Wildlife Research and Management - Game Management and Conservation
Date Published: November 2005
Author(s): Mick Cope and Donna Gleisner
An addendum to the Environmental Impact Statement for the July 2003-June 2009 Game Management Plan
Efforts to introduce wild turkeys into Washington have been made since the early 1900s. Since 1960, when the first wild-trapped turkeys were introduced into the state from Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming, turkeys have maintained naturally reproducing populations in much of the forested portion of eastern and southwestern Washington. Currently, three sub-species of wild turkey (Merriam’s, Rio Grande, and eastern) can be found in Washington with some Merriams/Rio Grande crosses likely in some areas of eastern Washington.
As the result of an aggressive introduction program that began in the mid-1980’s, Washington’s wild turkey populations have experienced substantial increases in density and distribution. Recreational interest in the wild turkey has increased along with the populations. The number of turkey hunters in Washington has increased from 689 in 1984 to over 15,000 in 2004. Wild turkeys are also popular with bird watchers and photographers who also take advantage of the turkey calling experience.
Wild turkeys are adaptable to a broad range of habitats and weather conditions. In Washington, management efforts have focused on matching sub-species to the habitat types that most closely approximate that of their native range. Available food resources, nesting and roosting habitat, and precipitation regimen are some of the factors that have been considered through time.
Wild turkeys eat many different kinds of plants, seeds and fruits, and invertebrates (insects, spiders, snails), usually focusing their diets on the food items that are most available. In general, the diet of an adult turkey is made up of 75% plants and 25% insects while the diet of a poult ranges from 75% to 90% insect matter. During the winter, turkeys in eastern Washington gather into large flocks, sometimes of 100 or more birds, and are commonly found around a source of artificial feed like oat hay or other grain.
Throughout their range, wild turkeys are vulnerable to various diseases and parasites. This is complicated by the fact that they are susceptible to many of the same diseases that domestic chickens and turkeys carry. In efforts to keep these avian diseases from impacting both wild and domestic stock, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) tested all of the turkeys that were imported from other states prior to release. In addition, many of the turkeys that have been trapped within the state have also been tested. To date, there have been no positive results reported for any of the birds tested.
The number of turkey nuisance complaints has increased over the past 10 years, especially in parts of northeastern Washington where the populations have expanded the most. WDFW response to these complaints has ranged from telephone conversations with landowners to trapping offending birds. In very few situations, lethal removal of a specific number of birds has been authorized.
The first turkey hunting season was conducted in the fall of 1965 (one and a half days in northeastern Washington). The length of the season increased over time and in 1970, the first male only spring hunting season was conducted. In the late 1980’s, the spring season was three weeks long and a one-week fall either sex season was also held. In 1994, the current 30 day spring season was established and the bag limit was increased to three. In addition, a special youth hunt was established in 2003 which contributed to the more than 63,000 days hunters spent afield hunting turkeys that year.
Currently, WDFW relies on turkey hunter harvest reports to provide an index to turkey population status. In an effort to provide a harvest-independent measure of population growth, WDFW is proposing to enlist the help of volunteers to implement a wintertime road transect count. WDFW is not recommending a harvest-independent survey in western Washington because the eastern sub-species does not typically gather in large flocks and it is difficult to obtain adequate turkey counts in the dense forest habitat with low turkey densities.
Establishing and managing self-sustaining populations of wild turkeys in the most suitable habitats continues to be a primary objective of the wild turkey management program. Since a vast majority of the most suitable habitats currently support turkeys, very few areas are designated as potential introduction areas. Also, there are no plans to release additional birds in areas where significant introduction plans were recently implemented.
Damage and nuisance issues will continue to arise, however, trapping will not be a primary mitigation response. A nuisance response “toolbox” that focuses on alternative actions has been developed. When alternative methods fail to address the nuisance problem, trapping is still an option. Turkeys trapped in response to nuisance and damage complaints will be released within the Primary Wild Turkey Management Area in or adjacent to currently occupied areas. In addition, trapped turkeys may also be released in the potential introduction area if the sub-species is identified as the most appropriate for that area.
Since wild turkeys are not native to Washington, questions arise about the impact that wild turkeys might have on native wildlife and plants. There have been many wild turkey studies completed across the United States (in both native and introduced range), and none of these studies have indicated that wild turkeys have negative population-level impacts on plants, animals, or other birds.
Before turkeys can be released in the Potential Introduction Area, the proposal must be evaluated by local, regional and program staff. The evaluation will include, at a minimum, examination of current and potential nuisance and damage issues, impacts to existing management actions, impacts to the long-term survival of state and federally listed species (e.g., endangered and threatened) as well as candidate and sensitive species, and recreational and economic benefits. Measures to mitigate potential negative impacts, if they exist, will be identified. If impacts cannot be mitigated or no mitigation measures can be found, turkeys will not be released on that site.
Additional biological and management information is needed to help manage turkeys in the state of Washington. Specifically, WDFW is interested in conducting or helping conduct investigations to address the issues of inter-specific competition and wild turkey nutrition throughout the state, and habitat utilization and limiting factors analysis in western Washington.
Conducting habitat improvements for the wild turkey is going to receive greater emphasis in the future of the wild turkey management program. Habitat improvements can be done in cooperation with other state or federal agencies as well as non-governmental organizations (e.g., the National Wild Turkey Federation). In many cases, habitat improvements made for the wild turkey will also improve habitat conditions for other species in the area. Habitat projects that provide these multiple values will be a priority.
Providing quality hunting opportunities will continue to be a priority for the turkey management program. Information gathered from surveys of hunters has identified hunter access to private property as one of the most important issues to Washington hunters. As a piece of an overall hunter access program, efforts will be made to improve access for turkey hunters in much of the state. In addition, WDFW will continue to collect the best harvest information available through the current mandatory reporting system. This information is critical to providing the appropriate level of recreational opportunity.
No program is complete without a concerted effort provide the public with information about the wild turkey program in general as well as specific information about avoiding negative interactions, ongoing turkey management activities, and the variety of recreational opportunities available. There may be opportunities to partner with various organizations and agencies to develop and distribute many of these materials.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2005. Wild Turkey Management Plan. Wildlife Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington, USA
Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.