This is the fourth of four stories outlining the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s recently unveiled big game management plan, which includes deer, bear, moose and turkeys.
Maine’s wild turkey restoration program is, without question, a model of successful wildlife management. Consider: In 1977, 41 wild turkeys from Vermont were transported here, beginning an effort that has led to turkeys living in all 16 Maine counties, a statewide population of between 50,000 and 60,000, and a resource appreciated by many hunters.
But for some — especially farmers in southern counties — the word “turkey” has become a dirty word, as the birds are blamed for eating silage and crops. As state wildlife biologists embark on a new 10-year management plan for the species, they’ll be trying to strike a balance between those who’d like even more turkeys on the landscape and those who’d prefer none at all.
“We did our public survey in terms of acceptance of species, and knowledge of a species, and turkeys were flagged,” said Kelsey Sullivan, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s game bird biologist. “About 30 percent of the people in Maine — more in southern Maine — wanted to see less of them rather than grow the population.”
It took only nine years from that initial introduction until a first limited turkey season was staged, and in the years since, even more turkey-hunting opportunities have been opened as the population has grown. Sullivan said that in some specific areas, it’s likely time to allow even more liberal harvest of the birds. Today, in the Wildlife Management Districts with the most turkeys, a hunter is allowed to kill two birds in the spring and another two in the fall.
“Now that we have a really well-established population, it’s time to really start looking at it at the WMD level [rather than at a ‘north’ and ‘south’ level] and see how we might be able to manage wild turkeys to provide good hunting, but also to balance that social carrying capacity,” Sullivan said. “That’s a big element that we’re trying to incorporate into the management plan.”
The three stated goals of the turkey management plan:
— Maintain a healthy, sustainable turkey population that provides opportunities for hunting and viewing, while also allowing turkeys to continue expanding into portions of northern, eastern and western Maine.
— Ensure public satisfaction with the turkey population.
— Increase the recreational value of the wild turkey resource by promoting participation in wild turkey hunting.
The big game management plan has been more than two years in the works, with hundreds of Mainers offering input through meetings and surveys.
In 17 of the state’s 29 Wildlife Management Districts, biologists will strive to increase the size and distribution of wild turkey populations. But in another 11 districts, they’ll attempt to stabilize those populations at levels below the biological carrying capacity, at levels that are socially acceptable.
Sullivan said that although wild turkeys do come into conflict with farmers, they’re also a scapegoat for problems they didn’t create.
“An example: You see turkeys out on the landscape in the morning, the evening, and sometimes during the day. If you have hay bales that are wrapped in white plastic in the fields after the harvest, people see turkeys there, pecking at them.”
The assumption is that when holes show up in the plastic and the hay is ruined, turkeys are to blame. Sullivan said that’s not always the case.
“Places like California that did studies on crop depredation, turkeys were blamed, but when you put game cameras out at night, there were a whole lot of other species causing the damage,” he said.
Sullivan has spent time over the winter and early spring fixing radio tags on turkeys as the latest advance in turkey research in Maine. He said that data, when combined with harvest information and population estimates, will help the wildlife department target individual districts that may need extra help in keeping the turkey population from growing.
“One potential outcome is a more liberal season in an area [with high turkey densities],” Sullivan said. “Hunters might see more liberalization of the season of a district, and ideally, if it all works out and hunting plays the role we all hope it does, then landowners who have conflicts will have less of them because there’s more of a balance.”
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