Warm, mild weather has greeted turkey hunters during the first week of the spring season, and Brad Allen, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, predicted those hunters will enjoy “a very fair, modest hunt” this year.
The reason for Allen’s lukewarm assessment: The state’s turkey population has fallen in recent years, and there are fewer birds available to hunters.
“We were averaging 6,000 birds [taken by hunters] in the spring, and through the [efforts] of the legislature, they’ve done nothing but increase hunting opportunity for turkeys [in recent years],” Allen said. “They’ve tried to make it less expensive, and tried to get people out hunting, and the harvest last year went down to 4,500. So, despite our efforts to get more people involved, the harvest is going down, and it’s probably because the population is going down. Hunter interest is probably pretty stable.”
Turkey hunting in Maine is a relative bargain, thanks to those law changes. Today, an adult hunter who already has purchased a big game license can pay $20 for a turkey tag that allows them to take two birds during the spring season and another two birds in the fall.
There are some limitations: This year hunting is being allowed in northern Maine districts, but restrictions are in place to limit pressure on the birds. Hunters born in even-numbered years are allowed to hunt May 11-16 and May 25-30, while those born in odd-numbered years can hunt May 4-9 and May 18-23. All hunters in Wildlife Management Districts 1-6 and 8 will be allowed to hunt June 1-6.
Another key rule in those northern districts: Hunters can tag two bearded turkeys, but only one of those birds can come from those northern zones.
Allen said previous statewide estimates set the turkey population at 50,000 to 60,000, but he expects it has declined and is closer to 40,000 now.
“The last two or three springs, production has been mediocre,” Allen said. “People have argued with me, saying ‘Turkeys are all over,’ but my experience is that a mother turkey is [producing] two or three young instead of five or six, and that translates to a smaller population.”
Add in the aftermath of a harsh winter, and there’s more reason to expect fewer turkeys on the landscape, he said.
“This winter was hard on them, so we’d have to assume a 25 percent loss in the population, maybe, in this cold of a winter.”
Still, Allen’s not too concerned.
“They’re anything but rare, but there aren’t as many of them on the ground this season as there have been in the last decade, so [hunting] will be a little harder,” he said.
The DIF&W touts its turkey restoration effort as a wildlife success story; For years, there were no wild turkeys in Maine, as they had been extirpated. In the 1970s, biologists began efforts to reintroduce the birds in the southern part of the state, then began to trap and transport Maine birds into new areas.
Now, not only do turkeys live in all 16 Maine counties, but this year, for the first time, hunting opportunity is being offered in all of the state’s Wildlife Management Districts.
And after a few years of poor production, Allen is hoping the recent weather trend holds up.
“We’ve had some pretty mediocre spring [nesting] conditions for game birds, and turkeys experience that as well,” he said. “This might be the year — I think we’re due for a really nice, dry May.”
Share your turkey tale
If you’ve had some turkey-hunting success, we’d love to hear your story, and perhaps share it with our readers.
Especially noteworthy: Youngsters who’ve bagged their first birds, or hunters who have off-beat tales to tell.
Email us your stories, along with photos, and we’ll share a few in an upcoming edition. Happy hunting … and stay safe!
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke