Michigan's turkey story is typical of many parts of the country. Turkeys were nearly eradicated by unchecked harvest and logging, and there was a time when it was rare even to see a turkey. Now, the eastern subspecies inhabits every county in the Lower Peninsula and the southern tier of counties in the Upper Peninsula.
As turkey numbers gradually expanded by using trap-and-transfer operations and by natural dispersal and improvements in turkey habitat, populations flourished. A limited hunting season began in 1968; 25 gobblers were harvested. Turkey harvest and hunting opportunities gradually increased until 2008 when 42,002 turkeys were reported.
Harvest numbers have steadily declined since then as turkey numbers in many locales have reached their carrying capacity, but 90,774 Michigan hunters still harvested 30,386 turkeys in the spring of 2017, making Michigan's turkey harvest the eighth highest in the country.
Opportunities continue to expand for Michigan turkey hunters. In 2017, there were 58,114 square miles open to turkey hunting. According to our DNR's Brian Frawley, "In 2016, nearly the entire state was open for wild turkey hunting from April 18 through May 31. The statewide hunting area was divided into 13 management units.
"Hunting licenses were available on these management units for three types of hunts: 1) quota (limited licenses available) hunts on both public and private lands in two specific management units; 2) quota hunt on private lands in southern Michigan (Hunt 301in Unit ZZ); and 3) a guaranteed hunt (no quota) that included all units (Hunt 234), but excluded public lands in the southern Lower Peninsula.
"A private land management unit (Unit ZZ) was created in 2002 that included all private lands in southern Michigan. Hunters who selected Hunt 301 could hunt the first two weeks of the season (April 18 to May 1) anywhere on private lands in Unit ZZ. This unit and hunt period was created to provide additional hunting opportunity and increased flexibility for hunters who had difficulty finding time to hunt during shorter quota hunts.
"Licenses for Hunt 234 could be used in any management unit. They were valid on public and private lands, except in Unit ZZ, where they were only valid on private lands or on Fort Custer military lands. Hunt 234 started later than most quota hunts, but lasted for 30 days (May 2 - 31). Licenses for Hunt 234 were sold as a leftover license with no quota and could be purchased throughout the entire spring turkey-hunting season."
Turkey license sales in 2016 increased by about 4 percent from 2015. The number of people buying a turkey-hunting license in 2016 decreased by nearly 28 percent from 2006 (125,934 people purchased a license in 2006). There were fewer license buyers for age-classes between 25 and 57 years of age in 2016, compared to 2006. However, there were increased hunter numbers among the youngest and oldest age-classes in 2016.
Hunters spent an estimated 298,486 days afield pursuing turkeys in 2016. Counties listed in descending order with hunters taking more than 900 turkeys included Montcalm, Allegan, Jackson, Tuscola, Kent, and Newaygo. Hunter effort was significantly higher by 5 percent in 2016 than 2015, but harvest was not significantly different from 2015. Hunter success was 41 percent in 2016.
About 81 percent of turkey hunters hunted solely on private land, 14 percent hunted on public land only, and 5 percent hunted on both private and public lands. Of the 30,386 turkeys harvested in 2016, 90 percent were taken on private land.
Turkey numbers in Michigan appear to have reached equilibrium that may be more indicative of seasons to come. "Turkey populations in Michigan are currently estimated to be around 200,000 birds statewide," said NWTF district biologist Ryan Boyer. "Southern Michigan habitat supports a higher proportion of individuals and tends to be more stable than northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula populations due to changes in winter severity. However, the (winters of 2015-16 and 2016-17) have been relatively mild and should have helped production for birds in areas that receive large snowfall amounts.
"There have been great reports of broods throughout the state, but I have received several reports of late hatches suggesting failed initial nesting attempts," claimed Boyer.
"Overall, population trends have decreased slightly since the early 2000s and have since stabilized," he said. "I would expect another spring harvest to total around 30,000-plus birds. Many states in the Midwest have experienced similar or worse declines in populations of eastern wild turkeys, but most have stabilized."
Watch The Video Above For Great Turkey Calling Tactics
Turkey numbers and hunting opportunities continue to expand in southeast Michigan. Opportunities on public lands exist, although most of the hunting effort takes place on private lands.
"Some good public land spots for turkeys in southeast Michigan are Sharonville State Game Area, Holly Wildlife Recreation Area, and Lapeer State Game Area," shared wildlife biologist Joe Robinson. There are plenty of turkeys on private lands in Jackson, Genesee, Oakland and Lapeer counties. Access is always the difficult part on private land in southern Michigan."
The ZZ unit hunt has been very well received said Robinson. "Hunters have more days of opportunity and can hunt multiple areas during this season. Turkey populations are stable to increasing across the Southeast Region."
Another alternative for southern Michigan turkey hunters is the DNR's Hunter Access Program, or HAP. "Michigan's Hunting Access Program was originally created in 1977 to increase public hunting opportunities in southern Michigan where 97 percent of the land base is privately owned. It has now expanded to include the Northern Lower and eastern Upper Peninsula. HAP is now one of the oldest dedicated private-lands public access programs in the nation."
For more information on turkey hunting opportunities in southeast Michigan, contact the DNR Detroit Customer Service Center at 313-396-6890.
