Turkey populations are out of control

2012 turkey with DadAs I write this column, a dozen turkeys are poking around in the snow on our front lawn. And some people think we are harvesting too many turkeys! I think I should have been able to go out and shoot one of them for lunch.

Ok, I’m just kidding. But the last Big Game Steering Committee meeting was an eye-opener, with more than an hour devoted to turkeys. First of all, we don’t even know how many turkeys we have in Maine. The discussion led to an objective to “develop and implement a reliable system to estimate population.”

I am very skeptical they have the staff to do this, but as Nate Webb of DIF&W’s Wildlife Division said, there is good research available from other states to help them estimate Maine’s populations. Webb’s notes from the last meeting reported the Steering Committee’s questioning of whether it makes sense to have an objective of stabilizing the turkey population when we cannot accurately estimate that population.

The Big Game Steering Committee will meet again on January 5 and I expect lots more discussion of the draft turkey management plan.

The committee will try to define what “socially acceptable levels” of turkeys means, in the draft plan’s objective 3: “Stabilize wild turkey populations of southern and central Maine.” The strategies to accomplish this are interesting:

  1. Refine the turkey management system in order to adjust harvest of female turkeys during fall by altering bag limits and season lengths in response to information on turkey population trends and weather conditions.
  2. Explore the use of new statistical approaches (SAK, harvest removal, etc.) to monitor the impacts of turkey harvest on population trends.
  3. Adjust statute to provide the Department with flexibility for bag limits and season frameworks through rulemaking.

I’m going to suggest that the last strategy be added to my turkey legislation, sponsored by Senator Paul Davis. Our bill would eliminate the requirement that a special permit be purchased to hunt wild turkeys, allow online and phone registration of harvested turkeys, and expand the daily bag limits to three toms in the spring season and three birds of either sex in the fall season. Both the big game and small game licenses would include turkey hunting.

In Nate’s meeting notes, he reported on the need to define “unoccupied” in this strategy: “Identify locations with viable, unoccupied turkey habitat where the public supports establishment of turkeys.”

I doubt they’ll be able to find any place in the state where the public is clamoring for turkeys. I also think they’ll find it impossible to implement this goal: “Ensure public satisfaction with the turkey population by providing hunting and viewing opportunity and minimizing conflicts with landowners.”

While we know tourists and Mainers both enjoy seeing moose, I’ve never heard either mention their desire to see turkeys!

Another objective is to “increase hunter effort and opportunity in areas with high levels of landowner conflicts to reduce local populations.”

One strategy is to authorize the agency to establish wild turkey hunts in hotspot areas of conflict. I’m hoping for one of those will be on Blake Hill Road in Mount Vernon!

Of all the plan’s goals, I think this one is most important: “Increase recreational value of the wild turkey resource be promoting participation in wild turkey hunting.”

DIF&W estimates that no more than 5,000 hunters pursued turkeys last fall, and a total of less than 20,000 purchased turkey hunting permits. I think the best strategy for recruiting more turkey hunters is to eliminate the required permit and fee, and let other hunters – especially grouse hunters – shoot a turkey when they see one while pursuing grouse.

My bill in the last legislative session, sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello, reduced the turkey hunting permit to $20 for both residents and nonresidents, with no additional fee for a second Tom in the spring, expanded the fall season to the entire month of October and added a second turkey of either sex to the fall bag limit, reduced the tagging fee from $5 to $2 for each turkey (with all of the fee going to the tagging agent), extended the spring season to all-day (1/2 hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset), and authorized all-day hunting for Youth Day.

We tried to eliminate the permit and fee but DIF&W strongly objected. So we’ll try again this session. After all, it’s the perfect strategy for accomplishing their goal of “promoting participation in wild turkey hunting.”


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.