Kansas' Turkey Boom

Kansas' Turkey Boom

Expanding turkey populations in the Sunflower State mean better hunting and more opportunities for Kansas' gobbler chasers.

By Marc Murrell

Kansas' first turkey season took place in 1974. Hunters fortunate enough to draw a turkey permit that year were even luckier if they managed to slap that permit on the leg of a gobbler. Three decades later, we find turkeys, turkey hunters and turkey habitat doing better than ever in the Sunflower State.

"It's been growing, and it appears yet, up to this point, still to be growing," said Roger Applegate, small-game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Applegate attributes much of the growth in turkey hunting to changes in the Kansas landscape and points to one critical aspect of the situation.

"Good secure roosting locations are one of the real keys in turkey habitat," Applegate said. "Where we have them, we have turkeys, and they're doing well."

The increase in turkey habitat isn't necessarily something that's happened overnight, but over time. "If you look at the U.S. Forest Service surveys of forests, a lot is attributed to the fact that the amount of forest land is increasing and also the volume in forests is increasing," Applegate noted. "In other words, the trees are getting bigger and taller, making them good roost trees.

"In the case of the oaks, they're maturing and starting to produce acorns, and basically, we're seeing an increase in habitat that's available to turkeys. It's just natural succession happening."

Other keys to turkey habitat are prevalent in Kansas as well. Grasslands adjacent to turkey roosting areas and interspersed croplands provide all the key ingredients for turkeys to roost, breed and feed.

Another one in the box! Continuing trap-and-transport efforts by the KDWP and the NWTF are improving turkey populations as more habitat becomes suitable for the birds. Photo by Marc Murrell

It's difficult to count the actual number of turkeys in the state. However, Applegate uses various indices to track trends.

"In the eastern part of the state we've pretty much got unlimited turkey permits, and the numbers of permits being issued and the numbers of birds being harvested both continue to increase, which indicate an increase in population," Applegate said.

In addition to hunter harvest, Applegate also uses rural mail carriers' roadside surveys to gauge turkey populations. "These are done four times a year," he said, "so we get a pretty good picture."

The first roadside survey is done in January, which provides a good indication of the number of birds on the ground going into the breeding season. The next run is done in April, which provides clues as to the breeding population. A July survey reveals counts on the numbers of broods and how successful the breeding season appeared to be. A final October survey indicates the number of birds that will be available for the fall turkey seasons and the number of birds heading into the winter.

"The summer one is really our strongest indicator as far as long-term population trends," Applegate said.

Turkey brood size is also indicated from sightings during the pheasant and quail brood counts done in July and August. "These numbers are running pretty good most of the time. On average, at least two surviving poults per hen, which is pretty good in late summer."

Despite the good news, there is still work to be done, and that's an on-going project. "We are doing a little stocking and we'll probably be doing a bit more in the near future," Applegate said. "There's increased available habitat that's coming on-line farther west so during at least the next five years we'll be putting some birds in western areas."

All this is good news for turkey hunters throughout the state. However, Kansas, unlike some other states, isn't inundated with turkey hunters. "We sell in the neighborhood of around 30,000 spring resident permits (at $21)," said Applegate, "and the level of activity on those permits is about 80 percent."

What that means is that eight out of 10 people purchasing a permit actually go on to use it.

A second turkey game tag is available throughout the eastern half of the state to any hunter who purchases a regular turkey permit. That second tag sells for just $11.

According to Applegate, non-resident permits number about 3,000. The level of activity on those is substantially higher - near 100 percent.

Turkey hunters in the Sunflower State are successful in filling a permit about 50 percent of the time, with fewer of the second turkey tags showing activity, roughly 16 percent.

"That's what we've averaged for about the last 10 years," Applegate said, "which is pretty darned good when it comes right down to it."

The number of birds killed in 2002 was about 22,000; the success rate doesn't necessarily coincide with the number of permits, because of the issuance of secondary tags. The highest densities of turkeys occur in the eastern half of the state - from the Flint Hills east, according to Applegate.

Applegate notes that while the Sunflower State boasts both the eastern and Rio Grande subspecies of turkeys, most of Kansas' birds are of mixed genetic heritage. "The vast majority of them are hybrids," he said. "We probably have a few eastern birds, but not many. It appears from the preliminary genetic material we're getting that most birds, even along the Missouri border, are hybridized."

The poorest concentrations of turkeys occur in the southwest corner of Kansas. "Morton, Stevens and up through Wallace counties have the lowest," reported Applegate. "It's very limited habitat, particularly adequate roost sites. Wichita County, which is about 99 percent agricultural land, may never have large numbers of turkeys."

Applegate points optimistically to some counties in southwest Kansas where better habitat is being created. "The populations that exist may increase," he said, "and we'll start doing some stocking as the habitat becomes available."

Another factor that isn't as critical to good turkey populations in the eastern part of the state as it is in the west is rainfall. "Reproduction of these birds appears to not even happen in years that have drought, so we don't get a lot of nesting that takes place," Applegate said. "When rains come, the vegetation picks up and the bugs come, and they hit the nesting."

Most turkey hunting in Kansas is done on private land. However, guiding and outfitting is becoming more prevalent, and so the average turkey hunter has to look harder as land is tied up in leases for paying clients. State-owned properties can provide spotty success, but they're typically subjected to tremendous hunting pressure.

Another option for turkey hunters is the spring Walk-In Hunting Area program, which began as a pilot project with 40,000 acres in 2000. It's patterned after the fall Walk-In Hunting Area program that leases private land for public access. While the fall program is huge, numbering nearly 1 million acres statewide, the spring program isn't as large, making just over 100,000 acres available in 2003, much of those - as might be expected - in the eastern half of the state.

Possession of both a state hunting license and a valid turkey permit is all that's required to hunt these properties. Atlases detailing the location of these properties are available at KDWP regional and park offices, as well as downloadable versions on-line at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

"I think it's been pretty good," Applegate said of the spring Walk-In Hunting Area program. "As far as turkey hunters are concerned, it's a great game. The stuff I hear from folks is that it's a fantastic program, and they like it, and want to see it continue."

Kansas turkeys have proved to be prolific and adaptable as their expansion throughout the state continues, which is good news for turkey hunters. The overall health of the population is good, too.

"We've done a lot of disease testing and the birds that we have here seem to be pretty clean," Applegate said. "Diseases don't seem to be a big issue; parasites don't seem to be a big issue. So we don't have any problems like that. Right now it doesn't look like there's much out there to have an impact on them."

Applegate doesn't see any major changes for Kansas' spring turkey season. More turkey permits are being issued each year, and the success rates have been impressive.

"There's a lot of encouragement for people to go out and hunt turkeys," Applegate concluded.

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