Wisconsin big-bird enthusiasts have come to depend on the Badger State's turkey population to provide good hunting opportunities year after year. For the first 20 years of the state's "modern" hunting era, which began in 1983, turkey numbers steadily increased and the harvest kept pace. Over the past decade, our turkey population has reached a level of dynamic stability: turkeys inhabit just about every corner of the state, and year-to-year fluctuations in the harvest reflect a normal rising and falling of a population responding to changes in local habitat and weather conditions during the critical winter and spring periods.
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LAST YEAR'S HARVEST
Last year was a case in point. The spring 2012 turkey harvest totaled 42,612, a modest 6 percent increase over the previous year. The statewide hunter success rate was 21 percent, up from 19 percent the previous year, but still down from the 25 percent success rate Wisconsin hunters have enjoyed for the past decade or so.
Zone 1 hunters again led the state, with a total kill of 12,075 and a success rate of 18 percent. In Zone 2, hunters tallied 10,486 turkeys and again logged the highest success rate — 26 percent. That total was up 2,075 birds (25 percent) over 2011. Zone 3 was next, with a harvest of 10,253 turkeys and a success rate of 21 percent. In Zone 4, hunters registered 6,040 birds, with a success rate of 19 percent. In Zone 5, hunters took 2,232 turkeys in 2012, with a success rate of 18 percent. Zone 6 hunters registered 775 turkeys in 2012, with a success rate of 17 percent. In Zone 7, hunters took 580 birds, a jump of 198 (52 percent) over 2011. The success rate remained stable at 16 percent.
Harvest totals reflect the number of permits available. Success rates include all permits sold, preference drawing and leftover permit sales.
Zone 1, which covers all of southwest Wisconsin, is the heart of our traditional turkey country. This is where the first wild birds from Missouri were released in 1976. Hunters here have the longest tradition of gobbler hunting in the state. More permits are available for this zone than for any other, which helps explain the high harvest and low success rate. This spring, there are 74,400 permits available — the same number as in 2012.
Zone 2 covers southeast Wisconsin from Madison east to Lake Michigan and north to Door and Oconto counties. This zone has the highest human population and limited forest habitat, and so birds have a hard time avoiding hunters. Permit numbers here have jumped from 40,800 last year to 42,000 this year, due to high demand and a couple of other factors.
"Success rates have been the highest in this zone the past few years, and there's been no indication from hunter surveys that interference or conflict among hunters is a problem," says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources upland game bird ecologist Scott Walter. "We felt confident we could bump permits upward slightly to help accommodate the demand. We'll continue to monitor hunter surveys to see how hunters respond with respect to perceived interference or crowding issues."
Zone 3 encompasses much of central Wisconsin. Turkey density is high here — perhaps the highest of anywhere in the state — because there is an ideal mix of woodlots and farmland. Permit levels remain at 63,000, but demand is lower than in other zones. Nearly half the permits remain after the preference drawing.
Zone 4 runs from the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi and has a mix of forest, farmland and hill country. This zone has 34,920 permits available — the same number as last year. Because of its excellent turkey habitat and proximity to Minnesota, this zone attracts many hunters from the Gopher State.
Zones 5, 6 and 7 cover northern Wisconsin. Turkeys are scattered over the vast blocks of forest here, so hunting is more challenging than elsewhere in the state. Fewer permits are available for these zones, and most are sold out in the preference drawing. Turkeys have moved into these northern counties, thanks to DNR trap-and-transfer efforts and a succession of mild winters. Weather plays a greater role in brood production and survival this far north, so turkey numbers here fluctuate more than in southern Wisconsin.
"Zones 1, 3, and 4 have had permits left over at the end of recent spring seasons, so we're already meeting demand in these zones and no increase is warranted," says Walter. "In the northern zones (5, 6, and 7), we also maintained stable permit levels, as we'd like to understand the distribution of both turkeys and turkey hunters a little better before discussing further increases to permit levels."
Walter cites reports from field staff and hunters that turkeys can be concentrated around areas with open, agricultural lands in the northern zones.
BROOD PRODUCTION, WINTER LOSSES AND PREDATION
A mild winter and early spring helped turkeys pull off successful broods across the state, according to Walter.
"The extremely mild winter of 2011-2012 likely allowed our hens to come into the spring nesting period in good shape, and certainly contributed to the outstanding production we saw this year," he says. "With little snow on the ground, turkeys should have been able to move to find food throughout the winter; over-winter losses should have been minimal."
As a result, Walter describes last year's production as "absolutely fantastic."
"I've heard from hunters in all corners of the state, and people saw more and larger turkey broods last year than in the recent past," he says. "The 10-week game-bird brood survey corroborated these observations, with over twice as many turkey broods seen as in 2011; the observation rate for turkey broods was the 3rd highest since 1987. This is just reflective of how important weather is to game bird production. The early spring and dry conditions throughout much of the brood-rearing period really led to outstanding production. I would anticipate this will translate into great opportunities and good success for turkey hunters."
Last spring's harvest was composed of 82 percent adult toms, up from 2011 (77 percent) and 2012 (79 percent), but still below the record 86 percent logged in 2009. In a spring that follows a year of good production, adult toms normally represent about 70 percent of the harvest. It's a safe bet that more jakes, and thus fewer toms, will show up in this year's harvest.
Turkey populations tend to be most sensitive to variations in poult production and hen survival, Walter says.
