Talkin’ turkey in N.D.

The number of turkey licenses available in North Dakota this fall has been reduced by 125 for a total of 4,020. The number reflects what biologists say is a slight decline in turkey numbers in some areas of the state. State turkey numbers likely peaked in 2008.

North Dakota’s fall turkey season begins Oct. 12 and closes at sunset Jan. 5, 2014. The Jan. 5 closure is a change from previous hunting regulations. For the past 10 years, the end date to the fall turkey season has been the second weekend in January. Game and Fish made the decision to move the date up one week to coincide with the closure of the upland game hunting season.

For several years, upland game hunters, primarily those who pursued pheasants, would extend their hunting season one week by attempting to fill their turkey tag. Hunting in mid-January in North Dakota can be difficult due to deep snow or below-zero temperatures but, for die-hard turkey hunters, the extra time in the field was considered a bonus and a way to help shorten the winter months.

While turkey hunting was once a priority for many of the state’s avid turkey hunters, statistics now show that the demand for turkey licenses often parallels what is happening during pheasant season.

“Back in the 1980s and ’90s, guys went out a lot on opening weekend and pursued turkeys,” said Stan Kohn, NDG&F upland game management supervisor. “When pheasant populations went up, turkey hunting kind of backed off. The majority of our turkey harvest shifted to December and January. It kind of implies that hunters are seeking pheasants and will do turkeys later.”

The amount of fall turkey licenses issued in the state in 2008 was 6,000. That year, hunter surveys showed a success rate of 50 percent, or 3,000 birds, which was the most ever taken during a fall season in North Dakota. Last year’s harvest dipped to 2,100 during the fall season. Fewer permits were issued due to fewer birds in the field.

Spring turkey hunting began in North Dakota in 1976. After some growing pains that resulted in a four-year closure, the spring season reopened in 1982 and has increased in popularity for those hunters wishing to employ spring tactics on turkeys. Spring birds are often hunted from man-made or natural blinds. Unlike the fall season, hunters use calls to bring “toms” within shotgun range.

“Our highest spring harvest was 2,500 birds in 2008,” said Kohn. “This spring, hunters took 1,900 birds.”

Turkey numbers

When to issue turkey permits has long been a mild dilemma for Game and Fish. Hunters prefer to obtain their turkey tags as early as possible so they can begin to plan their hunt. Game and Fish wants to wait for as much survey information from the field as possible before issuing a set number of turkey tags. Often the two situations overlap.

“I think we’ve got late nesting birds right now,” explained Kohn. “Our information since Aug. 1 shows broods popping up now. Our brood survey ends in September.”

Several years ago, Kohn said, early surveys indicated a poor hatch of turkeys. A decreased number of permits was decided upon, based in part on those initial reports. Later surveys revealed the hatch was much better than earlier anticipated but permits had already been issued.

“By the time Christmas rolled around we had some reports of major depredation problems,” said Kohn. “We had set the season before a lot of info came in.”

In an effort to solve a potential problem of more turkeys than expected on the landscape, which can result in increased landowner complaints of depredation to winter feed supplies for livestock, Game and Fish received authorization to issue additional fall turkey licenses if deemed necessary. If brood numbers far exceed survey results, up to 1,300 additional licenses could be issued in specific hunting units.

Surveying upland game broods, turkeys included, has been complicated this summer by rainfall that has averaged much higher than normal over much of the state. More rain means higher vegetation and more places for turkey broods to escape from view. It makes accurate survey counts very difficult.

“We’ve never gone into that pile of 1,300 tags. That reserve has always been sitting there just in case we need it. It’s been on the book since the early 2000s,” stated Kohn.

This fall, two turkey hunting units, Units 21 and 53, will remain closed to hunting due to a very low number of birds. Unit 21 is Hettinger and Adams counties. Unit 53 is Divide and Williams counties.

“We want to build turkey numbers in some of the units,” explained Kohn. “We are certainly not putting the number of hunters out there that we had in the past. We’ve had cool, wet springs with not a lot of young turkeys being recruited into the flock.”

Intro to turkeys

North Dakota has not always had a turkey hunting season. In fact, the state didn’t even have a population of the big birds until a few turkeys made their way into the state from neighboring South Dakota.

“We’re talking introduced species here,” said Kohn. “Most of them came in back in the 1930s and ’40s across the South Dakota border in the southeast part of the state. Ours really took off in the early ’50s when we imported them from Pennsylvania and Colorado.”

Originally, the southeast part of the state, where turkeys were already taking hold, was boosted with the addition of transplanted birds. Throughout the years additional transplants were made throughout the state. The birds adapted well and flourished enough to result in the establishment of a turkey hunting season.

“Originally we had the three sub-species in North Dakota,” said Kohn. “Merriams which are a Texas bird, Rio Grandes from Colorado and Eastern birds from Pennsylvania.”

Today only a few “fairly clean” Merriams can still be found in certain areas of Bowman and Slope counties. Since turkeys readily mix, a purebred wild turkey has become a rarity in North Dakota.

“We’ve got a lot of hybrids. Maybe on the eastern side of the state, in the Fargo area, we’ve probably got some fairly clean Eastern birds,” said Kohn. “We have not done genetic testing to see what the breakdown is on our birds.”

While much of the state’s wild turkey flock is considered a mixture of two or more species, it is believed that a number of domestic turkeys have joined the ranks of the wild birds too.

“That’s the other thing mixed into the pot,” said Kohn. “Someone who tried to raise turkeys, not necessarily species we have in the wild, and the birds were let out or got out by accident. They mix in with the wild stuff and we don’t know what they are.”

Sometimes hunters will encounter a white or partially white turkey within a flock of wild birds.

“Guys get excited and think it’s an albino, but probably somewhere in its genetic background it probably messed up with a domestic bird. Sometimes it takes two or three generations down the road to produce an all-white bird,” said Kohn.

Several years ago, said Kohn, the consensus was that a white bird in a flock of wild turkeys was more domestic than wild and therefore should be removed from the gene pool. Today hunters who do so must tag the birds.

“According to state law a turkey is a turkey,” said Kohn. “Even a white one needs to be tagged.”

The deadline for applying for fall turkey hunting permits is Sept. 4. Applications can be made online through the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website or by paper application.