Larry Lyons: The bumpy road to recovery for Michigan’s turkeysPublished 10:01am Wednesday, November 4, 2009
More often than not there’s a band of them on insect patrol in the soybean field next to the house. We’ve had as many as seventeen at once gleefully strolling around in our front yard plucking grasshoppers. They’re continually prowling up and down the creek banks and I’ve even seen them wading in the creek. Not that long ago if you saw a wild turkey you’d talk about it for weeks. Now they’re so common most folks barely take notice.
The comeback of wild turkeys here in Michigan, and throughout the entire country for that matter, is one of wildlife management’s greatest successes. It’s estimated that in pre-settlement days Michigan’s turkey population was about 100,000 (how do they know that when no one was here to count them). All were in southern Michigan as the cold winters and deep snows farther north were more than they could handle. However, when people began moving in during the 1800s they destroyed the turkey’s habitat and hunted them relentlessly. Michigan’s last documented report of a wild turkey came from Van Buren County in 1897. Pretty much the same thing happened in all the eastern states.
Michigan remained turkeyless for a half century. In 1937 hunters insisted the government tax guns and ammunition and distribute the proceeds to the states specifically for wildlife restoration. This was the Pittman-Robertson Act which remains instrumental in wildlife management today. In 1954 Michigan decided to use a bit of this money to buy a few turkeys from Pennsylvania and plant them on the Allegan State Game Area. It wasn’t viewed as an attempt to reestablish turkeys.
It was one of those “just-for-grins” things. Much to everyone’s surprise the Allegan birds held their own and over the next decade more were planted in northern Michigan. Why they chose the northern part of the state where turkeys had never been able to exist is anyone’s guess. By 1964 it was estimated there were 2,000 turkeys in isolated pockets around the state. Despite hunting seasons being opened and meager management efforts, by 1983 the statewide population had grown to 15,000, hardly robust but a start.
But the turkeys were facing a crisis. During the 1980′s many considered the DNR’s management efforts to be lackadaisical at best. As always, money was tight and the DNR was focusing on deer management issues, which was far more lucrative for the state. Deer certainly had priority over turkeys. They cut back on record keeping and stopped transplanting birds to new areas. Poaching was running rampant. Some concerned turkey enthusiasts formed the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunter’s Association to champion for better management. They also encouraged citizens in northern Michigan to feed turkeys during the winter.
By 1990 pressure from the MWTHA and private citizens convinced the Powers That Be to direct more attention to turkeys. Both the State and Feds initiated turkey habitat management programs on State and Federal lands and they again began moving turkeys from well established populations to new areas. Apparently the turkeys were primed and ready for this helping hand. Their numbers literally exploded. By the year 2000, in just 10 years, they were declared fully recovered.
Today Michigan’s wild turkey population exceeds 200,000, over twice what it was before man showed up and wiped them out. Assuming our turkeys will do as they’ve done in other states preceding us in turkey recovery, the still expanding population will soon level off then drop back to some lesser number and long term stabilize at that level. Now a test. You’ve heard of a gaggle of geese and a rook of crows so what’s a flock of turkeys? A rafter, of course.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org