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Wisconsin turkey numbers in good shape despite down year

April 05, 2012 at 02:33 PM

The Associated Press

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — For the fourth consecutive year, Wisconsin turkey hunters can expect to see fewer gobblers as a series of harsh winters and poor hatches have taken a toll.

But there’s not exactly a shortage of the birds. Just a generation after the wild turkey was reintroduced to the state, Wisconsin’s population has grown to perhaps 1 million birds -— so many that it can bounce back from a few years of severe winter weather, said Rick Horton, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“By next year, we’ll be up to our eyeballs in turkeys again,” Horton said.

That degree of confidence almost was unimaginable 30 years ago as wildlife officials coaxed a flock of turkeys imported from Missouri to restore the population in Wisconsin. Turkeys were hunted to extinction in Wisconsin in the 1880s, but the efforts of wildlife technicians, hunters and landowners have made them now a common site in all parts of the state — even in some Wausau-area neighborhoods.

The birds are so plentiful now that thousands of hunters will head to farm fields and wooded areas this weekend as the state’s annual hunt kicks off.

Wisconsin once was flush with turkeys, but early settlers quickly overhunted the birds and eradicated their habitat with extensive logging. By the early 1880s, the state was bereft of the birds, and wildlife officials spent the next 90 years trying to re-establish a flock. Attempts failed for decades as birds released in the wild would survive for only a few years.

In 1976, though, Wisconsin officials arranged a swap with peers in Missouri: 134 of our ruffed grouse for 334 of their finest Ozark turkeys.

Wisconsin got the best of that deal. The DNR no longer counts the number of turkeys in the state but estimates there are more than 1 million. Missouri, on the other hand, was forced to close its grouse-hunting season last fall because of declining populations.

“This is the kind of stuff you dream of doing when you’re working or going to school,” said DNR wildlife technician John Nelson, who was part of the team that brought turkeys back to Wisconsin in the 1970s.

The Missouri wild-trapped, free ranging-turkeys were genetically superior to the birds that had been released in previous restocking efforts, Nelson said. They better withstood the rigors of winter, resisted disease and bred well. Within three years, turkeys from southwestern Wisconsin were trapped and transplanted to other parts of the state, including Marathon County.

Turkeys now thrive in the mix of hardwood forests and agricultural land throughout the state that provides ample acorns, corn, clover and insects they feed upon.

Jason Schulta of the town of Texas has witnessed the turkey explosion firsthand in central Wisconsin. His father was a founding member of North Central Turkeys for Tomorrow, a group of people interested in hunting and turkey habitat rehabilitation. The younger Schulta, a funeral home director, now heads the group.

In March 1991, 48 turkeys from southern Wisconsin were transplanted to a property in the town of Ringle — the first stocked in Marathon County. They immediately gained a foothold and began spreading. Schulta, 34, said he saw turkeys three years later just east of Wausau.

“I didn’t know if it was a big crow or what at first,” he said.

Turkeys were released in Marathon County a total of four times between 1976 and 2004, according to the DNR. The local turkey club was instrumental in helping the released turkeys survive by working with landowners to improve habitat and provide food sources, Schulta said. The Turkey Federation provided money to buy trees and shrubs for landowners to plant, giving turkeys shelter and a place to roost at night. Farmers were given seed and encouraged to plant corn and leave it standing in fields after other corn was harvested, for the turkeys to eat.

The abundance of turkeys does have a downside, particularly for farmers. Turkeys can mow down vegetable gardens, damage crops and fragile ginseng plants as they forage for seeds and insects.

The DNR issues permits annually to allow farmers to hunt troublesome turkeys that damage their crops. As of March 28, 20 Marathon County landowners had been issued permits to hunt turkeys on their property this season.

Charlie Lang, 52, has six permits to help protect the ginseng plants on his town of Cassel farm. He said a neighbor had roughly 60 turkeys in a field last week and it is a matter of time before they visit his field.

The turkeys scratch away the straw laid on the ground to protect the ginseng seeds in the soil, Lang said. The exposed soil leaves the seeds susceptible to overheating or freezing.

“I’d take 50 deer over 50 turkeys any day,” Lang said. “The deer are graceful. The turkeys stomp on the ground and damage more plants than they eat.”

With the start of the spring hunt just days away, the hunting forecast isn’t great. Many hens were starving with the abundant snow in the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 and laid fewer eggs than normal, said Horton, the Turkey Federation biologist. The shortage of eggs and an early spring this year could mean hunters will harvest fewer turkeys.

Even if the hunt is poor, as many as 40,000 turkeys could be shot this spring — a number Nelson of the DNR never could have imagined in the 1970s.

Nelson’s days working with turkeys ended years ago and he now works with waterfowl along the Mississippi River. He is proud of his work and what the state accomplished to not only restore the turkey population, but to make Wisconsin one of the top states for turkey hunting.

“When something goes well that fast with your efforts, it’s real satisfying,” Nelson said.


Information from: Wausau Daily Herald,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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