Minnesota's wild turkeys: A wildlife success story

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2014 - 6:59 AM

Once wiped out in Minnesota, wild gobblers now roam much of the state thanks to reintroduction efforts that began nearly 90 years ago.

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Wild turkeys foraged for food at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in 2007.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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It’s spring and the haunting gobble of wild turkeys echoes across Minnesota.

From Thief River Falls to Caledonia and from Duluth to Pipestone — and even Twin Cities suburbs — more turkeys are strutting and gobbling here than ever before.

Far more than when settlers first encountered them in southeastern Minnesota in the 1800s, before they were extirpated by unregulated hunting and logging.

But Nick Gulden remembers when there weren’t any.

Gulden, 74, of Rollingstone, Minn., is a retired Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. He was excited that day in 1971 when he helped release 13 Missouri wild turkeys in Houston County in the tip of southeastern Minnesota — birds that triggered a turkey renaissance and one of the great wildlife success stories in state history. Over the next 38 years, officials turned loose more than 5,000 wild turkeys at about 280 sites around the state.

And now gobblers roam three-quarters of the state.

“It’s amazing,” Gulden said. “Before we released the first bird, we thought even if we don’t get a huntable population, it would be neat just to have some birds out there to add to the wildlife.”

But turkeys took off, surprising even the most optimistic wildlife managers.

Minnesotans learned to love them and to hunt them. In 1978, 400 hunters killed 94 gobblers in the first hunt in modern times. Now the turkey hunt has become an annual rite of spring for some 40,000 hunters, who bagged more than 10,000 birds last spring. This year’s season begins Wednesday. A far smaller hunt is held each fall.

“The turkeys did much better than I ever expected,” said Gulden, who quickly caught turkey-hunting fever and began hunting them in 1980. “I’ve been hunting them ever since,” he said. “It’s the thrill of being out there in the morning, hearing that gobbling, knowing they might be coming. The adrenaline gets pumping.”

Swapping wildlife

While the release of wild turkeys in 1971 and again in 1973 in Houston County sparked their revival, it wasn’t that simple. There were many false starts.

Hundreds of pen-raised turkeys from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas were released throughout southern and central Minnesota in the mid-1920s. And in 1957, 37 pen-reared turkeys from Pennsylvania were turned loose in the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in Winona County.

All failed to survive.

So from 1964 to 1968, officials released 39 wild turkeys trapped in Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas. But they were the Merriam’s subspecies, smaller and less hardy than the eastern subspecies native to Minnesota. Those birds, too, couldn’t adapt to Minnesota’s landscape and weather, and they died out.

But officials didn’t give up. They knew the habitat in southern Minnesota was conducive for turkeys.

“We felt if anything would work, it would be easterns,” Gulden said. “They are heavier, bigger and with longer legs, and can survive better in winter.”

In 1971, Missouri wanted to reintroduce ruffed grouse to the Ozarks, so the two states swapped wildlife: Gulden trapped grouse from southeastern Minnesota and shipped them to Missouri, and Missouri trapped 13 wild turkeys and sent them north. Two years later, Missouri sent 16 more birds.

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  • The eastern subspecies of wild turkeys is native to Minnesota. A bigger, heavier bird with longer legs, the eastern has proved itself resilient to harsh winters.

  • This Star Tribune file photo from 1989 shows a wild turkey being released near Afton. A total of 16 birds were released that day.

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