Minnesota turkey hunters will see big changes this year after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources eliminated the lottery for most spring turkey permits and eliminated zones, allowing hunters to go afield anywhere in the state for the first time.

They are the biggest changes in the turkey season format, when and where turkey hunters can pursue the birds, since the state started a season in 1978.

The DNR announced the changes last week, saying the agency was trying to “simplify’’ the turkey season system to make it easier for new hunters and keep existing hunters interested. Under the new rules, hunters can buy a license over the counter with no lottery even for the first two seasons, as had been the case in the past.

There will be no limit on how many licenses are available for any of the seasons. There also are no zones to choose from — hunters can pick one of six seasons and then hunt anywhere in the state. Licenses will go on sale March 1. Hunt A is April 15-21; Hunt B is April 22-28; Hunt C is April 29-May 5; Hunt D is May 6-12; Hunt E is May 13-19; Hunt F is May 20-31.

As in the recent past, any hunter who doesn’t tag a turkey during their chosen season can hunt again in Hunt F while archery and youth hunters can hunt during any season.

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Leslie McInenly, wildlife populations program manager with the DNR, said there has been no formal population study to determine turkey trends in Minnesota. But she said the population appears to be holding its own numbers-wise and is still expanding into new areas geographically.

The past system restricted how many hunters were afield in each zone and each time period. With those restrictions lifted, McInenly said there may be some concern that hunters will jam the first few seasons, which usually have the highest success rates, and thus cause conflicts between hunters. But she said she’s not expecting big problems.

“This not only simplifies the system, but it gives people more flexibility on when and where they can go’’ hunting, McInenly told Forum News Service. She said the agency will monitor how the first unrestricted season goes this spring and adjust accordingly for future years.

McInenly said the DNR sees a mostly stable situation for turkey hunting even though long-term trends have been down. In 2019 only 46,424 turkey permits were issued, down 13% from the 10-year average. That appears to show some declining interest among hunters, a trend that is haunting virtually all types of hunting, from waterfowl, pheasants and small game to deer hunting.

Meanwhile, the 2019 spring turkey harvest was only 10,694, down 21% from a decade ago.

The only exception to the new system is hunters wishing to apply to three state wildlife management areas in central and southern counties — Mille Lacs, Whitewater and Carlos Avery — where permits will still be limited by season and a lottery will still be held for Hunts A, B and C. The deadline to apply for those is Jan. 24. Successful applicants may hunt statewide in addition to their selected wildlife management area.

Wild turkeys were occasionally reported by early pioneers arriving in what is now Minnesota, but the bird had disappeared from the state by 1900. Settlers realized turkeys were easy targets each night when the birds roosted in trees. Several efforts were tried to restock turkeys in southern Minnesota over the years but the first successful transplant happened in 1973. The state traded 85 ruffed grouse to Missouri for 29 wild turkeys released in Houston County in extreme southeastern Minnesota near the Iowa border.

The turkeys did well in the bluff country of mixed hardwood forests and dairy farms and the DNR held the first turkey hunting season in 1978, strictly limited to a few hunters a few weeks each spring shooting only toms with hens protected. Since then it's been a wild success story. Thanks to the National Wild Turkey Federation and the DNR, turkeys were trapped in Houston County each winter and released across the southern and central regions of the state, as far north as Carlton County, Bagley and Thief River Falls. Trap-and-transplant worked so well that the effort was halted a decade ago — mission accomplished. The birds have continued moving farther north on their own, and are now common in St. Louis and Itasca counties as well.

Because there is no lottery for spring wild turkey licenses, the landowner and tenant drawing, which set aside a percentage of lottery licenses for landowners with qualifying land, has been discontinued, and landowners and tenants can purchase licenses like other turkey hunters.

For more information go to dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/turkey.