What's being done to preserve South Dakota's turkey hunting culture? Improving habitat is a start

Sam Fosness, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
·8 min read

Mar. 14—MITCHELL, S.D. — Save the habitat. Save the hunt.

For the past decade, that's been the mission of the James River Gobblers, a Mitchell organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing South Dakota's turkey hunting.

While the state's turkey hunting opportunities continue to draw outdoor enthusiasts from across the country, generating roughly $21 million in annual revenue for South Dakota, the declining and at times stagnant numbers of turkeys being harvested by hunters in recent years has prompted state and local wildlife organizations to take more aggressive action on growing the turkey population.

"You can't have the hunt unless you have the habitat. Our chapters in South Dakota are doing a lot to keep the habitat up," said Jim Metz, the leader of the James River Gobblers, a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "Turkey hunting doesn't get the type of spotlight that pheasant hunting does, but it's something many hunters in state and out of state enjoy."

To help grow the turkey population, the James River Gobblers has prioritized habitat conservation efforts, such as restoring grasslands and riparian zones, to provide better nesting and roosting areas. The group also released turkeys along the James River valley recently, a move that has hunters eager to get out in the fields this spring. As the state's spring season opener is less than a month away on April 10, Bonnie Struble is one of those Mitchell turkey hunters hoping all the work that the James River Gobblers has been putting in will pay off this spring.

While the James River Gobblers group is focused on conservation practices, Metz said recruiting the next generation of turkey hunters is just as crucial for the 70-member group.

As Metz puts it, if youth aren't turkey hunting, "it will eventually die off."

According to Chad Lehman, senior wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the state's wild turkey population peaked between 2007 and 2012. During that peak, turkey harvest success rates — the percentage of turkeys killed based on the tags issued in a given season — hovered around 45% to 50% for the East River spring seasons. However, Lehman said there's been a fairly steady decline in wild turkeys being harvested since then.

"It's dropped a bit since, but the last two years we have seen wild turkey harvest numbers pick up and stay kind of flat," Lehman said, noting harvest rates are hovering around 30%, marking a roughly 10% decline from the state's peak numbers in 2009 and 2010.

During the state's peak of turkey harvest success rates in 2010, South Dakota dolled out 16,018 spring licenses, which had a success rate of around 45%, amounting to 9,767 turkeys. In 2020, the spring harvest success rate dropped to 33% with 6,303 turkeys harvested. However, the dip hasn't scared off any hunters as there were 17,101 licenses dispersed last year.

For the spring 2020 season in the Mitchell area, Davison and Hanson counties experienced the worst harvest success rate in 2018, which brought near record-breaking spring rain and snow storms, causing the harvest rate to fall to 24%. Comparing that to 2010's harvest success rates, which saw roughly 44%, it adds evidence of the impact climate has on turkey populations, Lehman noted.

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Considering the GF&P hasn't conducted any recent long-term studies on the survival rate of wild turkeys throughout many parts of the state, pinpointing the root cause of the declining turkey population isn't easy, Lehman said. However, he pointed to harsh winters and wetter than average springs as one of the biggest factors contributing to the recent dip in wild turkeys.

"Turkey populations are very eruptive. Climate is a really big factor outside of habitat," Lehman said. "If you have anything that causes additive mortality on hens, that affects the population. They can be very susceptible to predation if they're in areas where they have fragmented habitat like road ditches and linear corridors."

Habitat management practices

As for ways landowners can reverse the trend in declining turkey population, Lehman pointed to "early successional habitat management," such as grassland restoration and manipulating shrubs, are perhaps the most vital methods.

Lehman emphasized how vital it is to protect the adult hens, or females, as he says "they are driving the population growth." Like pheasants, wild turkeys also face a similar threat to nest predators. Therefore, trapping is a practice that works in tandem with pheasants numbers.

"In eastern South Dakota, we already have enough agriculture like corn, so they have high-energy foods to make it through winter, but harsh winters can lead to starvation," Lehman said. "You can turn a turkey population around in three years with great environmental variables, specifically precipitation and non-inclement weather."

Among the goals in the National Wildlife Turkey Federation's strategic plan is restoring and enhancing 50,000 acres of grassland habitat over 10 years. In addition, the NWTF is seeking to restore up to 10,000 acres of critical riparian habitat — a portion of land between a river or stream — over the next decade.

"Out west, we have worked with landowners to get access to land. But we haven't around our area," Metz said. "I have noticed landowners around here are good about giving permission for turkey hunters, so that helps open some more land up."

Recruiting future turkey hunters

While Metz and Struble somewhat stumbled into turkey hunting later in life, they both developed a passion for it after their first hunts. Pheasant hunting is what led Metz to the world of turkey hunting. Throughout his years of rooster hunting in the state that many dub "pheasant capital," Metz said he noticed there was no shortage of participation and involvement in pheasant hunting.

On the other hand, he said turkey hunting didn't have near the type of participation when he first got into it in the late 1990s. After joining the James River Gobblers, Metz went on his first turkey hunt. It was an experience he found plenty of enjoyment in. And now, he's striving to share that type of experience with youth outdoor enthusiasts who are interested in turkey hunting.

"We're always trying to keep the kids interested in it," Struble said. "A lot of hunting groups in general, not just turkeys, are aging and need new members to keep them going."

However, sparking more youth turkey hunting participation hasn't been easy. Some major challenges that South Dakota's turkey organizations are up against are a lack of hunting instructors. An objective of the South Dakota NWTF includes recruiting 500 new hunters.

"To recruit the new hunters, the goal is to add 40 volunteers to become mentors," Metz said.

Unique style of hunting

While there are numerous ways to hunt turkey, including the use of a bow and shotgun, Metz and Struble compare it to deer hunting. Unlike pheasants, Turkeys wander greater distances and fly less. Therefore, turkey hunters typically scout areas like they would deer and hide out, rather than walking fields to scare them up.

"Some people will wait around a corner of a field and do what I call 'the ambush method,'" Metz said. "The real challenging way to hunt turkey is to get set up out there and call them in. If you can call them, then you've accomplished something."

Typically, wild turkeys move a little over 1 mile in a day depending on habitat and distances to food and water sources. The home range of wild turkeys varies widely from about 370 to 1,360 acres. They usually feed on grains, seeds and nuts. However, the Merriam subspecies relies heavily on pine beetles in West River South Dakota since there are fewer crop fields.

In North America, there are four common wild turkey subspecies. South Dakota is home to three of those species, including the Merriam's, Eastern and Rio Grande turkey. Eastern turkeys are found east of the Missouri River, while Merriam's primarily inhabit the western portion of South Dakota.

"The habitat is similar, but the hunting is totally different," Struble said. "Some people think they are dumb, but they aren't. Turkey hunting can be as fun and challenging as pheasant hunting."

If a hunter harvests all four subspecies of turkeys, it's considered a "grand slam." Struble is two species away from notching a grand slam. After bagging the Florida native Osceola turkey and Eastern subspecies, Struble has the Merriam and Rio turkey species left to reach the milestone.

Although South Dakota is known for its renowned pheasant hunting, Lehman said the state attracts a sizable number of out-of-state turkey hunters each year. With the opportunity to hunt three subspecies in the state, Lehman said turkey hunting remains a "highly valuable" economic driver for South Dakota.

"Culturally and economically, turkeys are highly valuable for the state," Lehman said, pointing to the annual $21 million the upland birds generate for the state. "In the spring, turkeys are the number one species hunters target. I recently took calls from people in Texas and Virginia who are coming to hunt our Merriam's this spring. It's just another reason we need to continue preserving the turkey hunting culture."