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Can Michigan's wild turkeys survive larger hunts?

A pugnacious flock of turkeys once ran wild in the central Michigan city of Midland.

They chased joggers and attacked elementary schoolers waiting for bus rides to school in the early 2000s, said Adam Bump, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland bird game specialist who was stationed nearby at the time.

Belligerent birds descended on cars in the drive-thru line at a local bank. They flocked on roofs, in parks, streets, backyards.

People who lived in Midland at the height of the turkey scourge were unwitting witnesses to a conservation miracle. A century before, wild turkeys had vanished from Michigan and much of their range, over-hunted and squeezed out by development and farming.

Thanks to a reintroduction effort in 1954, Michigan's wild turkey population is estimated to be twice what it was before European settlers sent the ecosystem into a tailspin. Michiganians can now encounter wild turkeys from Detroit to the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Despite their famed rebound, Michigan turkeys' future is uncertain.

Michigan conservation and hunting groups are weighing the possibility of expanding the state’s spring turkey hunt to allow hunters in some regions to take two birds instead of one. Outdoors groups are divided on whether Michigan turkeys could withstand the additional pressure.

That’s based on evidence from across the country, where wild turkey populations have been in decline since the early 2000s, prompting universities, state wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Federation to aggressively research the causes of their drop-offs in the Southeast, Midwest and Great Plains.

Michigan conservation officials don't have a clear understanding of what's happening to the state's wild turkeys, said Ryan Boyd, the National Wild Turkey Federation district biologist for Michigan and nearby states. Biologists lack data on their reproductive success or the number of turkeys that hatch or survive as poults, or baby birds, he said.

"It's a remarkable conservation success story," Boyd said. "But still we're learning that things are changing on the landscape. Things are changing for these birds."

Michigan turkeys vanished, returned

Wild turkeys were fairly common south of Saginaw County when settlers sprawled across Michigan. The population estimate for the time was 100,000, although Bump cautioned the number is a rough guess.

Settlement and the farming and development that followed likely led to the turkeys' decline, he said. Suitable habitat dwindled. Hunters believed they recklessly could take what they wanted and still expect the land to provide.

"Back in that time, there really was not a lot of conservation ethic," Bump said. "There was more 'go ahead and take what you want.' So there would have been market hunting, unregulated harvest of everything that was out there."

Wild turkeys vanished from Michigan at the turn of the 20th century. They were considered an “extirpated" species because they had disappeared from their Michigan range but were not extinct, although their numbers dwindled across North America.

Michigan turkey lovers launched attempts to reintroduce the birds to Michigan in the 1930s and 1940s, but their efforts didn't find traction until 1954.

Inspired by success in Pennsylvania, the Michigan DNR, then known as the Department of Conservation, released 50 wild turkeys into the Allegan Forest area of southwest Michigan and incubated 400 eggs at a state game farm in Mason that were later released.

The birds were purchased from the Allegheny Wild Turkey Farm of Julian, an unincorporated community in central Pennsylvania. They were spawned by "'three-fourths-wild' hens serviced by wild gobblers," Michigan Department of Conservation workers H. Lee Wilson and James Lewis wrote in an article for a 1959 issue of The Journal of Wildlife Management.

The wild turkeys wandered around in their new home before finding forests they favored, Wilson and Lewis wrote, although some spurned the forests and joined domestic poultry flocks.

Poaching was the reintroduction effort's greatest threat, the officers wrote, but it wasn't enough to stop the turkeys from retaking Michigan. The birds spread, expanding their range by approximately 16 square miles a year for the first five years. And conservation workers kept releasing more.

By 1957, 782 wild turkeys had been released in the southwest and central regions of the Lower Peninsula, Department of Conservation worker Victor S. Janson wrote in a 1960 Michigan Wild Turkey Progress Report. By 1959, the state's best population estimate was roughly 1,300 birds.

The state's goal was to beef up the wild turkey population until it was large enough to support a hunt. It met that goal in 1965, when the Michigan Legislature authorized the state's first hunt since 1897. The hunt happened that fall in Allegan County, where 400 people were permitted to hunt from Nov. 6-14.

It was "a definite success," Janson wrote 62 years ago.

Eighty-two turkeys were bagged. Hunters were "highly pleased with the hunt and with their prize," Janson wrote.

Michigan wild turkey populations continued to rise as the state released more birds. State wildlife biologists at first planned to return turkeys to their original range in the southern Lower Peninsula but set their sights north when they realized turkeys could make it in colder climes.