Southwest Lower Michigan continues to be a stronghold for turkeys. "We have seen a slight decrease or stable populations of turkeys in the southwest region in recent years," advised Southwest Lower Peninsula regional wildlife supervisor Mark Sargent. "We've hit kind of a plateau, but that could change. We had a good nesting season and good brood production. Field personnel and hunters reported seeing good numbers of turkeys this fall."
Sargent's region takes in 25 counties where turkey numbers can vary greatly. "Winter can be a factor in the counties along Lake Michigan," offered Sargent. "There's a huge difference between Eaton County vs. Allegan County. Barry, Allegan, Mecosta, offer some good hunting opportunities on public lands. Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and Ionia counties offer some outstanding hunting on private lands. Public hunting opportunities exist on the 11,793-acre Flat River SGA near Greenville, 6,737-acre Haymarsh SGA in Mecosta County, 50,000-acre Allegan SGA, 4,585-acre Middleville SGA in Barry County, and 16,828-acre Barry SGA in Barry County.
Sargent stressed that turkey hunters should look to private lands enrolled in the HAP in southwest Michigan since only 3 to 4 percent of the lands in southern Michigan are public vs. 25 percent in the Northern L.P.
One point Sargent made is that the maturation of Michigan's oak forest has left turkeys with less to eat. "A lot of Michigan's oak stands are 80 to 100 years old. Oaks can live to 200 years, but they start producing less mast when they get to be 80 to 100 years old. We're working at harvesting some of the mature oak stands to increase mast production for turkeys, deer, squirrels and other wildlife."
For more information on turkey opportunities in southwest Michigan, contact the DNR Plainwell Customer Service Center at 269-685-6851.
Michigan's Thumb is one region where turkeys continue to expand. "Turkeys are more adaptable than anyone gives them credit for," noted wildlife biologist Nate Levitte. "They're not just in the big woods anymore. Turkeys are adapting to using agricultural lands like you find in the Thumb and their numbers are expanding."
Turkeys in the Thumb have done particularly well on farmlands adjacent to creek and river bottoms. Turkeys love foraging in the farmlands along the Cass River where they can then retreat to roost in the big timber along the river.
Levitte said that hunters will find excellent turkey habitat and numbers on the 7,562-acre Verona SGA in Huron County, the Deford SGA near Cass City, and 9,994-acre Tuscola SGA in Tuscola County. Wildlife biologists actively manage portions of those areas for aspen and oak production, which benefits turkeys as well as grouse and deer.
For more information on turkey hunting in Michigan's Thumb, contact the Bay City Customer Service Center at 989-684-9141.
Northwest Michigan has been a stronghold for turkeys for decades. The combination of agricultural lands, major rivers, and federal and state lands makes it one of the most popular and productive turkey-hunting destinations in the state.
"The turkey population took tumble for a while there because of a couple of bad winters, but their numbers seem to be stable now," said Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association (mwtha.net) president Jim Maturen. "The spring was relatively warm and dry so we had a pretty good nesting season. I would expect hunting to be similar to last year."
And he isn't the only one to think so. "Area K is one of our better areas for turkey," said wildlife communications coordinator Katie Keen. "One reason is all the public land in the region. We're seeing more timber harvest on federal lands, which is a good thing. I didn't hear anything negative with regard to the nesting season this year."
For more information on hunting spring turkeys in Northwest Michigan, contact the Cadillac Customer Service Center at 231-775-9727.
"This is an area that I would include within all of northern Michigan that sees the greatest fluctuations in populations associated with changes in winter weather conditions," said the NWTF's Ryan Boyer. "There was a decline in numbers in the northeast Michigan post establishment and post-baiting ban; however the birds responded and are found utilizing desirable habitats in that area.
"I think mild winters and changes in the landscapes in that area will likely benefit birds in that region. I would still expect harvest to be consistent, if not higher this year, in Northern Michigan due to milder winters for the past two years and relatively high production. There should be some 2- to 3-year old gobblers to be found."
"The U.P. continues to be stable as far as bird numbers are concerned," shared Boyer. "The 'Banana Belt' does offer the highest quality habitat with the mixture of forests and agriculture lands and experiences far less snowfall than other parts of the U.P. Barring a catastrophic winter, we should see a stable year for spring harvest in the U.P."
Hunters would be wise to look to agricultural areas and dairy farms in Menominee, Delta, Iron and Dickinson counties. Turkey numbers continue to expand in Chippewa and Mackinaw counties.
MICHIGAN AND THE NWTF
What is the best thing a sportsman or landowner could do to help Michigan's turkey population? Join the NWTF?
"Unbiased short answer is Yes!" said Ryan Boyer. "Continuing to purchase hunting licenses helps fund habitat restoration work as well as providing funding for acquisition of new hunting lands open to the public.
"Taking a new person hunting is another way. The NWTF works hand in hand with our state and federal agency partners to secure additional funding and use funding raised by our hard-working volunteers to enhance, restore habitat for wild turkeys and other wildlife.
"We're also working to help curb the decline in hunter numbers by recruiting, retaining, and reactivating new hunters across the state through targeted mentored hunting programs using full-time staff dedicated to this effort. This is all a part of the Save the Habitat and Save the Hunt Initiative knowing that you can't have one without the other."
Join the NWTF at nwtf.org.