Forty years ago, Wisconsin Wild Turkey was just a figment of a hunter’s imagination. There were no resident birds in any part of the state, so hunters had to travel to travel to states like Missouri or Pennsylvania to pursue the elusive “thunder chicken.” A few conservation groups and state agencies decided to change the future of the wild turkey in Wisconsin beginning in the 1970’s. What followed was arguably the most successful reintroduction program ever.
The last record of a population of turkeys in Wisconsin was in 1881. Over-hunting and habitat destruction caused numbers not only in Wisconsin to decline, but throughout the country. Wildlife biologists began to study how they would reintroduce these native birds to their old historic ranges. The first attempt for reintroduction was a plan to release farm raised birds into the woods of central Wisconsin. The state had gotten birds from Pennsylvania and allowed them to grow in a controlled environment free of predators. Once released, it was discovered that the over 800 birds did not fare well as they were not accustomed to the harsh environment they would face in the wild. Predators and weather were a contributing factor to the failure of the first attempt at populating the woods of this native bird.
In 1974, Wisconsin made an agreement with Missouri to trade ruffed grouse for wild turkeys. Missouri gave up 334 of its native birds for 135 of Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse. This time, the state decided to introduce birds in Southwestern Wisconsin as this habitat closely resembled that of Missouri. The only difference this time was the these were wild birds and were already adapted to the conditions they would face. The numbers began to grow quickly. So much so, the state starting trapping birds and transplanting them in other areas of the state to help spread out the population. Areas were picked that resembled the habitat the birds were transported from. The southern and northern portions of the Kettle Moraine State Forest were some of the locations birds were released. These areas continue to have large populations of birds.
By 1983, the state had enough birds that the DNR decided to have its first traditional spring turkey hunting season. 1200 tags were issued for a very small hunting area in the western part of Wisconsin. During the first season, 182 Tom turkeys were tagged for a success rate of 15%. It wasn’t until 1989 that Wisconsin opened up a fall turkey hunt which allowed the harvest of any sex of turkey. This was the start of what would prove to be a very successful hunting program in Wisconsin.
1996 brought about the Wild Turkey Stamp program in Wisconsin. Hunters are required to purchase the stamp along with their license to be legal to hunt in the state. The funds collected from stamp sales are given to conservation groups and projects that include habitat rehabilitation, research, hunter education, and various other programs. Sales of the stamp generate approximately $750,000 annually and sales of licenses generate over $3.5 million dollars to the state and are second in total sales and popularity to deer hunting.
The explosion in population and popularity in hunting has brought about many changes in regulations for hunting in Wisconsin. In the past hunters were given a 5 day hunting period and had limited hours to pursue a gobbling tom. Past regulations required hunters to be out of the woods by noon. Today, hunters can stay out all day and have 7 days to get their trophy bird. In the fall, hunters have from mid September until December 31st to harvest a bird. This provides both residents and non-residents ample opportunity to punch their tags. In 2012, a total of 233,785 tags were issued for the spring season. Hunters had a success rate of just over 21% with the best chances for success in the eastern part of the state.
In 2009, Wisconsin set a record for spring turkey harvest. A total of 52,581 turkeys were registered throughout the state. This total led the entire country. Some of the states you would consider to have great turkey hunting weren’t even close to the harvest numbers. Missouri had 44,713 birds registered, Pennsylvania 43,680, Michigan 41,000, and Alabama 36,600. This season helped to put Wisconsin on the map as a world-class turkey hunting destination. For the spring of 2013, a record 234,420 tags are available to both residents and non-residents.
Spring hunting seasons start in early April with a youth hunt and continue through mid May. Hunters are required to apply for a tag by December 10th either through the mail or online. Applications fees are $3 and upon successfully drawing a tag, a hunter must then pay another $15 for resident and $60 for non-resident. All hunters are required to purchase the $5.25 Wild Turkey Stamp. In most hunting zones, additional tags are available over the counter for $10 for residents and $15 for non-residents. Hunters wishing to hunt fall turkeys must have their application in no later than August 1st. More information about hunting turkey in Wisconsin can be found on the Wisconsin DNR website at dnr.wi.gov
The reintroduction of the wild turkey in Wisconsin is a great example of how fund raising and conservation efforts can greatly improve habitat and population numbers. Through the programs set in place by the state and various conservation groups, the hunters of Wisconsin are able to benefit from arguably the most successful reintroduction effort ever in the United States. The wild turkey now populate all 72 counties within the state. This program should be a model for other programs or reintroduction efforts throughout the country.
Editors Note: Please support organizations like the National Wild Turkey Foundation for the great work they do in assisting states with the growth of the Wild Turkey!!