Travis Pece helps tag a turkey his daughter, Josie Pece (background) shot on Youth Turkey Day, April 27, 2019, in Orrington. Credit: John Holyoke

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The state’s wild turkey hunting season will begin earlier than planned this year and will come with an important change in light of the pandemic: hunters will not have to register any harvested birds at tagging stations.

An announcement of the changes was made by Gov. Janet Mills and Commissioner Judy Camuso of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on Tuesday afternoon.

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Youth Turkey Days, originally scheduled for May 2, will be held on April 25 and April 27. The season will open for all hunters on Saturday, May 2, two days earlier than originally scheduled. The last day of the season has not been changed — it will end on June 6.

“The extra days will provide hunters with more opportunities to enjoy one of Maine’s most popular hunts, and the temporary suspension of the registration requirement ensures that all involved in Maine’s turkey hunt will do their part to keep Maine safe during this unprecedented time,” Camuso said.

Maine requires hunters to register, or “tag” the state’s four big game animals — moose, bears, deer and wild turkeys — in person. That process typically calls for a hunter to take the animal to a local store that serves as a tagging station. Tagging a wild turkey costs $2, while deer, moose and bears cost $5 apiece to register. Some other states allow phone-in or internet registration of big game animals.

Removing that rule makes hunting during the current pandemic safer, as hunters will be able to adhere to social distancing rules throughout the hunting process.

Biologists depend on the tagging system to gather data about the total harvest, but the department said the one-time suspension of tagging requirements should not impact the turkey population’s health.

“Temporarily removing the requirement to register turkeys during the spring season will be a challenge when it comes to determining the harvest [this year],” said Nate Webb, the DIF&W’s Wildlife Division director. “Fortunately we have captured and banded a large number of turkeys for the department’s wild turkey study and that will help us generate population estimates in the short term to help manage the turkey population.”

The DIF&W may try to fill the data void by sending turkey permit holders a survey asking how many birds they harvested, along with other information.

In addition, hunters who shoot a banded turkey are asked to follow instructions on the band and report it to the department.

Kelsey Sullivan, the DIF&W’s game bird biologist, estimates the state’s wild turkey population at 70,000, and says that population is likely stable, rather than increasing or decreasing rapidly.

His colleague, DIF&W bird group leader Brad Allen, said 6,612 wild turkeys were tagged in Maine’s spring season a year ago. Counting the fall turkey season, a total of 8,594 birds were tagged in 2019.

“Last fall’s harvest was less than expected despite a longer season and increased bag limits, perhaps due to abundant natural foods affecting their movements and vulnerability to harvest,” Allen said.

Those hunting in Wildlife Management Districts 1 through 6 and District 8 are allowed to take one turkey during the season. Hunters in WMDs 7 and 9 through 29 can shoot two wild turkeys.

“Turkey hunting continues to grow in popularity, and I hope these extra days of hunting will provide a welcome break during this unique time,” Camuso said.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com.

Watch: A hunting pro demonstrates a turkey call

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...