Building on the success of its Grouse Enhanced Management Sites (GEMS) program, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has launched an initiative for hunters in pursuit of wild turkeys.
The DNR’s “Turkey Tracts” program was introduced just prior to the April 18 spring turkey hunting season opener. The effort is designed to highlight public hunting areas where intensive habitat management for turkeys has been conducted.
“These areas will provide beginning turkey hunters with places to go where the habitat is ideal for these big, popular gamebirds,” said Al Stewart, DNR upland gamebird specialist.
Wild turkeys are found in all 68 counties of the Lower Peninsula and several of the 15 counties in the Upper Peninsula, where the species has continued to expand its range.
Wild turkey revitalization has become an eventual reintroduction success story in Michigan that took decades to realize.
Turkeys, previously plentiful in Michigan, were wiped out of the state by habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Numerous attempts at reintroduction were made, beginning in 1919.
Birds were brought to Michigan from other states, including Iowa and Missouri, and efforts were made to improve habitat, which eventually proved successful. Some turkeys also were relocated from the southern part of the state to the northern Lower Peninsula.
In 1977, only 400 turkeys were harvested during the Michigan hunting season. However, by 2014, annual harvest figures had eclipsed 30,000 birds.
Importance of Allegan
The first Turkey Tract recently was dedicated at the Allegan State Game Area, a place where the state reintroduced turkeys from Pennsylvania in 1954.
Mark Mills, the DNR wildlife biologist who oversees the Allegan game area, said the site “has a unique place in Michigan’s wild turkey history.”
“After wild turkeys were extirpated (destroyed or removed from an area), Allegan was the first release site in Michigan where they were reintroduced,” Mills said. “As they reproduced, they were trapped and relocated across the state, so Allegan is really the base for all the wild turkeys across the state.”
Stewart said the willingness of local businesses to partner with the DNR on the GEMS program – often by offering discounts for goods and services to hunters who use the areas – is also a big part of the Turkey Tracts project.
He said hunters who visit the Allegan State Game Area Turkey Tract are eligible for discounts available at a local eatery, hotel and sporting goods establishment.
“Turkey Tracts fit right in with the DNR Wildlife Division’s goals to provide unique hunting opportunities and economic benefits to surrounding communities, promote hunter recruitment and retention and to highlight the benefits of wildlife management,” Stewart said.
More to come
Stewart said that while the GEMS are located in the northern two-thirds of the state, where the best grouse and woodcock habitat is found, Turkey Tracts are ideal for southern Michigan game areas.
The more than 5,000-acre Turkey Tract at Allegan is the first of what Stewart said will be several Turkey Tracts across southern Michigan.
“We could eventually develop Turkey Tracts at a number of our state game areas,” Stewart said. “We hope to have some of them established within the next year. Most of the game areas have good turkey populations and we’re already doing habitat work on these areas.”
Another reason the roughly 50,000-acre Allegan State Game Area was selected for the first Turkey Tract is significant support there from the National Wild Turkey Federation, the DNR’s partner on the Turkey Tracts program.
DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason, who spoke about the importance of the many partnerships the DNR forms with conservation groups, singled out the turkey federation for special praise.
“It’s always NWTF that’s the among the first on board to help us out on projects,” Mason said.
Several speakers at the dedication ceremony made the same point.
Ryan Boyer, a regional biologist with National Wild Turkey Federation, highlighted a nearly 200-acre stand of oak savannah at the dedication site that recently was rehabilitated by “brush hogging” the young growth.
The rehab project was paid for the by the turkey federation.
Boyer said with that young growth removed, the stand is a perfect candidate for controlled burns to revitalize the grass.
Art Pelon, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, reiterated a common refrain, “What’s good for turkeys is good for other creatures, too.”
“Everything benefits from projects like this, from deer to Karner blue butterflies,” Pelon said. “It’s been an honor to work with the DNR on a project of this size. This is a wonderful opportunity not just for average hunters, but for disabled hunters, too, to go to a place that’s accessible.”
Mills said the work of rehabilitating the oak savannas at Allegan helps preserve what was once an important habitat in Michigan, but has almost disappeared.
“We have few oak savannas left in Michigan,” Mills said. “A lot of the areas that were originally oak savannas were timbered off, and because they had such rich soils, they were converted to agriculture.”
Mills said oak savannas are an example of a fire-dependent habitat. Land managers have suppressed wildfires over the decades.
“The fire kills the small trees and brush, but spares the larger trees and the grass regenerates,” he said. “There is a whole suite of insects and wildlife that use oak savannas.”
Mills said plenty of conservation organizations have an interest in rehabilitating oak savannas.
“One of the groups that puts in a lot of work at Allegan is the Toledo Zoo,” Mills said. “They come out here and collect Karner blue butterflies, breed them, then bring them back, but they release the offspring elsewhere to establish new colonies.
“The main thing Karner blue butterflies need is lupines (a flowering plant). They feed on lupines like monarch butterflies feed on milkweed. Lupines are kind of uncommon in Michigan, but there are places in the area where there are carpets of them. They really only grow in oak savannas.”
Learn to hunt
The nearby Barry State Game Area is the focus of a new “Learn to Hunt” initiative, which is a partnership between the DNR’s Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation program, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Michigan State University.
Fourteen novice turkey hunters have been receiving instruction in turkey hunting and will participate in a hunt at the Barry State Game Area, with the aid of volunteer guides, later this month.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to a conviction of the person or persons responsible for destroying the new “Turkey Tracts” kiosk at the Allegan State Game Area in Allegan County.
The damage was done April 15, three days after opening of the first Turkey Tracts site was celebrated at Allegan.
Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to call the 24-hour DNR Report All Poaching (RAP) line at 800-292-7800. Information may be left anonymously.
Check out a video on the Allegan Turkey Tract dedication.
Learn more about turkey hunting in Michigan.
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