Wisconsin DNR biologists address winter's impact on turkey numbers
Will wild turkeys die this winter? Probably.
Will it cause the DNR to change the hunting seasons or reduce permits? No.
The reason is that the state doesn’t want to manage turkeys like deer. That is, they don’t want to have to adjust the issuance of harvest permits depending on whether the population goes up or down from one year to the next.
This is much like how the state manages ruffed grouse, which traditionally have had populations vary on a 10-year cycle, like a roller coaster, from high populations to low populations.
With low populations the harvest is normally lower, but populations will return.
Turkeys are quite adaptable and originally when the DNR reintroduced turkeys nobody expected that they would one day thrive north to Lake Superior.
Turkeys originally existed in Wisconsin basically south of a line from Prairie du Chien to Green Bay, and it was probably a lack of habitat and severe winters that limited them to this range.
Severe winters in the north can increase turkey mortality because they need to use more energy to survive. Temperatures below 52-degrees cause a bird’s metabolism to increase to maintain body temperature, and more than 8 inches of snow can limit movement and hinder their ability to find food.
Deep, fluffy snow can also cause birds to spend more time in trees and makes it harder for them to find morsels to eat on the ground.
Wisconsin’s seasons are set so that they will not have a major impact on the population. In the spring, when the majority of the harvest takes place, only male turkeys may be shot. And, in the fall, only a limited number of hens are normally shot.
If a major disease or some calamity came on the scene, the DNR could restrict permits and season length, but the normal variation of populations won’t trigger that response.
The extent of loss this year won’t be known for a month or two. People are not getting out into the woods because of the cold and snow.
Kevin Morgan, DNR wildlife biologist in Barron, said he is concerned because he is not seeing a lot of turkeys while driving around, but he has yet to find evidence of dead turkeys.
Mark Schmidt, DNR wildlife biologist at Ladysmith, knows of three birds that have died, and Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife biologist at Brule, also knows of another three birds that died.
With more than 20 inches of snow on the ground across much of the north, biologists expect to learn of more dead turkeys once people get out into the woods looking for shed antlers.
It’s natural that people want to start feeding turkeys, but the advice is: don’t. That’s a good way to bring in disease and wipe out a lot more turkeys than the severe winter may kill.
Biologists look at the long haul. Though individual birds may die, biologists put their concerns into the overall population.