Widespread worries that spring hunts will be devastated by unstoppable wildfires that incinerated prime turkey areas in Washington and weather shifts in Oregon appear to be wrong. Turkey managers in both states aren't buying into the doom and gloom. Fish and wildlife agencies on both sides of the Columbia are expecting spring turkey numbers and hunting success at least equal to last year's, with a few exceptions.
The biggest worry in Washington was last summer's Carlton Complex fire, which devastated 550 square miles of Ponderosa pine, sage, steppe and mixed edge habitats in the north-central Cascade Mountains. Several up and coming Merriam's turkey areas were burned to the ground. That fire was followed by a series of lightning strike wildfires in the Kettle Falls-Keller-Colville Indian Reservation region that devoured big tracts of turkey land in the state's top turkey region.
Surprisingly, in both of those seared areas turkey numbers came through with minimal losses, according to post-fire field checks by WDFW. Many flocks moved out ahead of the fire into marginal, but adequate unburned habitats. The timing of the summer fires allowed enough regrowth for turkeys to return to their old areas with enough food to survive a normal winter.
It was all about the timing. The Washington fires roared across the state in July and early August. That mid-summer timing was followed by unusually heavy early fall rains that generated unexpected fall green-ups. That event was followed by unusually late frosts and a lack of snow deep into November. The mild fall ended the growing season later than normal, giving turkey habitat more than two months to regenerate grasses, seeds, buds, bugs and other foods.
Washington turkey managers think the weather combinations will be beneficial for flocks in the burned areas of northern Washington, greening up the prime food sources that boost winter survival and feed spring poults. If it all comes together as indicated the disaster could create an unexpected uptick in regional Merriam's turkey numbers for several years, said Brian M. Calkins, WDFW small game/furbearer section manager.
On a statewide basis, Calkins is seeing a gradual drop in Washington turkey harvests and hunting pressure. According to WDFW field checks, the state's turkey kill has been slowly, but continuously, dropping since peaking statewide in 2006-07, along with a downhill slide in hunting pressure.
"Overall our harvest and hunter numbers have been declining the past several years without a definitive explanation. Despite this, the harvest per hunter has remained around 30 percent," Calkins said.
Several reasons for the declines may be at play, he noted, including increases in license fees, tag structure revisions, increasingly difficult access to private land, despite several new WDFW access programs. An odd conundrum of people problems has also emerged, where landowner complaints about turkey damage are rising, while some landowners are feeding wild flocks year-round, holding them on private farms while refusing permission to hunt.
Hoping to free up some of this closed land the state has launched several new private property access programs, but as of this year those programs have not offset the decline.
Washington is one of the few states with a three turkey annual limit from huntable flocks of Merriam's, Rio Grande and Eastern subspecies. Merriam's turkeys are found on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains from Klickitat County almost to the Canadian border, across the northern Okanogan region and along the Idaho border to the Spokane area. According to WDFW, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Ferry, and northern Spokane counties contain excellent habitat for the Merriam's, and Stevens and Ferry lead the state in turkey hunting success.
On the western edge of their range along the east flanks of the Cascade Mountains Merriam's are not as widespread primarily because of competition for food from grazing livestock and a lack of mast and berry crops, according to WDFW. Still, turkeys have expanded along creek and river drainages that border agriculture in Okanogan and Chelan counties.
"In the Wenatchee area, turkey densities are relatively sparse," says biologist David Volsen. Populations appear to be stable in Chelan County and may be increasing in the northern portions of Douglas County, he noted, adding that hunters should expect turkey numbers and hunter success similar to other years.
In the Methow River drainage â€” ground zero for the Carlton Complex fire â€” Scott Fitkin, WDFW biologist based in Winthrop, said that in areas not affected by the fire he does not anticipate much change in turkey numbers or hunting pressure. Fitkin said he is not seeing significant increases or decreases in turkey numbers from the impact of the fire.
"Most birds were likely initially pushed from the area by the flames. I suspect they have come back to some degree to take advantage of above average late summer and fall green-up," he said.
That spring optimism could be dulled by the possibility of winter kills if turkeys find little forage available within the burned areas. Fitkin believes the hungry birds will move into unfamiliar areas looking for food.
"I expect the population in the burned areas will be significantly lower for the next year or two and then come back stronger than ever with the anticipated flush of forbs and grasses. We'll just have to wait and see," the biologist said.
Calkins noted that there is evidence that turkey numbers scattered along the east slope from Yakima north to Chelan may have reached carrying capacity, and he notes that conflicts with livestock, other wildlife and property owners have been escalating.
WDFW recommends that east slope hunters should look to several of the more consistent turkey producing areas for hunting opportunities, such as the Colockum Wildlife Area, the Stemilt Basin outside of Wenatchee and canyons spoking off the Wenatchee River on west to Lake Wenatchee.
Another still promising but declining area is the Teanaway River Valley north of Cle Elum. Merriam's kills peaked there in 2010 at 182 gobblers, but in the past two years hunters have bagged just 88 and 64 toms. Still, the long-term average of 68 birds makes this area the third best hunting area on the east slope behind the East Klickitat (69) and Grayback (149) units. Spring hunters will find a huntable mix of state, federal and some unposted private property in the Teanaway.
Rios are the second most popular subspecies in the state. There is some overlap with the southern Merriam's range near Spokane, but the heaviest concentration of Rios is in the southeast corner mostly in the Blue Mountains, and drainages of the Walla Walla, Grande Ronde and Snake rivers. Calkins said.
