Thirty-four years ago this spring, about 400 hunters went afield for Minnesota's first modern-era wild turkey hunt.

They were confined to a small area in the southeast where the fledgling turkey population -- reintroduced there only a few years earlier -- had grown large enough to allow a limited hunting season.

Oh, how times have changed.

Beginning Wednesday, about 45,000 hunters will roam three-quarters of the state to hunt gobblers under the most liberal hunting season ever -- a testament to one of the most remarkable wildlife success stories in state history.

Wild turkeys -- native to Minnesota but wiped out by settlers -- now can be found, and hunted, in three-quarters of the state, thanks to decades of trap-and-transplant efforts by the Department of Natural Resources and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

As the turkey population expanded, the DNR has gradually relaxed its conservative management. This season, the DNR collapsed the 81 separate turkey hunting zones to only 12, which will allow hunters the freedom to roam far and wide instead of being confined to relatively small areas.

"It's probably the largest single change we've ever made," said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager. "It gives them a much bigger area to hunt."

One new permit area stretches from western Minnesota to the Twin Cities, Merchant noted. "You've got lots and lots of options," he said.

And hunters will be able to buy licenses over the counter for the past four of the state's eight turkey seasons -- meaning anyone who wants to hunt turkeys can.

Until last year, thousands of hunters who didn't get drawn in a lottery for a license had to sit out the season.

Change in thinking

The state's turkey management changes reflect a shift in philosophy by the DNR.

Because spring hunters are killing only male, or tom, turkeys, it's unlikely they can damage a local population, even if hunter concentrations increase in some areas. Additionally, the DNR previously limited the number of licenses in each of the 81 permit areas to reduce hunter "interference" or crowding.

"We used to manage what we, the DNR, thought people would tolerate," Merchant said. "But we learned from hunters that hunter interference wasn't that big of a deal to them; they wanted to hunt turkeys. We decided to let people make the decision on what's too crowded.

"We don't regulate the number of people who we let go pheasant hunting on the Lac qui Parle wildlife area. We let the people decide, and if it's too crowded, they'll go somewhere else. It's the same now with turkeys,'' Merchant said, adding that Minnesota this spring still will have eight separate turkey seasons to distribute hunting pressure.

The changes this year continue a trend toward relaxing regulations and providing more hunting opportunity. For years, spring hunting ended at noon, and later, at 5 p.m.

In 2007, hours were extended to sunset.

"We managed turkeys conservatively because that was necessary at the time," Merchant said. "You start conservatively, and as you learn things, you become less conservative.

"What's really driving the population is not hunter harvest, it's habitat and weather."

No more changes?

This year's season revisions prompt a question: Will the DNR eventually do away with zones entirely, and perhaps even eliminate the lottery license system, allowing all turkey hunters to buy licenses over the counter?

"I don't see that happening anytime soon," Merchant said.

Doug Smith •