year or two.
The DNR also is looking at revising the turkey management plan, so stay tuned for more on that front.
"This document will lay the foundation for our approach to managing turkeys and the turkey harvest across the state," says Walter. "A very critical first step to developing this plan is soliciting input from the public regarding their vision for the future. As our objectives and strategy for this plan-writing process coalesce, we will be advising hunters and others interested in our turkey resource how they can provide input."
Overall, the future looks good for turkey hunting.
"The long-term outlook for turkeys and turkey hunting is absolutely fantastic," says Walter. "However, hunters must recognize that turkeys, like any wildlife population, experience changes in abundance from one year to the next, in response to environmental factors such as winter and spring weather that can impact survival rates and levels of production. Hunters who pursue turkeys in the northern part of the state may have to deal with a little more instability in local turkey numbers, as birds in the north will likely be impacted to a greater extent by winter weather."
The real proof of our state's great turkey hunting, of course, comes in the field, as dawn stretches her rosy fingers skyward, you scratch out a few quiet yelps on an old slate call and that first lusty gobble rolls down the valley like morning thunder.