Give Olí Tom a Call
When my generation of Idaho bird hunters began our careers, the idea of taking a wild turkey was almost as exotic as hunting eland - something we all wanted to do but never thought would happen in Idaho.
by Ed Mitchell
There were, even back in the 1960s, a handful of diehard turkey fanciers who were willing to give turkeys a try here. Some of them were Fish and Game people. Now state game management agencies are hardly ever rolling in dough but they do, from state to state, know one another and will work together as long as everybody winds up with something they want. So Idaho traded a few rare big game animals for turkeys and turned them loose in the backwoods of north central Idaho where the birds did survive and reproduce. But, as often happens in game bird transplants, the population flared quickly, stabilized and dwindled to the disappointment of everyone involved. Some Idahoans concluded that turkeys just were not meant to be here.
As wildlife science improved, more studies were done and shared among biologists, it slowly became apparent that the first Idaho turkey experience was predictable. If we really wanted turkeys here, we would have to keep trying. While this light was dawning, Idaho acquired an energetic little Irishman named Jerry Conley as director of the department in 1980. Jerry was from Missouri and missed his turkeys. By 1982, Idaho Fish and Game was into a serious turkey planting program with the help of the National Turkey Federation and its local chapters. At about that time, coincidentally, the Turkey Federation became a large organization with a far-reaching impact on restoring, even expanding, turkey populations in the U.S.
Lessons Along the Way
The Merriam strain of turkey was the first planted in Idaho in the 1960s. These turkeys seem to work best for Idaho.
Along the way, we tried a couple different approaches that met with limited success. It seemed reasonable to plant Rio Grande strain birds from the arid southwest in southern Idaho where habitat is pretty much confined to riparian areas. It worked well enough that small controlled hunts were possible after a couple of years but the Rio Grandes never really took off in a big way and populations have declined. Maybe local predators learned how to hunt turkeys. Maybe the habitat lacks something we do not understand. The effort should have worked but did not.
Eastern strain turkeys have also been planted in a few spots in north and north central Idaho. They seem to have hung in better than the Rio Grandes but they donít offer any advantage over the Merriams that we started with.
The main lesson seems to be that we have to keep at it, capturing and transplanting birds, now from Idahoís own burgeoning stocks, until we find out where they work and where they do not.
Turkeying Comes to Idaho
When Idahoís turkey program came to the point in the early 1980s where we could say we actually had turkey hunting, about 250 birds per year was the total harvest. Last year, the number was somewhat more than 2,000. It may not be Missouri but a ten-fold increase says something is definitely going on here.
The Departmentís goal is to provide turkey hunting for about 10,000 hunters annually.
Turkeys are tough to see. Ask any turkey hunter. So hard numbers on total population are not available. The best indication is the previous yearís harvest (see above).
Nesting and foraging conditions last summer should have been excellent. We received the moisture turkeys need to produce lots of bugs for the chicks and vegetation for adults.
What we will not know until turkey hunters go out into the woods is what this last winter has done to them. This is a major concern in the Panhandle where snow fell early and deeper than in any other recent winter. Over most of the state, moisture was major but temperatures were not bad. Big game had a tough time in the Panhandle this winter but seems to have fared well enough in the rest of the state. Expect turkeys to follow the same general trend.
The Idaho turkey hunting booklet is on the shelves at vendors and Fish and Game offices. The general season begins April 14 in most of the state, April 28 in the six northern units. Idaho has spring-only, gobbler-only turkey hunting.
Itís time to get out of the house and into the quiet of the spring woods again.