AUGUSTA, Maine — It may not be a good year to be a turkey in Maine.
Especially if a host of bills aimed at controlling the state’s burgeoning wild turkey population take flight in the state Legislature.
A bipartisan covey of lawmakers, who are also farmers, lined up Tuesday to testify in support of a bill that would expand hunting of the birds.
They spoke of how the comeback of North America’s largest upland game bird in Maine is creating a nuisance and is costing them in lost or damaged crops.
Even potato crops in far northern Aroostook County were being affected by wild turkeys who overturn seed potato looking for bugs during spring planting, according to Jon Olson, the executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm association with 7,500 members.
Olson said farmers across the state in every sector from dairy to berries have reported increased damage from the birds.
Others said the birds, which eat just about anything and seem to get into everything, were beginning to affect the state’s deer herd by consuming many of the food sources of deer, including apples and acorns.
Lawmakers and others testified in favor of a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, which expands turkey hunting in Maine.
The bill was only the first of several that are expected to come before the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee this lawmaking session.
Saviello’s measure eliminates the turkey permit requirement and allows hunting turkeys with a big-game or small-game hunting license.
The bill increases the bag limit to two birds and expands the spring and fall hunting seasons, to include the entire month of October. The measure allows hunting of either male or female birds in the fall, while retaining the restriction that only males can be shot in the spring.
Another part of the bill allows hunters to register the birds they shoot either online or by telephone.
“It will open the door on shooting and hunting more turkey,” Saviello told the committee. “I can remember back in the ’80s when turkeys were reintroduced back into the state and no one, no one thought they would grow and expand the way they have.”
Saviello said many likened the effort to the state’s attempt to reintroduce caribou, which was a dismal failure. He described how all across his elongated central and western Maine state Senate District 18 the birds were flourishing.
“I see turkeys every day,” Saviello said. “So it’s time, perhaps, we start dealing with that population.”
Committee member Russell Black, R-Wilton, speaking in support of Saviello’s bill, said he once believed wild turkeys would have no impact on other game species in Maine but has changed his mind about that.
“As a landowner and a hunter, I have firsthand knowledge and experience and effects of the reintroduction of the turkey in Maine,” Rep. Black said. “It has been a great success; if anything, too successful.”
Black said this past fall that he regularly counted flocks as large as 100 on his property.
“For years I argued the turkeys would not affect the whitetail deer food sources because deer, we all know, eat other things besides things that turkeys eat,” Black said. But he has seen flocks of turkeys consume fields of clover, ridges of acorns and apples — all sources of food for deer, he said.
He said he worried that an overpopulation of wild turkeys in Maine would lead to disease. “I now believe it is time to look hard at ways to expand hunting to control turkey populations,” Black said. He also has turkey-related legislation moving forward in the Legislature.
While farmers are allowed to control pest animals on their properties, the birds have become so numerous that hunting to control them is nearly a full-time occupation, others said.
“I’ll testify in front of any bill that eliminates turkeys in the state of Maine,” quipped Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner.
But on a serious note, Timberlake passed around clippings from some of his Honey Crisp apple trees on which buds had been eaten by wild turkeys. Each bud could produce between two and three apples and each apple based on weight could be worth between $2 and $3, he said.
The birds also peck and eat at the growing fruit on the trees, in many instances rendering thousands of dollars in damage, he said.
“The fall, it’s even worse because when the trees are hanging down there, the turkey doesn’t decide to eat just one apple and he walks down the row and he picks and he picks and he picks,” Timberlake said. “My feeling is I don’t want you to shorten the turkey season from anything less than Jan. 1st to Dec. 31st.”
He said hunting wild turkeys is difficult because the birds can be wily. They seem to adapt quickly and even seem to recognize his gray pickup, Timberlake said.
Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said his organic farm operation, where he grows a variety of crops, was also being damaged by growing flocks of wild turkeys.
Hickman said he used to like the birds, but once they started going for his favored collard greens, he was over it. “Then I had enough,” he said. “Because if you know me, you know I like collard greens.” Turkeys had also damaged his other crops, including his raspberries and blueberries.
But Hickman said he had a more serious concern.
“They carry ticks that cause Lyme disease,” he said. The two flocks that hang around his farm have grown from about 10 turkeys each to about 50 each, he said. He started noticing an increase in ticks. He used to grow his hair into dreadlocks, but as the turkeys increased he began discovering ticks in his hair from working on his land.
“So I shaved my hair off and I blame the turkeys,” Hickman said. “So I want them gone.”
He said he also had a bill that would make it open season on the turkeys in October. Hickman said he would like to see the birds shot during that season go to the Hunters for the Hungry program. He noted that cooked correctly, wild turkey was quite tasty.
The committee plans to hear all of the various bills on wild turkeys and lump them together in one work session to possibly create a single bill to address wild turkey issues.