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Wild turkeys keep pushing limits of northward expansion

A tom turkey displays on a spring day. Wild turkey hunting seasons open April 18 in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Contributed photo / National Wild Turkey Federation1 / 3
Nate Aultman of Grand Rapids, Minn., found this photo of wild turkeys on a game camera he placed on land where he has hunted near the city. Wild turkeys continue to expand their range northward in Minnesota. Aultman hunted both the spring and fall turkey seasons last year near Grand Rapids but was unsuccessful. Submitted photo / Nate Aultman2 / 3
Jon Libbey of Grand Rapids, Minn., shot this wild turkey near Grand Rapids last spring in his first turkey hunt. The tom had a 10-inch beard. Submitted photo / Jon Libbey3 / 3

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Jon Libbey has always hunted grouse and ducks and deer. But last year the Grand Rapids resident he added another hunting season — in the spring.

He'd been seeing wild turkeys not far from Grand Rapids on his game cameras for a few years.

"I thought I'd give it a whirl," said Libbey, 29. "I bought an over-the-counter tag."

Hunting near Grand Rapids, he shot a 21-pound tom that had a 10-inch beard.

Wild turkeys are continuing to move north and west in Minnesota, and while their densities aren't high, Libbey isn't the only one who's seeing the birds that far north. Recent warm winters likely have been beneficial to the northward turkey expansion, said Dave Olfelt, Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids.

"We see them around Grand Rapids with regularity, especially south of town and as you head toward Park Rapids," Olfelt said.

Minnesota's spring wild turkey season opens April 18 and continues through May 31. Hunters were selected by lottery for the first two hunting periods (April 18-24 and April 25-May 1). Licenses are available over the counter for the remaining periods.

Wisconsin's spring turkey season opens April 18 and runs through May 29.

Libbey's hunt, on public land, went almost as if scripted. At daybreak, he drove forestry roads and stopped to call and listen for gobbling. At his second location, a gobbler responded within 10 minutes.

"I walked that way on a forest road with my shotgun and slate call," Libbey said. "I set up off the road, did a little chirping, and it immediately responded. Within 15 or 20 minutes, I could see it at 100 yards. He was in full strut, gobbling. It was an awesome experience."

The gobbler kept coming, and at 20 yards, Libbey squeezed the trigger and had his first turkey.

He has friends who hunt in southern Minnesota, where hunting pressure is greater. He felt the lack of pressure in the north was to his advantage.

"He heard my semi-acceptable calling, and he was willing to come check it out," Libbey said.

South to north

When wild turkeys were first reintroduced in Minnesota after being extirpated, they were released in the southeastern part of the state. Subsequently, they were reintroduced farther north.

"The furthest north we've released them is around Hinckley," said Chris Balzer, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet. "That's been 10-plus years ago. We saw them in far southeastern Carlton County in more regular numbers first. Then they spread north and west from there."

Wildlife managers never thought turkeys would continue moving north this far.

"If you'd asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I'd have said they couldn't survive this far north because of the snow," Balzer said, "but they're proving us wrong."

Turkeys are tough, and they are good at finding food, he said.

"They're learned to take advantage of food offerings people have — bird feeders and deer feeding. They can handle cold, and they fly around. And maybe they're better at foraging in the wild than we thought.

"In spring, summer and fall, they're very opportunistic. They'll eat a variety of green plants, fruits, seeds and mushrooms.

'Still out there'

Libbey isn't the only one hunting turkeys in the Grand Rapids area. Nate Aultman of Grand Rapids started last year on land near town.

"It's something I always wanted to do," said Aultman, 36. "I acquired a piece of property, 10 acres, and turkeys for some reason are roosting in the trees."

He and his son hunted them last spring but were unsuccessful. They tried the fall season, too, but the shooting by duck hunters at a nearby slough drove the turkeys deeper into the woods, Aultman said. Still, they've seen a flock of eight or nine turkeys and have a game-camera image of several birds walking through an opening on their property.

"I know they're still out there," Aultman said. "I've been seeing them all winter long."

He and his son likely will hunt those birds this spring.

Both Aultman and Libbey are hunting in turkey permit area 508, which starts near North Branch, Minn., and runs to the Canadian border. Turkeys aren't generally seen much farther north than Grand Rapids, however, the DNR's Olfelt said.

Minnesota issued 49,919 turkey permits during the spring 2017 season, and hunters registered 11,854 turkeys, which was above the five-year average. Wisconsin issued 212,456 turkey permits last year, and hunters registered 43,305 birds.

"We had very good number of young birds going into winter after two mild winters," said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife biologist at Brule. "So while this snow is lingering longer than anyone wishes it would, the turkeys are probably doing fine as they are able to walk on top of the crust... I have not had any reports yet from people finding dead turkeys, so losses should be minimal. While we might not see a stellar season, it should be a good year."

New Wisconsin tagging rules

Requirements for the use of turkey harvest authorizations (formerly carcass tags) by Wisconsin turkey hunters have changed. These changes include:

• Turkey hunters are no longer required to validate a turkey tag;

• Turkey hunters are no longer required to attach a tag to a turkey; and

• It is no longer required to keep the turkey tag with the meat.

Turkeys must be registered by 5 p.m. the day after harvest. Hunters will need their harvest authorization number when registering.

Tame turkeys don't benefit wild population

Some of the turkeys roaming Northeastern Minnesota may be captive birds that have been released. Wildlife managers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say those birds should not be released into the wild.

"They have different genetics," said the DNR's Chris Balzer, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet. "They've been raised in captivity for generations and generations. They've been selected for birds that are less wild and more calm, so they don't run into fences and cages. So, when they're released in wild, they're not as good at avoiding predation, and they tend to stick closer to people. I've heard of complaints of them roosting atop houses and barns. They're just not acting like wild birds. If they survive, they can introduce those lower-quality genetics into wild birds."