By Dr. Russ Mason

This article appeared in the Winter 2022/23 Edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors. 

Editor’s Note: Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the publisher of MOOD, passed a policy resolution in 2021 asking that hunters be allowed to harvest two spring turkeys if the best available science shows it is sustainable. This resolution has led to conversations regarding more turkey research and a collaborative approach to policy recommendations.

Michigan’s turkey population, once estimated at almost 100,000 birds, was extirpated at the beginning of the 20th century. The causes were unregulated over-harvest and habitat loss. In the 1950s, the Department of Conservation, now the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), began restoration. Fifty birds were obtained from Pennsylvania and released in Allegan County, followed by the first modern hunt in 1965. Throughout the 1980s, wild birds from Iowa and Missouri were released in other parts of the state. Today, Michigan ranks seventh in the nation for turkey hunting harvest and features exceptional hunting opportunities. Spring turkey season is open in every county, and fall hunts are available in places where the population is thought to be robust.

Reflecting the initial success of turkey restoration efforts, it’s theoretically possible to legally harvest 62 birds in a calendar year (one gobbler in the spring, 61 of either sex in the fall). If hunter participation surveys are correct, then turkeys are more popular than small game but less popular than deer (the flagship species of Michigan’s still-strong hunting culture).

In the spring, the DNR sells about 100,000 licenses to hunters who report a slightly better than 40% success. In the fall, the DNR sells roughly 26,000 licenses to 25,000 people reporting less than 40% success. Only about 6% of fall turkey hunters purchase more than one license. Given the initial success of turkey restoration efforts and the rapidly expanded populations that followed, the popularity of turkey hunting among hunters, and the value of mentored and youth turkey hunting for R3 activities, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Michigan turkey management plan is largely built around three social goals.

This graph shows the number of hunting licenses available and how many were purchased for the 2020 spring turkey season. Courtesy of the Michigan DNR.

The first is to hold hunter satisfaction at or above 60%. The second is to keep hunter interference at or below 30%. The third is to maintain harvest success at or above 25%.

In 2020, spring turkey hunter satisfaction was almost 78% (incidentally, 25% higher than deer hunter expressed satisfaction), reported hunter interference was negligible, and harvest success was 48%.

From the perspective of recreational opportunity, the Michigan turkey management plan and derivative regulations packages have been very successful and popular. Still, both are premised on the mostly unverified assumption that turkey populations are stable. Unfortunately, these biological parameters haven’t been evaluated in recent years. Instead, abundance has been inferred from the numbers of hunters, harvest and (to a lesser extent) agricultural damage and nuisance complaints.

The abridged version of the turkey license quota-setting story in Michigan is that the department uses license sales to gauge how many turkey hunters to expect in any particular year. It then adds additional licenses to that expectation to assure that every year, any hunter can buy a permit to hunt Michigan birds somewhere in the state.

This means that license quotas are primarily a function of hunter demand, potentially decoupled from the actual biological abundance of turkeys.

In recent years, we’ve assumed that turkey populations throughout much of the Lower Peninsula are large and stable. From this, we’ve inferred that the removal of birds by hunters has had no population impact (i.e., that hunter harvest was compensatory rather than additive). Yet, no current biological information is available to determine whether the assumption and inference are right or wrong. This lack has become increasingly important because current data indicate that all subspecies of turkeys are declining.

Nationally, there has been an estimated 16% drop in abundance between 2004–2019 and a corresponding 19% reduction in harvest. Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi have all reduced bag limits, delayed season openers or reduced season lengths. Closer to home, Ohio reduced its spring bag limit from two birds to one in 2021 and shortened the fall season from seven weeks to four in 2022. Like Ohio, Indiana has detected overall declines in productivity but has no immediate plan to revise turkey regulations because of their already conservative 19-day spring season and one-bird bag.

“Turkey Management 101” assumes that a gobbler harvest rate (i.e., the proportion of gobblers harvested relative to the total abundance of gobblers) is sustainable when the success rate is at or below 30%, provided that most hens have been bred before the gobbler harvest occurs.

Research shows that the onset of the breeding season is a function of photocopiers, weather and elevation. Besides no firm data on population size or fledging success, Michigan lacks recent data regarding the onset of nesting or incubation or whether peak dates might shift earlier or later as a function of climate change. Other states of similar latitudes report that the median nest incubation initiation date occurs during the first week of May, and a modeling study estimated that southern Michigan likely falls within this range (the Northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas probably fall a week later).

There is no way to know whether the recent liberalization of Michigan’s spring season (ZZ tags good for the duration of the season beginning in mid-April and ending on June 8th) might have unexpected negative impacts by shifting harvest earlier than peak nesting. In this regard, it’s worth reiterating that Michigan’s spring and fall harvest successes are already substantially above 30%.

It might be wise to cautiously slow-walk proposals for regulation changes while the biological sideboards are evaluated for the first time in a long time. As frustrating as it might be to some, it seems prudent to collect data on population size, fledging success and peak incubation dates to ensure that liberalized bag limits or other changes don’t negatively impact one of the great Michigan conservation success stories of the 20th century.

Check out more turkey-hunting articles here.

Russ Mason is the Michigan DNR Executive in Residence at Michigan State University and an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.