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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Spring 2021 Turkey Kill Takes Expected Dip

Wisconsin hunters registered 37,179 turkeys during the six-week season ending June 1, a 17.3% decline from Spring 2020, according to preliminary totals posted June 9 by the Department of Natural Resources.

Alaina Gerrits, the DNR’s assistant upland wildlife ecologist, attributes the decline partly to lower participation from a year ago when hunters bought 212,781 turkey tags, including 74,237 bonus tags sold over-the-counter. Gerrits said bonus-tag sales dropped by about 16,000 this year, roughly a 22% decline.

The DNR sold significantly more hunting and fishing licenses in 2020 as more people got outdoors because of layoffs and workplace closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Harvest numbers and license sales basically returned to normal this spring,” Gerrits said. “We attributed last year’s increases in harvest and license sales to ‘stay at home orders,’ which were in place throughout the spring hunt. We also saw more people not buying their turkey authorizations this spring, even though they were chosen in the preseason drawing.”

Gerrits also noted that this spring’s six-period turkey season started April 21 and ended June 1, the latest days possible for the annual hunt. From its first modern-era turkey season in 1983 through 2016, the spring season opened on the second Wednesday of April. Turkey season has opened on the third Wednesday of April since 2017, causing its start to vary from April 15 to 21, rather than April 8 to 14.

The 2017 change came with ample notice and support. Hunters participating in the annual DNR/Wisconsin Conservation Congress hearings approved the third-Wednesday opener by popular vote. DNR biologists recommended the later start to better ensure turkey-breeding success each spring. Gerrits said researchers have documented declines in turkey flocks when mature gobblers get killed before the breeding season peaks.

“A lot of people really liked those earlier openers, but removing birds from the flock before they breed disrupts reproduction and reduces long-term numbers,” Gerrits said. “As more people understand the reasons behind the later openers, and why hunters at the spring hearings supported the move, the more they accept it.”

Even so, Gerrits said far fewer hunters participated in the later turkey hunting periods this year than a year ago. The DNR reported a statewide kill of 2,332 turkeys during the final period, 31% below the 3,401 turkeys registered during that period in 2020; and a kill of 4,120 turkeys during the fifth period, 18% down from 5,035 a year ago.

Success rates are always highest early in the season and decline steadily as spring temperatures rise, and the woods grow green and buggy. That was the case again this spring, as hunters during the first period (April 21-27) registered 9,188 gobblers and jakes, nearly four times more birds than the 2,322 registered during the sixth and final period (May 26 to June 1).

That difference was especially big in southwestern Wisconsin’s Zone 1, where hunters registered 2,351 turkeys during the first period, 9.3 times more than they registered during the sixth period, 251. That difference was also big in central Wisconsin’s Zone 3, where hunters registered 2,666 turkeys during the first period, 7.9 times more than 334 in the sixth period.

In contrast, hunters in southeastern Wisconsin’s Zone 2 proved far more successful in the late season than hunters elsewhere. The first-to-last period difference in Zone 2 was only 2.1, as hunters registered 2,057 turkeys April 21-27, and 971 turkeys May 26 to June 1. The difference between the first and sixth periods in the state’s other four turkey zones varied little, ranging from 2.7 to 2.9.

Zone 2 hunters also led the state during the fifth and sixth periods by registering 1,364 and 971 turkeys, respectively. In fact, Zone 2’s hunters accounted for 33% of the fifth period’s statewide kill (1,364 of 4,120) and 42% of the sixth period’s statewide kill (971 of 2,332).

Gerrits said those totals reinforce reports she heard from hunters during May.

“Hunters in our northern zones’ late seasons generally reported seeing more turkeys and hearing more gobbling than hunters in our southern zones, particularly those in southwestern Wisconsin,” Gerrits said. “Hunters down there reported seeing fewer birds, smaller groups and less gobbling.”

Meanwhile, the timing and weather conditions for Wisconsin’s two-day youth turkey hunt were ideal this spring, Gerrits said. That April 17-18 hunt delivered a record 3,308-bird kill, up 15% from 2,881 in 2020 and 69% from 1,953 in 2019. The youth hunt this spring accounted for 8% of the total kill (40,487) this year, up from 6% of the total kill in 2020 (47,863).

For all those reasons, Gerrits believes Wisconsin’s turkey population remains strong, and she’s confident the spring season’s structure will keep it that way.

“I realize some people will see this year’s harvest and sensationalize its decline,” she said. “But many of my colleagues in Southern states think Wisconsin has the gold standard when it comes to turkey hunting and turkey management. We have a strong, stable turkey population and safe, high-quality hunting conditions. Tons of people wish we held a month-long season, and let people hunt anytime and anywhere, but that would create safety issues and more conflicts.”

Gerrits thinks it’s no coincidence many of the nation’s traditional turkey states are still reporting steady declines in turkey numbers. She said biologists in many Southern states link those declines to early hunting seasons and unregulated hunting pressure. By restricting hunters to specific zones and time periods, and routinely surveying hunters to monitor hunting pressure, Wisconsin controls those factors.

Gerrits also thinks Wisconsin’s turkey harvests will remain closer to 40,000 each spring than the record 50,000-plus seasons hunters enjoyed from 2007 to 2009.

“Wisconsin likely hit its turkey population’s capacity over a decade ago,” Gerrits said. “My theory is that turkeys reached their statewide capacity back then, and we were oversaturated. They’re still increasing a bit in some northern areas, but they’ve plateaued, declined and balanced out across most of their range here. What Wisconsin has now is probably what we’ll continue having for the foreseeable future.”

Wisconsin reported a 17% decline in turkeys killed during its spring season, but the DNR attributes much of the decline to reduced hunting pressure and the latest start possible for the season opener. — Patrick Durkin photo

Wisconsin Spring Turkey Hunts

Year Harvest Success Rate

1983 182 15.2%

1984 303 15.5%

1985 496 24.5%

1986 793 21.6%

1987 1,478 24.5%

1988 2,486 22.5%

1989 4,400 20.7%

1990 6,465 21.6%

1991 6,846 18.3%

1992 8,798 20%

1993 12,316 19.9%

1994 12,637 17.7%

1995 15,323 22.3%

1996 18,000 23.7%

1997 20,992 22.6%

1998 28,338 28.0%

1999 33,168 29.5%

2000 38,686 29.2%

2001 39,211 25.9%

2002 39,336 24.6%

2003 42,970 25.4%

2004 47,477 25.4%

2005 46,183 23.8%

2006 46,662 23.2%

2007 52,428 25.5%

2008 52,880 25.3%

2009 52,581 24.1%

2010 47,722 22.3%

2011 40,133 19.1%

2012 42,612 21.1%

2013 37,804 17.4%

2014 41,815 19.9%

2015 40,975 19.7%

2016 45,501 21.4%

2017 43,305 20.4%

2018 38,886 18.3%

2019 38,576 18.1%

2020 44,982 20%

2021 37,179 Preliminary

Wisconsin 2020, 2021 Spring Turkey Hunts

Zone 2020 2021 Harvest

1 11,691 8,964

2 10,943 9,302

3 11,270 9,847

4 6,986 5,792

5 2,183 1,854

6 1,132 909

7 633 511

Ft.McCoy 144 Not Avail.

Total 44,982 37,179 (Preliminary)

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