Turkey numbers stable as season nears

Lansing — Spring turkey hunters can expect to see ample numbers of gobblers this spring in their historic ancestrial range in southern Michigan, and slightly fewer birds as they head north.

“We have good turkey hunting within an hour drive of any town or city in the state,” Al Stewart, DNR game bird biologist, told Michigan Outdoor News. “I think for the spring season hunters will find a very similar situation to what they found last year,” in terms of turkey numbers. 

Stewart said 82,621 turkey hunters combined to kill 31,931 gobblers last spring for a success rate of nearly 39 percent. That’s a far cry from the 8,000 hunters who tagged 627 birds in 1979 (7 percent success).

Michigan hunters typically kill in excess of 30,000 birds each spring, making the state No. 7 in the nation in terms of harvest, and a destination state for many nonresidents.

“Over the last five years we have had people from every state in the country come to Michigan to hunt turkeys,” Stewart said. “They have come from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii, and most of the provinces in Canada, too.”

Biologists peg the state’s  wild turkey population at over 200,000 birds, a vast improvement from the early 1900s when turkeys were basically nonexistent in the state.

Following recovery efforts that began in the 1950s and increased in the 1980s, the birds are now flourishing. 

Turkey hunting returned to Michigan in 1965 with a limited fall season in southwestern Lower Michigan. Spring turkey-hunting seasons have been held each year since 1968.

Today, turkeys inhabit most counties, and there are more areas open to spring hunting than at any time in the history of Michigan.

“We have 58,114 square miles open to turkey hunting this year,” Stewart said. 

He was in northern Michigan last week as warm weather arrived and snow began to melt. 

“Toms are establishing their territories right now. They’re trying to locate areas they can gobble from to attract hens,” Stewart said. “They’re also eating and putting on weight, building up their breast sponge so when breeding begins they don’t have to worry as much about eating. The pecking order is also being established to see who’s the toughest kid on the block.

“They will stay sexually active through mid-June so they can breed any hens that might be renesting,” he said.

Meanwhile, hens also are active, eating a lot and gaining weight for the long breeding and nesting seasons.

Jim Maturen, of the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association, said turkey numbers appear to be up slightly in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula. The Pere Marquette Chapter of the MWTHA – one of five chapters across the northern Lower – fed about 2,800 birds this winter.

“That’s a few more than last year,” Maturen said. “We’re not feeding all of them, but at least we know those birds pulled through. We don’t want turkeys to go the way of pheasants.”

MWTHA runs a turkey-feeding program every winter, in compliance with DNR regulations. The goal of the program is to help the birds get through the tough winter months.

Maturen said last week that he was watching the snow melt on the hillsides and turkeys were scratching for food.

“For years we’ve watched the turkey population here in northern Michigan on a downward slide,” Maturen said. “Last year we had a pretty good hatch. There should be a lot of jakes this year. I think it will be a little better than last year.

“I think last winter (2013-14) when we had all that snow it had a negative effect on predators, which gave turkeys a better chance to survive.”

Ryan Boyer, the regional wildlife biologist with the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, also expects hunters to enjoy a good spring season.

“Turkeys are doing fine in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula. I don’t expect to see any decline there,” Boyer said. “Some parts of northern Michigan are seeing some decline, but hunters should still have a good season and be able to find huntable birds. Our winter conditions this year were not nearly as bad as last year.

“I think across the Midwest as a whole we’re getting to the point where the turkey population is either peaking, holding steady, or declining slightly,” Boyer added. “I think hunters should see a similar situation to what they saw last year.”

The 2015 spring turkey season runs April 20 through May 31, with different dates within that time period scheduled for different areas of the state. 

New this year, active duty military personnel and qualified disabled veterans can pick up any leftover licenses for free. Also, youth hunters age 9 and under with a valid license may hunt during any hunt period in any open unit on public or private land (with permission).

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