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Wild turkeys were once near extinction

(Michigan Department of Natural Resources photos) Male turkeys have spurs on their legs, which get longer as they age and are used to grapple with other turkeys over breeding rights, and a “beard,” which looks like a miniature horse’s tail, on their chest.

Hearing wild turkeys gobbling and clucking as you step out into the backyard early in the morning is common for many Michiganders now, but it wasn’t always so.

The remarkable return of these birds from near extinction is often called one of the country’s greatest wildlife conservation success stories. There are more than 6 million wild turkeys in the United States today, but seeing – or hearing – one was rare as recently as 50 years ago.

In Michigan, wild turkeys had been plentiful prior to the arrival of settlers, with an estimated 94,000 in the state at that time. By the 1950s, Michigan’s wild turkey population had disappeared due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

Thanks to the efforts of a committed cadre of conservationists over the last 70 years, 200,000 wild turkeys now call Michigan home.

By 1965, the turkey population had rebounded enough that hunting was allowed. Today Michigan ranks sixth in the nation for number of turkey hunters, with consistently high hunter success and satisfaction rates.

Dozens of wild turkeys gather in a driveway in Dickinson County on a cold winter morning. The family living here was feeding the birds. The feeding of turkeys has helped widen their geographic distribution.

Michigan’s spring turkey season is open in every county, and fall hunting is open in many areas of the state, including the Upper Peninsula.

“We’ve gone from extirpation of all wild turkeys in Michigan to today we have over 200,000 birds and you can hunt turkeys in every county in the state,” said Al Stewart, who retired last year after a 50-year career working in wildlife management for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 20 of those years as the DNR’s upland game bird specialist.

“It has brought so much pleasure and enjoyment to people either in viewing wild turkeys and knowing they were there or the ability to hunt in both the spring and fall.”

Early wild turkey restoration attempts in Michigan using hatchery programs failed because the turkeys raised still behaved like domesticated birds, weren’t equipped to live in the wild and succumbed to disease, predators and weather. 

In the 1950s, the Michigan Department of Conservation (now the DNR) purchased 50 wild turkeys from Pennsylvania and released them in West Michigan.

Stewart was part of a later effort to reintroduce the birds. In 1983 he, along with many others, brought wild turkeys to Michigan from Iowa and Missouri and established some flocks in the southern part of the state. He was in charge of teaching DNR staff how to

trap offspring of those birds to then move them to other locations in the state to help expand this restoration activity.

Since the 1980s, the DNR has worked with many partners to complete numerous releases of trapped wild birds and improve wild turkey habitat.

“We created some of the highest-quality sustainable turkey hunting in the nation,” Stewart said. “That says a lot when your competitors for that are places like Missouri, that is the best wild turkey habitat in the world and the highest population. They don’t have deep snow.”

The National Wild Turkey Federation, at its annual Convention and Sport Show in Nashville earlier this year, presented the Michigan DNR with its Land Stewardship Award, which honors companies and/or government agencies that promote wildlife habitat management.

The DNR and partners like the NWTF put in the work behind the wild turkey’s comeback, but it would not have been possible without hunters.

Revenue to fund wild turkey management efforts — for the past several decades, now and into the future — comes directly from the sale of hunting licenses and equipment.

The Michigan Game and Fish Protection Fund, funded primarily through hunting and fishing license fees, is the DNR’s largest revenue source and is critical to its conservation work.

And since 1937, when Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act), states have received funds from manufacturer taxes on ammunition, firearms and archery equipment for wildlife restoration. These funds are distributed to the states based in part on the number of hunting licenses each state sells.

After passage of this groundbreaking legislation, conserving wild turkeys and other wildlife gained nationwide support and habitat management began.

“Sportsmen and women play an essential role in conservation efforts throughout the country,” said Rebecca Humphries, co-CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Many people don’t realize, including some hunters and anglers, that the sale of licenses and equipment — not state tax dollars — are the primary source of conservation funding for Michigan and other states.”

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