Turkey population and hunting tradition thrive in Michigan

A tom struts for a hen during Michigan's spring turkey breeding season.

May 1, 2014

The significance of it may have gone unnoticed by many, but to hunters Monday, April 21, was a big day in Michigan - opening day of spring turkey-hunting season.

Michigan annually ranks among the top 10 states in the union for wild turkey harvest - an almost astounding fact, as 100 years ago there wasn't a wild turkey to be found in the state. Though experts believe the state was home to around 100,000 birds in pre-Columbian times, the population was wiped out by habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. Today, wild turkeys can be found in every county in the Lower Peninsula and in many places in the Upper Peninsula as well.

Hunter with harvested turkey.Early 20th-century attempts to restore wild turkeys in Michigan failed to bear fruit, but by mid-century, state wildlife officials had identified the Allegan State Game Area - 40,000 acres located within a 100,000-acre mixed hardwood and pine forest - as suitable habitat for the birds. The Department of Conservation purchased 50 birds from Pennsylvania, which was enjoying some success restoring wild turkeys. The birds were released at six sites in Allegan and others were released at additional sites, including areas of the northern Lower Peninsula. Thanks to those restoration efforts, by 1964 the wild turkey population in Michigan was estimated at 2,000.

Michigan's first modern-day turkey-hunting season was held in the fall of 1965. By 1968, spring turkey hunting - the now traditional time to pursue the birds - was established in several northern Lower Peninsula areas. Now, spring turkey season is open in every county in the state and additional fall hunts are offered in areas where the turkey population is strong enough to support them.

Spring turkey hunting has grown steadily through the decades. In 1969 during the 11-day season open in two small areas of the northern Lower Peninsula, 3,200 hunters killed 50 turkeys. Interestingly enough, the areas open were outside the ancestral range of wild turkeys in Michigan, which is south of a line from Muskegon to Bay City.

A decade later, the season ran April 26-May 13, open on 4,019 square miles in the Mio, Baldwin and Allegan areas. A total of 8,982 hunters took 276 turkeys.

In 1989, the season was open April 17-May 19 on 18,682 square miles, mostly in the northern Lower Peninsula with three small areas in southern Michigan and three small areas of the Upper Peninsula, focused around Menominee County. Some 22,199 hunters killed 6,195 birds.

Group of turkeys in a field.A decade later, the area open to hunting had nearly doubled - to 42,465 square miles - and 66,790 hunters harvested 24,973 turkeys.

Last year, with the whole state - 58,114 square miles - open to spring turkey hunting, some 104,276 hunters purchased licenses and harvested about 32,000 birds, making Michigan the seventh-highest harvest state in the country.

Spring turkey season is divided into hunt periods that range from seven days to the entire April 21-May 31 season. Hunters purchase licenses - either through a lottery or over the counter - for specific hunt units and time periods.

Man and girl with harvested turkey.Some hunt units are small: two or three counties. Some are huge: the entire Upper Peninsula, for instance, or the southern half of the Lower Peninsula. Most licenses are issued under quotas - which range from 10 per hunt period (a total of 40) in the Wayne/Monroe County Unit to 65,000 in the southern Lower Peninsula (Hunt Unit ZZ), good for private lands only for the April 21-May 4 hunt.

Most importantly, anyone who wants to hunt turkeys in Michigan can buy a license for Hunt 234 that is valid everywhere in the state (except the public lands of the southern Lower Peninsula) May 5-31.

"We went from having no turkeys in 1900 to having some of the best turkey hunting in the country," said Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist with the Department of Natural Resources. "Michigan has one of the longest hunting seasons in the country. And we went from anyone who didn't draw a tag being out of luck to now, when anyone who wants to hunt, can.

"A lot of partners helped make this possible."

DNR staff and partners release turkeys as part of program to spread turkeys across the state.During the 1980s, the DNR ratcheted up its turkey rehabilitation efforts by obtaining wild turkeys from other states with similar habitat. Numerous birds were brought into Michigan from Iowa and Missouri - thanks in part to groups such as the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, which helped pay for the cost of the boxes used to relocate the birds - and the DNR began widespread trap-and-transfer operations within the state to spread the birds around. Virtually every area where wildlife biologists thought wild turkeys could thrive received birds until turkeys could be found in appropriate habitat across the state.

"Wild turkey restoration is truly a wildlife management success story," Stewart said. "The DNR is very pleased that we've not only been able to restore a native species, but also helped develop a large turkey-hunting culture with it."

Although the annual application deadline has passed, leftover licenses for a number of limited-access hunts as well as Hunt 234 are available at all license vendors and online. To see what's available visit www.michigan.gov/huntdrawings.

Learn more about turkey hunting and opportunities for other game species at www.michigan.gov/hunting.