Anderson: A Pandemic turkey hunt, the sequel

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
·4 min read

Of all the research that's occurred in the past year about COVID-19 and its effects on people, little is known about whether the public's recreation habits and pastimes have been permanently altered by the pandemic, or whether, as life returns to normal, people's heightened interest in biking, hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities will fade to previous levels.

With the start of turkey hunting Wednesday in Minnesota, we might find out.

Consider that last year, just as the world began to fear the novel coronavirus that was spreading fast and killing increasing numbers of people, Minnesota's turkey hunting season opened.

In part because many kids were no longer in school then, and in part because hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans were suddenly working from home — if they were working at all — the Department of Natural Resources sold 37% more turkey hunting licenses in 2020 than it did in 2019.

Youth license sales were up by an even greater margin, 59%.

And the turkey harvest?

That also jumped 30% from 2019 to 2020, with 13,996 birds registered by hunters last year, a record for a single Minnesota spring season.

Can the state's turkeys sustain a harvest that high?

Leslie McInenly, DNR wildlife populations program manager, believes it can. "We killed about that many turkeys in 2010,'' she said, adding that the average Minnesota turkey harvest over the past 10 years is 11,400.

McInenly also underscored that the DNR last year initiated significant license-buying changes for Minnesota turkey hunters. Those changes, she said, might have prompted the license-sale boost at least as much as the pandemic.

Gone in 2020, for example, was the requirement for most hunters that they secure a turkey hunting permit by lottery.

Instead, with the exception of three state wildlife management areas (WMAs) — Carlos Avery just north of the Twin Cities, Whitewater in the southeast and Mille Lacs in the central part of the state — hunters were free to pick the dates and places they wanted to hunt.

(Deadline this year to apply for permits to hunt in the three WMAs was Feb. 12. Winners can hunt in their chosen WMA and also statewide. But they can't hunt in the other two wildlife areas.)

McInenly said the DNR eliminated the lottery system for most turkey hunters because too many areas were undersubscribed.

"We had seen that pattern for a number of years,'' she said. "So we said, 'Let's open up the [permit issuing system] and monitor it and see what happens.' ''

Asked whether the pandemic and its effects on school and work schedules was the primary driver in last year's increased license sales, or whether instead it was the changed permit-issuing system, McInenly said she was unsure.

"This year will be different in some respects,'' she said. "Many kids are back in school and playing team sports, so they might not have as much free time as they did last spring. Perhaps for that reason fewer of them will hunt.''

Yet early indications are that turkey license sales might keep pace with those of a year ago. As of Thursday, the DNR had sold 13,091 licenses, compared with 12,980 on the same date in 2020.

Tom Glines, Minnesota development director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, believes many turkey hunters who were new to the sport a year ago will return this year.

"I know schools are back in session and a lot of people are working again,'' he said. "But I still think we'll still have strong numbers of hunters.''

The crowding that inevitably results from putting too many hunters into the field isn't welcomed by everyone, however.

"Turkey hunting is different from deer hunting or duck hunting,'' Glines said. "With deer and ducks, hunters generally set up and stay where they are. Turkey hunters by contrast often move a lot while hunting. Two hunters might need 80 to 160 acres for a day of hunting.''

Given that wild turkeys have expanded their range and increased their population significantly in Minnesota since modern-era hunting of the birds began in the state in 1978, it would seem unlikely their numbers would decline any time soon.

But population falloffs are happening in some states that only a few years ago were nearly overrun with turkeys.

"Some states in the southeast are reducing their turkey bag limits,'' Glines said. "And we're [NWTF] part of a study in Missouri that is looking at whether nesting success there is one reason bird numbers have fallen.''

Turkey hunting season "A'' that begins Wednesday in Minnesota runs through April 20. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.