May 14, 2020
By Andrew McKean
Across the East, turkey hunters are in a state of perpetual surprise lately. They’re either astonished by their good luck to have abundant birds to hunt, or they’re shocked by the rapid disappearance of flocks that took decades to build.
We’re used to pointing to the recovery of the Eastern wild turkey as one of the continent’s greatest conservation success stories, and we hunters take credit as the catalyst that brought flocks back from the brink of extinction to populations that number in the millions. Restoration was neither easy nor quick, but it was steady. Biologists estimate that the pre-settlement population of wild turkeys east of the Mississippi was around 10 million. But forest clearing and unregulated hunting did a number on our native birds, to the degree that, by the 1940s, only a few thousand turkeys remained in remote pockets in a handful of states.
Attribute recovery to lots of factors, but among the largest were hunting closures and then closely managed seasons, trap-and-transplant operations that moved birds into vacant habitat and research that pointed us toward habitat alterations that benefited each stage of the turkey’s life cycle.
All the work we poured into turkey management worked almost like magic. Flocks flourished, and with advocacy of organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation raising funds and promoting the turkey-hunting lifestyle, hunting increased in proportion to the population. Turkey habitat that had been vacant for half a century produced bumper crops of gobblers. New companies began producing all sorts of specialized turkey gear. And hunters got used to multiple-bird limits, liberal seasons and the expectation that if the setup on one tom failed to produce a jelly-headed, flopping bird, then the next one surely would.
If flourishing populations and widespread abundance has a downside, it’s that steep growth isn’t sustainable, and the declines in turkey numbers that many eastern states are reporting is probably a natural return to sustainable populations. This “new normal” is allowing biologists to refine the habitat requirements of turkeys and for hunters to remember that turkey hunting can be both exquisitely frustrating and fulfilling.
West of the Mississippi, turkey management has been alternately simpler and more complicated. Simpler because wild turkeys were not native to much of the region, so management was as easy as adding them to the landscape. More complicated because two subspecies of wild turkeys that evolved in small pockets of the Great Plains and Southwest, the Rio Grande and Merriam’s turkeys, respectively, have fairly specific habitat requirements. Biologists have tried, with varying degrees of success, to match the subspecies with the habitat components of their new homes.
In keeping with the wildlife-restoration movement of the past generation, wild turkeys were released in most western states over the last three decades. Although flocks in some places sputtered and faded, where it’s worked it has worked almost too well.
We now have huntable populations in most states of the West. In some, like Washington, it’s possible to hunt three subspecies of wild turkeys, with Rio Grande birds occupying the riparian habitats of the central part of the state, mountain-loving Merriam’s in the northeastern quarter and the Blue Mountains in southwest Washington, and Eastern birds west of the Cascades.
Idaho, too, offers hunters a gobbler hat-trick, with Rio Grande birds in the Snake River plain, Eastern turkeys in the forested Panhandle, and Merriam’s in the Hells Canyon and Clearwater country.
While turkey hunters in the eastern U.S. wonder where the good old days of gobbler-getting went, western turkey hunters generally have decent success, and often on public land. But although all this diversity, distribution and abundance has been good for hunters, there are some troubling trends that we’d be wise to pay attention to. In no particular order, here are three considerations to bear in mind as western turkey hunters shrug on their many-pocketed vests and screw their extra-full turkey chokes into camouflaged shotguns this spring:
1. Abundance is Temporary: The first lesson is one borrowed from our eastern brethren. Don’t assume that our ample opportunity will last forever. A bad winter, poor spring hatching conditions and spikes in predator populations can set back flocks for more than a year, and considering that a 3-year-old gobbler is an ancient bird, back-to-back failed hatches can doom local populations.
2. Management is Fickle: One of the chronic complaints of Western turkey hunters is that state game agencies don’t give the same resources or attention to non-native birds that they give to native species or, especially, to antlered big game. That’s probably to be expected, given the elevated status that western hunters give to deer and elk. But lack of management of “secondary” species like wild turkeys can have long-term deleterious consequences. Easterners can attest that a local flock can fade out if it’s not being actively managed. If you have a local biologist who is an avid turkey hunter, consider yourself lucky because he or she might be able to elevate the priority of the resource compared to biologists who consider wild turkeys a nuisance species.
3. Non-Native Status is Troubling: This idea that turkeys are unwelcome is one that’s spreading across the West. No longer are states actively moving turkeys into new habitats. The idea now is that native species deserve and require more intensive management. That’s not wrong, but one of the casualties of this perspective is tolerance for wild turkeys. We’ve all seen big wintering flocks of turkeys that can descend on haystacks and livestock feed grounds. If a landowner can tolerate the depredation that turkeys can sometimes inflict on forage, then flocks can thrive and disperse into neighboring habitats.
But increasingly, landowner tolerance is thinning, and biologists’ main tool is to issue kill permits to reduce flocks. That restricts the number of birds available to expand the population in subsequent years. Add to this the renewed priority on imperiled native species, such as sage grouse, and any expectation that state agencies will extend limited resources to non-native turkey populations is unrealistic.
Given these headwinds, what is a western turkey hunter to do? First, keep buying licenses and getting out in the field. As long as there’s ample participation in spring turkey seasons, and that hunters advocate for the species, wildlife managers will allocate resources to it.
And what a resource it is. A clear spring morning, with a gobbler booming on the limb of a cottonwood tree or ponderosa pine, the sun warming snowy peaks and sagebrush valleys, is one of the classic western experiences. And it’s one that we have to perpetuate in order to ensure it’s available for next-generation turkey hunters.