Field Notes: Northern Exposure
For more and more Minnesotans, spring is a time to hunt wild turkeys. The sport has grown in popularity as birds spread far beyond southern Minnesota-their range in the state before European settlement. Today, wild turkeys are thriving in north-central and northwestern Minnesota.
As a result, for the first time this spring, an additional five permit areas-encompassing Morrison, Kanabec, Pine, Todd, Wadena, Clay, and Wilkin counties-are open to hunting.
"I'm seeing more and more enthusiasm for turkey hunting every year, due in large part, I think, to the birds' population expansion in the state," said Gary Nelson, DNR Winona area wildlife manager. "Minnesota is developing a strong turkey-hunting tradition. And now a second generation is getting into the mix."
According to Nelson, the state's wild turkey range has been expanding west and north for roughly 30 years. "It's one of the great conservation success stories of our time," he said. "That's not only true in Minnesota, but across much of the nation."
In the early 1900s turkeys had nearly disappeared from Minnesota. "In those early years during settlement, there was a lot of destruction to oak forests and other turkey habitat, which really hurt the population," Nelson said. "There were no regulated hunting seasons at that time, and most settlers were living off the land."
The expansion began when DNR officials traded 85 ruffed grouse for 29 wild turkeys from Missouri and released the turkeys in Houston County during the winters of 1971 and 1973. The successful releases followed years of unsuccessful releases of pen-raised turkeys into the wild.
"Like many other states, we made numerous attempts at releasing game-farm birds up into the 1960s," said Nelson. "In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the wild turkey releases took hold, and the agency felt the population could support a limited hunting season."
In 1978, during Minnesota's first turkey hunting season, 398 hunters harvested 94 birds. That year, 10,740 people applied for 420 available tags. According to the DNR, 44,415 people applied for 25,016 permits for the 2003 spring hunt. Of those, 21,632 harvested a record 7,650 birds.
For the 2004 spring season, which runs from April 14 to May 27, just over 48,000 turkey hunters applied for 27,600 permits.
The increases in hunting opportunities, Nelson said, are largely a result of the DNR's trapping-and-transplant program and the birds' ability to survive Minnesota's harsh winters and changing landscape. "At one time, it was thought that wild turkeys could only survive in very large tracts of solid timber," Nelson said. "What we've found out in the Midwest, and in Minnesota, is that wild birds are able to thrive in smaller wooded tracts in association with agriculture.
"Where there's agriculture and waste grain, we've had good success at establishing populations," he added. "The birds have adapted, I'm pleasantly surprised to say, much better than we originally anticipated." Today, the state's wild turkey population is estimated at 60,000.
Nelson said the DNR relocated 70 birds to east-central Minnesota this past winter as part of the DNR's ongoing study to determine how far north turkeys can survive and whether supplemental food plots can help extend the range.
Wild turkeys now can be spied as far north as Mahnomen County in northwestern Minnesota. "We released wild birds there in 2001," said Wendy Krueger, DNR wildlife research biologist. "Since then, the population has been growing steadily."
Since the study, done in cooperation with St. Cloud State University, began in the winter of 2000-01, the DNR has radio-tagged and monitored 163 birds at two sites with corn food plots and two without, said Krueger.
Preliminary findings include:
- For the mild winters of 2001-02 and 2002-03, winter survival was higher at the food plot sites than at the sites without food, Krueger said. "However, on an annual basis, survival evened out," she said. "As a result, we're going to be looking at productivity and seeing if predation is knocking down survival during the nesting season."
- Over the past two years, survival of veteran birds has been higher than that of newly released birds. "What we've found is that if released birds make it through the first winter, their survival goes up the following winter," said Krueger.
The study will continue for at least the next two years, with funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Tori McCormick, freelance writer