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.”
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.
Over the years, Minnesota sent Hungarian partridge to New York, black bears to Arkansas and Canada geese to Oklahoma — all in return for eastern wild turkeys. More were brought here from Wisconsin and Illinois.
In all, six states contributed to Minnesota’s turkey comeback.
But that was only the beginning.
In 1976, with local populations flourishing, Minnesota DNR workers began trapping turkeys in the southeast and moving them to jump-start populations elsewhere in the state. Gary Nelson, 66, of St. Charles, Minn., now retired from the DNR, coordinated the trap-and-transplant efforts.
“We baited areas with corn, and when the turkeys walked in to get it, we fired rocket nets to capture them,’’ he said. It was cold, hard work, done during the winter when birds congregate and are desperate for food.
Nelson had no idea then that he’d release birds north to St. Cloud, Alexandria and beyond, and that they’d survive and thrive.
“When we first started releasing birds in Goodhue and Wabasha counties, we wondered if they would make it,” Nelson said. “We were concerned maybe that was too far north.”
Convinced that turkeys had been distributed about as far as they could be, the DNR was ready to end the program in the mid-1990s. But the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) believed turkeys could thrive even farther north, and the trap-and-transplant program continued until 2009, funded substantially by $500,000 from the conservation group.
In all, more than 5,000 turkeys were released around the state.
“We have turkeys in places we never thought they would be,’’ said Tom Glines, 58, of Coon Rapids, NWTF senior regional director. And a few places he wished they weren’t, like Twin Cities suburbs, where they can’t normally be hunted and their growing numbers have sometimes been problematic.
“They are an awesome game species; I don’t want them seen as a nuisance,’’ Glines said.
Many get the credit
In the end, many get credit for restoring wild turkeys to the North Star State. Former Star Tribune columnist Ron Schara has been a longtime advocate, helping form the first Minnesota chapter of the Turkey Federation. Nelson, Gulden and others at the DNR were instrumental, too. The NWTF supplied money — and enthusiasm.
And hunters themselves get credit. At their request, a wild turkey stamp, required to hunt, was created in 1996 to help fund turkey management.
Now, whether you enjoy hunting them or just seeing them, turkeys are everywhere.
“It is a wildlife success story,’’ Glines said.