"Poult production, as we've seen in 2012, is very weather-dependent, so we can expect turkey numbers to bump upward following years with dry, warm springs and early summers, and dip in years with cool, wet conditions during this time."
Hen survival tends to be lowest during the nesting season, with a second dip during the fall either-sex season.
"This is why mandatory registration is so important in turkey management — so we can keep tabs on fall hen harvests, and alter permit levels if needed," Walter says.
A hen study recently completed by UW-Madison staff found that about 1 in 4 hens in Wisconsin successfully hatches her nest. Most interesting in this research, however, was that both hen and poult survival appears to vary according to the composition of the surrounding landscape.
"In more heavily forested regions, both hen and poult survival is lower than in areas with relatively more open ground," Walter explains. "This may have important meaning for how we allocate permits within our turkey management zones, as they vary considerable in terms of percentage of forest cover, and this is currently being explored using population models by staff from the DNR and UW-Madison."
MANAGEMENT PLAN UPDATE
The current wild turkey management plan, written in 1996, is being revised to reflect the expanded turkey population, growing interest in turkey hunting, and other changes in the past two decades. As part of the revision process, DNR staff solicited input from hunters and other interested parties who responded online or attended one of 11 public input sessions held last spring. The revised plan, now in draft form, will be available this summer.
A total of 2,124 surveys were completed, 2,047 online and 77 at in-person sessions. Responses were received from hunters who reside in all counties in the state except Menominee. Responding hunters indicated they had hunted turkeys for an average of 13.3 years. Turkey-hunting experience ranged from 1 to 44 years.
Most hunters apparently like the seven-zone management structure. Eighty-one percent of respondents answered "yes" to the question "Do you think the current seven-zone structure provides enough opportunity to hunt different locations?"
A total of 31 percent of respondents said they believe the seven-zone structure increases a hunter's chances of receiving a permit, and 39 percent said they believe the current zone structure has no impact on a hunter's chances of receiving a permit. Thirty-one percent said they strongly agree and 31 percent said they somewhat agree that the current zone structure is necessary to manage the number of turkeys harvested. Similarly, most said they strongly agree (33 percent) or somewhat agree (29 percent) that the current zone structure is necessary to reduce hunter interference rates.
Seventy-five percent of respondents want the spring season to start at the same time it does now, and 55 percent like the Wednesday opening date. Fifty-nine percent strongly favor and 18 percent probably favor the current system with six one-week time periods. Other season-structure options, such as four one-week periods followed by one two-week period and three one-week periods followed by one three-week period drew a mixed response. Fifty-three percent strongly oppose a season that runs for six weeks straight with no separate time periods.
Hunters also believe the preference drawing should be retained for the spring season, even if time periods are eliminated; most hunters strongly agree or somewhat agree that Wisconsin resident landowners should have top priority in the drawings.
Seventy-nine percent said the cost of the wild turkey stamp ($5.25) is reasonable. Sixteen percent said it should cost more, while 5 percent said less. Seventy percent said the stamp program should continue.
Hunters also like the current leftover permit distribution system.
"This seems to be working very well," Walter says. "Hunters have repeatedly expressed satisfaction with the availability of over-the-counter tags, and the ability to extend their season by purchasing one."
The revised management plan will reflect these responses and more, and hunters can rest assured their input is being taken seriously.
"This won't be a plan that sits on a shelf and is referred to only by biologists," says Walter. "It's going to be a fairly complete summary of the history of turkeys and turkey hunting in Wisconsin, as well as an explicit set of goals and strategies regarding where we go in the future. It will be produced in an attractive, easy-to-read style, and copies will be made available for hunters and others interested in turkeys."
When the state reduced the number of turkey-management zones a few years ago, some hunters expressed concern that more popular hunting areas would become crowded as hunters flocked to them, but this apparently is not the case. Walter says he has heard primarily positive comments from hunters with respect to the larger zones, with most suggesting they've explored new hunting areas as a result.
"Crowding is one of the things we consider when setting permit levels, but of course we can only do this across entire zones," he says. "Within zones, I think landowners generally act to limit the number of hunters on their lands at any one time, and this serves to reduce interference problems and maintain a quality hunt."
Walter encourages hunters looking for a new place to hunt to check out the Voluntary Public Access program, which has opened walk-in access on more than 40,000 acres of private lands in the southern two-thirds of the state to hunters. Lists of VPA lands, by county, can be found at www.dnr.wi.gov, under keywords "VPA lands."
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SPRING AND BEYOND
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 online at https://jc.activeoutdoorsolutions.com/wipublic/goHome.do. You can also contact any DNR service center or call 888-WDNR-INFO.
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.
Wisconsin turkey numbers appear to be gradually increasing, especially in areas where they have recently become established.
"Long-term, the trend has certainly been upward across the state," Walter says. "When you drill down to individual zones, however, it seems as though our turkeys shot upward following establishment, declined a bit, and have been fairly stable since. This is the classic 'overshoot' we see in reintroduced wildlife populations as numbers stabilize around the landscape's carrying capacity."
Walter expects to see turkey numbers within each zone ebb and flow in response to weather conditions during the winter and spring reproductive period. This year, he sees a statewide swing upward in response to the recent mild winter and dry spring. Hunters across the Badger State certainly hope Walter is right.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it's showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn't do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It's hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam's in the same state. It doesn't get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven't been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state's current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state's typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000's. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it's also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.