Turkeys even became nuisances in some urban and suburban communities, such as Midland, where Bump spent a portion of his career.

Bump recalled a trip he and a fellow conservation officer took to a high-end party store where the birds had become a particular nuisance. A trio of jakes, or young male turkeys, squared up and started attacking the DNR truck the officers drove.

The incessant pecking forced Bump and the other officer to retreat to another side of the building until a local animal control officer arrived and provided reinforcement. Together, they chased the turkeys. The birds scattered but escaped.

"In many urban wildlife situations, the animals have become accustomed to people and have lost their fear," Bump said about the incident. "Sometimes just reestablishing some apprehension from the turkeys can reduce nuisance issues. ... Gradually, after that, the issues subsided. I suspect several turkeys were road-killed and others may have dispersed.”

Turkeys dwindle in other states

As they were after the state’s first hunt after reintroduction, Michigan turkey hunters remain highly pleased. More than 70% have reported being satisfied with their hunting experience since 2017, according to a presentation Bump gave to the state Natural Resources Commission in August.

But the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a hunting, fishing and conservation group that represents more than 40,000 members, contended the state might be able to do more.

The group asked the NRC, which regulates hunting and fishing, to consider allowing hunters to harvest a second turkey by purchasing a second turkey tag during the spring hunting season in areas that haven’t sold out of their initial quota.

The National Wild Turkey Federation does not support the proposal, arguing Michigan doesn't have the data to support changing hunting protocols. The DNR also says the proposal needs more study. MUCC leaders only want to pursue an expanded spring hunt if the science shows Michigan's turkey herd can support it. But all the parties agreed to research and discuss the idea.

Through deliberating the proposal, it became clear the state doesn't have a robust understanding of the state's wild turkey population, their breeding success or the impact hunting has on their numbers, MUCC spokesman Nick Green said.

"They were really just using previous license sales, previous harvest data as kind of that gauge (for turkey population), but we didn't know what was on the ground," Green said. "We're hopeful that this conversation has started some of the research and getting folks thinking about what we need to be looking at in terms of turkey management."

The birds' skyrocketing numbers and Michigan's conservative limits on turkey hunting likely meant conservation workers have spent their effort tracking other species with more finicky populations, Green argued, since there wasn't much worry that turkey populations would dip.

But Green said it's essential to understand Michigan's wild turkeys in order to figure out how to manage and hunt them.

"At the end of the day, you know, we have a pretty cool success story with turkey," Green said. "I think we owe it to them, to ourselves and to conservationists to know what we're dealing with."

Michigan appears to be an outlier among other states about the wild turkey population trajectory, said the National Wild Turkey Federation's Boyd.

Michigan's turkey population appears stable. It is no longer booming like it did during the 1980s and early 1990s, Boyd said, but instead has plateaued.

Michigan wildlife officials told researchers studying American wild turkeys there had been no change in the state’s population between 2014 and 2019, estimating 200,000 turkeys lived in the state each year, according to a study published this month in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

It was a different story across the country, the scientists found.

Wildlife officials in other states reported turkey abundance declined by an average of 18%-20% in those years. The hardest hit states included Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Georgia.

"Even as close as Ohio and Indiana and my other states, for instance, I've seen pretty significant declines in estimates of abundance and harvest," Boyd said.

It's unclear what is driving turkey declines in those states. The birds might be losing their habitat as regions develop. Thanks to technology upgrades, farmers may be leaving fewer leftover crops in their fields, meaning turkeys don’t have as much to scavenge. There may be more predators. Hunting season dates and limits might be affecting their populations, too, Boyd said.

Or it could simply be once-booming population growth leveling off into more stable numbers, Bump said. If that is the case, Michigan may experience the same decline seen in other states.

“You can see this trend tend to repeat itself with reestablished populations,” he said. “Post restoration, you get a stabilization and then the populations bounce around a little bit before they get to a normal.”

Still, states are reconsidering whether the turkey hunting rules they set during the population boom of the 1980s and 1990s should still apply.

Ohio reduced the number of turkeys that hunters could harvest from two to one this spring, citing population declines. South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi also have recently reduced their bag limits or cut or delayed turkey hunting seasons, Boyd said.

"Perhaps a lot of state agencies are taking a hard look at moving forward and the management of wild turkeys from a hunting perspective may look different in the future," Boyd said. "There's a lot of states even making a hard consideration whether or not to continue with the fall season."