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Wild turkeys doing well in northwest Minnesota

An experiment to see if wild turkeys could survive in northwest Minnesota has worked, and the birds now are providing hunting opportunities that didn't exist just a few years ago.

Wild turkey takes flight
A wild turkey takes flight after being released in northwest Minnesota in this undated photo. Wild turkeys have adapted well to northwest Minnesota, and the Department of Natural Resources no longer releases birds to supplement the population. The birds also have provided a new hunting territory in the northwest part of the state. (Submitted file photo)

An experiment to see if wild turkeys could survive in northwest Minnesota has worked, and the birds now are providing hunting opportunities that didn't exist just a few years ago.

According to Doug Franke, area wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Thief River Falls, wild turkeys now are doing well from Park Rapids northwest to Red Lake Falls and Thief River Falls.

The DNR stopped releasing wild turkeys about five years ago, and northwest Minnesota was among the last places to receive birds, Franke said.

"They're not expanding as far outside the release areas as we thought, but they're making it," Franke said.

The Team Camo Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation in Crookston partnered with the DNR on the northwest release project.

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One surprise, Franke said, is that the birds haven't expanded along the Red Lake River corridor, which is rich in the wooded, riparian habitat wild turkeys find attractive in other places.

"There's a lot of habitat there, but we hear of very few sightings of birds east of (U.S. Highway) 59," Franke said. "Most everything is west of 59 along the beach ridges."

Initial releases

The DNR initially transplanted wild turkeys in 2006, releasing 80 eastern-strain birds -- 59 females, 21 males -- from southeast Minnesota at two sites: southwest of Thief River Falls and northeast of Red Lake Falls.

During the next three years, turkeys also were released at sites near Fertile, Erskine and Bagley, and East Park and New Maine wildlife management areas west of Middle River.

The DNR released a total of 206 wild turkeys in northwest Minnesota from 2006 to 2008.

Severe cold after the initial releases in January 2006 resulted in extensive mortality among the first batch of turkeys, Franke said, but since then, the birds have adapted to their surroundings.

"By the next year, the survival was extremely high, and they figured out how to survive and where to go because it's such a foreign environment to them," he said.

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As the population grows, Franke said the birds also appear to be splitting into more but smaller wintering groups consisting of 40 to 50 birds. That's a welcome change from one winter, when a landowner reported 300 turkeys in his yard.

"We like to see no more than 100 birds in one location," Franke said. "That really puts a test to anyone's willpower and tolerance. They get really brazen in winter, and they'll come right into yards.

"Overall, it's mostly getting along with people and people getting along with them. There's not too many depredation complaints yet, but they're starting to build, mostly with cattle operations or beet tailings or any kind of hay, corn or silage."

Taking applications

The DNR in late November began accepting applications for the 2014 spring season, and the deadline to apply is Jan. 10. Two years ago, the DNR revised its permit boundaries from dozens of small blocks to 12 large areas throughout the bird's range.

Northwest Minnesota is in Permit Area 509, which extends from the Red River to Detroit Lakes on the south and north to the Canadian border. The move has been popular among hunters, Franke said, and the northwest permit area has 40 licenses available for each of three spring seasons in April, when the bulk of the turkey harvest occurs. An unlimited number of licenses are available over the counter for each of five seasons throughout May.

In 2012, the DNR issued 244 permits in area 509, and hunters shot 111 turkeys, Franke said.

"A lot of people up here are tickled with them," he said.

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While wild turkeys haven't populated the Red Lake River corridor east of Thief River Falls, Franke said they can be found as far east as the Randeen Ridge north of Grygla and other areas that are considered "Non-Range" for regulatory purposes, where hunting isn't allowed.

Whether that means even more hunting opportunities down the road remains to be seen. Nothing would happen without a public comment process, Franke said.

"Stay tuned on that," Franke said. "If they expand into areas we don't consider turkey range what do you do with them? They're not allowed to be legally harvested outside of that range, yet if they're there and doing quite well, then what do we do?"

The DNR doesn't do any on-the-ground population surveys, Franke said, instead relying on a survey given to deer hunters that includes a question about turkey sightings. The success of the release project certainly proves the birds can withstand northwest Minnesota's severe winter weather.

"They can tolerate incredibly cold temperatures," Franke said. "It doesn't seem to faze them other than they need to eat more often."

Deep snow that covers food supplies can hamper survival, but northwest Minnesota usually has enough windswept areas to provide forage, Franke said; they'll even eat tree buds similar to what ruffed grouse do in the winter.

"They'll do whatever they can to get food," Franke said. "They're one tough bird, that's all I can say."

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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