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Turkey populations continue to grow in many places around Idaho because we have tons of habitat they have not yet filled and because the turkey program is one of the most active Fish and Game efforts. Wild turkeys are like cougars and bears in one sense, they are extremely difficult to count accurately but they are now estimated to number between 25,000 and 30,000 statewide.
Turkey hunters back in Alabama might chuckle at our pride in those numbers but, considering that we started with a couple hundred birds back in the early 1980s, progress has been fantastic. Better yet, we have a long way to go before we have to admit that the suitable habitat is as full as it can be.
This spring, Idaho turkey hunters can look forward to the best numbers they have seen. Last summer's broods did well in most places and the winter was generally kind to turks. Where you found them before, you will find them this spring.
One way this winter was kind to the turkey program was that enough snow fell and stayed on the ground long enough for turkey trap-and-transplant operations to work well. Fish and Game, with the help of the National Wild Turkey Federation and other volunteers, caught and moved more than 600 birds. In some of our recent milder winters, the birds stayed too scattered for successful trapping.
Good trapping weather is the kind that makes turks group up in their search for feed. Then the trappers provide the feed but they place it under a large net suspended on poles. Being the suspicious creatures wild turkeys are, the net has to be left for a while until they become used to it. Eventually, the easy feed wins out and they will peck their way under the net. When enough birds gather, the net is dropped. Then birds are grabbed, boxed and quickly transported to a new spot where we hope they will be happy and healthy.
As we have learned with other game birds, a handful is not enough to start a new population. It seems for each species there is some sort of minimum number required before healthy reproduction will begin. Exactly how this works and why is a bit of a mystery and even bird biologists argue about the reasons but they have been doing this long enough to know it is so. And I have been watching the process long enough to see that it usually takes a fair effort to make a new colony work.
Another major lesson learned over decades of turkey work is that, as with pheasant and other game birds, you waste your time and money on game farm birds. Their survival is zip. Other states had already spent truckloads of money on game farm turkey failures before Idaho began its program, so we did not have to go through the same bad experience.
Trapping wild and transplanting does work and that's why there are millions of wild turkeys in the U.S. now after they were near extinction in 1900. Idaho is still experimenting with different varieties of turkeys because we have such a diversity of habitats ranging from near rain forest in the north to high desert in the south.
Most of our turks are the Merriam type, the western turkey that seems to adapt to scattered forest and hills better than any. But there are still some eastern type birds in the Dworshak country. They have a reputation as the toughest turk to hunt, as if they need to be any more wily than the Merriams.
We are still trying to make the Rio Grande type go in the south where we have the cottonwood and brush-lined creek sort of habitat. Some populations of Rio Grande have boomed, then faded to unhuntable levels or disappeared altogether. They have caught on along the Boise River, however, indicating that it is still worthwhile to keep trying with this type.
Rio Grandes remind me of roadrunners. They are streamlined - though the toms can easily go 19 or 20 pounds - and made for speed. Tough-looking birds that you would think could make it here.
In any case, I think I would look just fine as an old gray guy with a Merriam tom slung over my shoulder, coming out of the hills this spring happy with a good thing that's just better all the time. And, if the birds tease me and run off one more time, it will still be a good day in the spring woods.
The Idaho Fish & Game Department and the National Wild Turkey Federation deserve the support of turkey hunters and whatever help we can offer to try to make this effort go.