Typically the sprawling farms, brushy draws and lightly forested mountains in the southeast corner of the state deliver the state's second largest turkey harvest. In 2013 the kill was 638 birds; respectable but below the area's average and far below the 2,400 Merriam's birds bagged in northeast counties between Spokane and the Canadian border.
Looking long-term, Rio populations in the Southeast appear to have leveled off after years of steady increases. Good nesting and survival last spring is fueling optimistic WDFW predictions that hunting this spring may see the highest success in three years. GMUs 154 (Blue Creek) and 162 (Dayton) have the highest turkey harvests in the Rio region, according to WDFW. The highest densities are often found on private land in the lower foothill areas that have a mix of forest and agricultural habitat.
Not far behind the Rio region, in third place for hunter success, are the six management units in the Klickitat valley on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge â€” another Merriam's stronghold. Klickitat turkeys are in good shape, on par with last season. As in other popular hunting areas, many of the flocks have moved onto private property, especially in agricultural areas near the communities of White Salmon, Goldendale and Klickitat.
On the low end of the best-to-worst hunts is the Eastern subspecies in Southwest Washington. Flocks are few, numbers low going lower, and fewer than 10 birds are harvested in any game management unit, according to Calkins. "Hunting Easterns is a difficult prospect, and hunters should be prepared to put in a lot of legwork," he noted. Confined to the heavily timbered and thick brush in the Southwest corner of the state, Easterns tend to funnel onto private property and stay there.
The state has also quit relocating turkeys into the Southwest part of the state, and most of the established flocks have moved onto private property, nearly all of it posted against hunting. One exception with huntable numbers is a chunk of public Department of Natural Resources lands in southern Pacific County in GMU 672, points out WDFW biologist Brock Hoenes.
Hunters have been bagging only five dozen Eastern toms during spring seasons, and most of those are shot in Skookumchuck (GMU 667) and Johnson Creek Corridor, followed by a few in Deschutes (GMU 666). Except for the Pacific County DNR property that Hoenes noted, most of the Eastern turkeys in the Willapa River valley live behind "No Hunting" signs on farms.
Turkey numbers are climbing in the Beaver State, and Oregon Fish and Wildlife upland game bird manager Dave Budeau said he's basing predictions for an above average spring season on an excellent 2014 spring hatch, high roadside survey counts and what is shaping up as good winter survival.
Oregon turkey hunters primarily target the Rio Grande subspecies statewide, although there is a small overlap with Merriam's in the Columbia River gorge, which borders a major Merriam's area in Washington's Klickitat County.
ODFW has switched its turkey enhancement program almost exclusively to Rios, which adapt better to Oregon's diverse topography than the originally stocked Merriam's, according to ODFW. Most of the turkeys are from original releases in the late 1970s and hybridizations with Merriam's birds. Few pure Merriam's wild turkeys likely remain in Oregon, according to ODFW.
Rio counts in the two major hunting areas have been going up for several years, Budeau said, and while a lot can happen between now and spring, he looks for the 2015 season to be one of the best in recent years.
Oregon turkey hunting has grown more than ten-fold since a statewide spring season opened in 1987, and the six-week spring hunt is among the most liberal in the country. Hunters are allowed up to three toms during the spring season and another bird of either sex during a controlled hunt season in the fall, Budeau explained. Success for hunters holding one tag runs about 21 percent he said, and that will probably hold true this year.
Turkeys can be found somewhere in nearly every county in the state, according to ODFW, and are expanding because of continuing trap and transplant programs. Biologists plan to continue expanding Oregon's turkey range into the next decade.
The most heavily hunted turkeys are in the shadow of Mount Hood east of Portland where there are high numbers of Rios in The Dalles, White River and Hood River drainages, according to the state's wild turkey manager.
These areas are in semi-arid transition zones where Cascade Mountain green meets high desert brown, a productive blend of open habitats that agrees with Rio Grandes. "We have a lot of white oaks in that area," Budeau said, "and white oak mast supports Rios."
Find areas where white oaks are mixed with Ponderosa pines on public land near agricultural ground in the 1,000 to 1,500 foot elevation range and you've got the combination for a good turkey hunt, he said.
The number two area on his turkey hunt list is also the area with the most turkeys in Oregon, the southwest part of the state where Rios were originally stocked.
The heart of Oregon turkey country beats in the Umpqua River valley west of Roseburg, supporting the highest turkey densities in the state, at more than 16 birds per square mile. Top hunting areas are west and north of the city, and along the Umpqua River from I-5 northwest to Scottsburg.
But according to ODFW game stats, good hunting can also be found from the border of California south of Brookings north and inland along the foothills of the Coast Range mountains to Alsea. There are flocks in Willamette County once you get south of Salem and a high concentration in the Lebanon area east of I-5 and south of Highway 20. Most birds in the Willamette flocks hang tight to agricultural areas on private ground, Budeau advised. Permission to hunt is not impossible to get.
It's unusual, but another promising area for western Oregon turkeys is coastal. Low elevation farms and ranches in the lower Alsea, Siuslaw and Chetco rivers support scattered flocks near the ocean and can be surprisingly productive for hunters who do their homework.
On the far northeast side of the state, Budeau looks for excellent hunting in the foothills and along the edge of agricultural fields in the Mount Emily, Ukia and Sled Springs units. There is dramatically less hunting pressure in this remote region and good numbers of birds, which produces a higher success ratio.
ODFW also lists the John Day River near Fossil and Malheur River in the remote east-central region as possibilities this year.
A lot of turkey hunts are day trips from metro areas, and the hunters who dedicate several days and camp or overnight in good turkey areas are the ones who usually score. With productive turkey habitat scattered across Washington and Oregon, Pacific Northwest hunters should be able to locate a good spot close to home to bag a bird.