DEERWOOD - Thirty-one years after wild turkeys began to be transplanted throughout Minnesota, nobody knows how far north the birds can survive.
Statewide, 4,500 turkeys have been stocked since 1976 in 200 locations from Houston County in the southeast to Pennington County in the northwest. The Pennington County release near Thief River Falls marks the most northerly release, and the DNR said it has no plans to go farther north.
"That release, along with another in Red Lake County, took place just last winter so we're still studying those birds," said Gary Nelson, head of the DNR's turkey trap and transplant program. "The jury is still out on whether or not those birds will be successful."
North-central Minnesota got its first wild turkeys in 1998 with a release in Crow Wing County. The birds have prospered and today are a common sight throughout the lakes area. The county's first turkey hunt took place in 2003.
Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
The latest turkey release in this area took place near Deerwood on Jan. 26 with the release of 15 hens. Three males were released at the same site on Jan. 31. All of the birds were captured near Rushford in southern Minnesota.
Reed and Zack Olander, jake members of the Cuyuna Longbeards, a member club of the National Wild Turkey Federation, released the first of the male birds. It rocketed out of its box and disappeared over a nearby hill. The second bird was released by Mary Hanson of Central Minnesota Gobblers, another local NWTF club that helped sponsor the release. That bird flew into a marsh bordered by woods. The third turkey, released by Lloyd Bordwell of Deerwood, flew into standing corn near where the previously-released hens were last seen. Weights of the male birds were 18.5 pounds, 21 pounds and 22 pounds. They were expected to find the hens within 24 hours.
The release was part of the DNR's new turkey plan, announced in January. The agency wants to see more turkeys on what's believed to be the northern edge of their range.
"In the next few years you'll see another release north of Pillager in the cattle country up to the Foothills State Forest," said Gary Drotts, DNR area wildlife manager in Brainerd. "That's where we expect is real close to the northern edge of their range in this part of the state. The birds will take hold, but probably in lower densities as compared to the southeast."
Whatever the densities, turkey hunting is catching on with more Brainerd-area hunters each year. Among the avid hunters who enjoyed a local hunt recently is Marty Splettstoeszer, president of the Cuyuna Longbeards.
"We had a great time even though we had trouble getting permission to hunt," Splettstoeszer said. "But one guy in our party got a nice, big gobbler."
Splettstoeszer describes the area near Deerwood where this latest release took place as "prime, excellent" habitat. Drotts agrees, but says this is the farthest north that turkeys will be stocked in that part of Crow Wing County.
"When you hit the (Cuyuna) iron range there's more aspen and jackpine forest and not much farming," Drotts said. "You have to have some corn and alfalfa."
It's suspected a harsh winter could hinder turkey expansion at this latitude. Heavy snows in 2001 nearly wiped out 18 turkeys stocked in Mille Lacs County that year. Eight died of starvation, three were killed by bobcats, one by a coyote, another by a great horned owl and one died of unknown causes. Four birds remained to carry on the flock and today, after a series of mild winters, the birds have bounced back.
In related news, the DNR said it won't try to capture birds in Camp Ripley, a project it tried last year without success. Camp Ripley might have the highest per-square mile densities of turkeys in central Minnesota, but the capture effort was foiled by several factors, including the untimely arrival of an owl, which spooked the turkeys as they approached the trap.
"When I first got here in 2000 we still wrote down whenever we saw a turkey," said Brian Dirks, Camp Ripley Environmental Staff biologist. "That year we had 10 dots on a map. Now when we go down range we always see turkeys. They're all over, north to south, in very good numbers."
- The turkey release was a cooperative effort between the DNR, Cuyuna Longbeards and Central Minnesota Gobblers. Cooperation between the various turkey clubs has become the hallmark of the expansion program in Minnesota.
- Central MN Gobblers' annual banquet is scheduled for March 3 at the Nisswa Community Center. Phone Dan Zimmerman, chapter president, at 821-7701 for more information.
VINCE MEYER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5862.
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