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Michigan skeptical about hunters’ bid to expand turkey hunting season

turkey
Turkey populations are declining nationwide, and some biologists believe it has to do with over-hunting in the spring. (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan turkey populations stable but declining in most states 
  • Some hunters want to increase Michigan’s bag limit
  • State and turkey biologists think liberalizing the spring hunt could hurt populations

While most states are tightening turkey hunting regulations, some Michigan hunters are pushing the state to loosen them. 

The issue came up Thursday at a meeting of the state’s Natural Resources Commission, which passes hunting and fishing regulators.

Turkeys are plentiful in Michigan, so the Michigan United Conservation Club  — which represents thousands of hunters and anglers — wants to give hunters an opportunity to kill two turkeys per year rather than one.

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But the state Department of Natural Resources and National Wild Turkey Federation say emerging research suggests that killing male turkeys in the spring hurts breeding — in part because hunters are killing the toms most attractive to hens.

Turkeys more prone to gobble, waltz and flag wings aggressively to attract mates are also more likely to be shot. That leaves hens to mate with quieter toms — and their offspring are less likely to survive to adulthood, said Adam Bump, a specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“That’s different from our traditional understanding of turkey biology and management,” said Bump.

The resources commission wants state regulators to research proposals to increase limits, but Bump said he’s skeptical. While Michigan’s population is stable — with some estimates of about 200,000 — populations are declining elsewhere and a five-year study from Michigan State University suggests the number of male turkeys in the state may be decreasing.

“If you wanted to increase the limit, we might have to make other changes to regulations, like restructuring the season,” Bump said. “We don’t think it’s the time to move to a two-bird bag limit, but we do think it’s a good time to have these conversations with (hunters).”

Michigan ranks sixth nationwide among hunters for wild turkeys, which can weigh 5 to 25 pounds and fly short distances of up to 50 miles per hour. The bird is scattered across every state except Alaska. 

In Michigan, the turkey hunting seasons bring in about $126 million from purchases of licenses and equipment. 

Before Michigan was colonized, about 90,000 turkeys were in the state and they lived primarily south of Bay City and west to Muskegon. Over-hunting wiped out the bird in Michigan until state regulators successfully re-introduced them in the 1950s. 

There were similar successes nationwide and, by 2004, national populations climbed to 7 million — enough for many states to expand hunting seasons or kill limits.

The Michigan DNR allows for a fall turkey hunting season and another in the spring in the months of April and May, but hunters can only kill males because the season is close to mating season.

In 1969, Michigan had two areas open to hunting turkey in the spring with a 2 percent success rate among the 3,200 people who hunted them. After a slow and gradual expansion of turkey hunting regulations, hunter success rates started shooting up. 

By 2013, the DNR opened the entire state to hunting turkeys with spring season dates depending on where the hunt takes place. 

More recently, the state expanded turkey hunting opportunities by extending the season to six full weeks and allowing hunters to kill from an elevated platform.

The DNR’s most recent survey of turkey hunters in 2020 found that 105,650 people bought licenses, an increase of 27 percent from 2019. About 87,825 hunters killed about 41,722 turkeys, a 48 percent harvest rate.

“Turkey hunter satisfaction right now is very high,” Bump said, noting surveyed turkey hunters have reported high satisfaction rates 2017.

Bump said the high rates of hunter satisfaction is prompting talks of increasing the bag limit from one to two.

The conservation club proposal would allow leftover tags from the April turkey hunt to be sold to hunters in May or later in the year, regardless of whether they had killed a turkey that year.

“The thought behind it is to allow people to keep hunting and give more opportunity,” said Zach Snyder, who serves on the group’s conservation policy board. 

Justin Tomei, a policy assistant with the conservation clubs group, said the group doesn’t want to damage the population, and moving the season would mitigate the damage that they’re worried about on the population.” 

The proposal is “cause for great concern,” said Ryan Boyer, a district biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

Turkey populations declined some 16 percent nationwide between 2014 and 2019 when states expanded seasons or kill limits, Boyer said.

“We’ve seen turkey numbers come down from a peak for a lot of states,” Boyer said. “They stabilized for a while, but now we’re starting to see more significant declines.”

Boyer said he believes that taking out too many male birds, or “gobblers,” in the spring is impacting turkey survival rates. 

According to Boyer, adult male turkeys have a high survival rate, about 90 percent, outside of hunting, because they do not have many predators. The bird lives to 3 or 4 years old. 

The male birds are hunted in the spring during mating season when they are riled up and make “gobble” noises, which Boyer said is “one of the primary indicators of hunter satisfaction.”

“To my knowledge, Michigan right now is the only state across the country having a discussion, proposing to liberalize its limits,” Boyer said. “Every other state across the country right now is going the opposite direction.”

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