April 14, 2020
The gobbler came in drumming, spitting, and wholly committed to the idea that he was a Merriam's turkey in the height of heat.
He was certainly a wild turkey in heat. But he was only barely a Merriam's, as far as I could tell from my location, tucked back in pine trees on the edge of a pasture along northern Idaho's Clearwater River. The gobbler had the iridescent black breast feathers of a Merriam's, but his caramel-colored tail feathers looked more like a Rio Grande gobbler. And his gobble had the sonic boom of an Eastern tom.
There's a good reason for his identity crisis. For nearly 60 years—that's something like 20 generations of wild turkeys—wildlife managers have released different strains of turkeys into northern Idaho's habitats. Merriam's were released into habitat near Riggins in 1961, and in subsequent transplants. Rio Grande flocks found homes along the Payette and Snake rivers. Eastern birds were released in areas around Dworshak Reservoir in the Clearwater River drainage.
Turkeys are capable of moving long distances to find suitable habitat, and consequently different subspecies met and interbred across Idaho. In other cases, state agencies and volunteers with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) trapped hybrid turkeys that overpopulated one area and moved these mixed-breed birds to vacant habitat.
Many Western hunters have no problem with that. A wild turkey that acts like a wild turkey—accessible on public land, responsive to a hunter's call and feathered in the colorful blacks, bronzes and indescribable greenish-purple of America's biggest upland bird—is just fine, offering exciting springtime hunting opportunity in states better known for antlered big game than upland hunting. Idaho turkey hunters kill some 6,000 gobblers every spring, and wildlife managers say that nearly all the Gem State's available turkey habitat is full.
But some hunters do care about the specific genetics of the turkeys they hunt. These are often hunters chasing what's called the "Grand Slam" of gobblers, trying to take each of the four designated subspecies of American wild turkeys. Those subspecies are the eastern (native to the woodlands east of the Mississippi River), the Osceola (found in southern Florida), the Merriam's (native to the Four Corners area of the American Southwest) and the Rio Grande (native to the riparian corridors of Texas and the Southern Plains). These subspecies-minded hunters aren't interested in what they call "mutts." They want to shoot gobblers that have the physical characteristics unique to each member of the Slam.
The NWTF, which administers the Grand Slam (additional slams include the Gould's turkey of northern Mexico and southern Arizona) and the ocellated turkey of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula), doesn't test a turkey's DNA. Instead, they award slam designations on the visible attributes of a gobbler. An eastern, for instance, has dark, walnut-brown tips of its tail feathers. A Merriam's has bone-white tips to its tail feathers, while a Rio Grande has more iridescent plumage and milk-in-coffee tail feathers. Photographs can serve as proof of harvest and subspecies designation. Hunters who complete slams receive a certificate, pin and notice of their accomplishment on the NWTF's website.
ARTIFICIAL RANGE EXPANSION
That hunters might question the genetic lineage of the wild turkey they harvest is a legacy of what's called the trap-and-transfer era of wildlife restoration in America. As wildlife managers tried to fill habitats with animals that may have been removed by unregulated hunting or habitat alteration, they often relied on bringing in animals from areas with surplus critters. In the case of wild turkeys in the West, few vacant habitats had historically contained birds. That gave biologists a fresh slate, and the opportunity to experiment with different subspecies. In much of the West, non-native Merriam's were the go-to turkey, but as turkey hunting exploded in popularity in the 1970s and '80s, wildlife managers often released other species in adjacent habitat to the Merriam's areas, with subsequent genetic mixing.
The restoration of wildlife through trap and transplanting is now outdated. Idaho Fish & Game Department notes that, "As the science of managing fish and wildlife has evolved, the practice of introducing new species to Idaho, without extensive analysis, is largely seen as a naïve and outdated practice."
Not only are some hunters unhappy with what they consider "mutts," but turkeys, as a non-native newcomer to some habitats, can displace or take habitat from native species.
Still, some hunters are less concerned with the genetic purity of the turkeys they pursue than the opportunity represented by the booming gobble of a wild tom in the spring.
"When we asked hunters if they'd rather have good turkey populations, even if they're hybrids, or a handful of pure-strain birds, about 90 percent of hunters said they'd rather have good populations," said Gabe McMasters, a former regional director for the NWTF in Idaho.
But the problem with abundant turkeys is they don't always stay in the habitats where they were initially released. In some cases, Rio Grande hens cross a low mountain divide and breed with Eastern toms. In others, Merriam's winter with Easterns, and next spring's poults show evidence of interbreeding. And some birds get in trouble simply because they do what wild turkeys do wherever they live in North America. They adapt, morph and survive, often in close proximity to humans.
"Wild turkeys in the West are one of the greatest management challenges we face," Jeff Knetter, upland bird biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said. "On one end of the spectrum, we have planted turkeys in habitats that can't support them year 'round, and we're being asked to feed them every winter. On the other end of the spectrum, we have birds that have flourished a little too well, and there are so many that they've become a nuisance."
So, what was the genetic identity of that gobbling tom that so enthusiastically responded to my clucks along Idaho's Clearwater River? It didn't much matter to me, as I toted his heavy body out of the pine trees. He was a long-bearded trophy, earned through hard hunting. And he tasted wonderful.