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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Too Soon to ‘Fix’ Turkey Hunt Format, Permit Numbers

If you weren’t impressed that Wisconsin hunters bagged 39,007 turkeys this spring, a 5% increase over 2021, you probably saw few gobblers or heard little gobbling where you were hunting.

At least that’s what researchers typically conclude from postseason surveys. Hunters are happiest when they’ve bagged a bird, but they’ll settle for seeing or hearing gobblers. It keeps things hopeful for next spring.

But more turkey hunters are growing restless and grumpy as they realize Wisconsin’s largest flocks and best hunting are history, and that this particular history won’t repeat itself. Wisconsin hit its turkey-hunting peak from 2007 to 2009 when the statewide harvest averaged 52,630 jakes and gobblers three straight springs.

The spring kill hasn’t cracked 50,000 since, and it’s doubtful we will again. When wildlife agencies return a species to where its predecessors once roamed, the population typically builds several years, but then declines and levels off for the long run.

For Wisconsin, that long run is now, and it’s a flock that renders about 40,000 kills each spring. As a reminder, Wisconsin set 22 straight harvest records from 1983 (182 kills) through 2004 (47,477 kills) as the flock grew and expanded its range after the initial 1976 transplant from Missouri. After producing 52,880 kills in 2008, the flock quickly faded, with hunters shooting 40,133 turkeys in spring 2011. That’s a drop of 12,448 (24%) from 52,581 in 2009.

The spring harvests since 2011 have varied less dramatically, ranging from 37,266 (2021) to 45,501 (2016), with five of the past 12 harvests below 40,000.

Success rates have also declined, hitting a low of 16.9% in 2021 when the Department of Natural Resources sold a record 245,943 tags (authorizations). Success rates during spring ranged from 15.2% in 1983 to 29.5% in 1999, but since 2010 the statewide average is usually below 20%.

The DNR sold 245,700 tags this spring, which produced a 17.7% success rate. Another 25,660 bonus tags went unsold, mostly for zones 1 and 3 during periods “E” and “F.”

Even though our new era of turkey hunting has been stable and consistent since 2010, some hunters suggest selling fewer bonus tags or setting an annual bag limit of two or three turkeys.

Nationwide, the most popular bag limit is two turkeys (17 states), while 13 states allow only one. Four other states allow one or two birds, depending on the location. Seven states, including Illinois, allow three birds. Michigan and Minnesota allow one.

Capping the spring bag at two or three male turkeys, however, probably won’t boost the flock noticeably. Harvest data since 2012 show that 87.5% of successful hunters shot only one bird. Meanwhile, 9.3% of successful hunters shot two birds, and only 2.1% shot three. In other words, hunters shooting one, two or three birds accounted for over 98.9% of the kill.

In 2022, 86.8% of successful hunters shot one bird, which was 28,351 turkeys. Another 3,140 hunters (9.6%) shot two birds (6,280 turkeys), 764 (2.3%) shot three (2,292 birds), and 249 (0.8%) shot four (996 birds). Another 173 hunters shot five or more turkeys for a combined 877 birds, including one hunter who shot 11 and another 12.

Granted, 11 or 12 turkeys seems excessive for one hunter, but those are exceptions, with local – not statewide – implications.

At the moment, it’s impossible to show we’d gain anything with a three-bird limit. But that doesn’t mean folks won’t try, even if it means reducing hunting opportunities for no biological benefit. After all, the Natural Resources Board in 2018 eliminated grouse hunting in January without scientific justification, much as it reduces antlerless-deer quotas and sets wolf quotas by pulling numbers from a hat, Ouija Board or Greg Kazmierski’s snuff can.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the DNR will gather an advisory staff this month to discuss how best to assess Wisconsin’s turkey population. Taylor Finger, the DNR’s game-bird ecologist, said the agency will likely repeat some research from 20 years ago to see how turkeys today compare to flocks from the boom years.

Maybe they’ll find our flock is still declining, much like those in states across the South. But they might just confirm Wisconsin’s flock has stabilized at a new normal, and we can expect to keep shooting 37,000 to 43,000 jakes and gobblers each spring.

If hunters and the agency agree to reduce hunting pressure, what are the options? Mark Hatfield is a wildlife biologist and national director of conservation services for the National Wild Turkey Federation in South Carolina. He said states typically consider reducing bag limits, shortening the spring hunt, moving the hunt later into spring, or curtailing or eliminating fall hunts.

In June, for example, Tennessee reduced its spring bag limit from three turkeys to two, of which only one can be a jake (1-year-old male). The state also will open its season two weeks later to ensure more hens are already bred and nesting.

Wisconsin moved its season one week later in 2018, which allows hunting through Memorial Day weekend.

Hatfield said reducing the jake kill has little impact on flocks, but puts more vocal toms on the landscape. “The intent is more 2-year-old gobblers the next year,” he said. “Everyone likes 2-year-olds because they’re the most vocal. They’re the college kids in the flock.”

Meanwhile, many states besides Wisconsin are trying to assess their turkey flocks and how hunting pressure affects them. “When turkeys were repopulating the range, we commonly saw three to four poults per hen recruited into the flock,” Hatfield said. “Now we’re often seeing only two poults being recruited.”

He also said biologists question if past methods remain relevant for estimating turkey numbers. “Some states figured if they killed 10,000 turkeys, they likely had about 100,000 in the population,” Hatfield said. “That might not be accurate anymore. We might be harvesting higher levels of the population than before.”

Mike Chamberlain, a wildlife professor at the University of Georgia, raises similar concerns. During the 1990s, turkey flocks maintained their numbers as long as the spring gobbler kill didn’t exceed 30%. Chamberlain said harvest rates held constant at about 15%, but recent research found harvest rates might exceed 40% in some Southern study areas.

No one knows the harvest rates with certainty across Wisconsin’s varied habitats, but we’ll learn more as the DNR studies turkey populations.

Until then, let’s be patient and deliberate. We’ll gain nothing through random change.

The Wisconsin DNR will discuss this month how best to study the state of the state’s turkey population. — Patrick Durkin photo

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