By NATHAN PAYNE | Traverse City Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — There is a springtime duet many hunters know and love, the call and response just before a headstrong tom turkey struts into view.
A few clucks or purrs imitating an interested hen and the love-struck bachelor becomes Thanksgiving dinner, some say the best-tasting bird money can't buy.
Nearly 100,000 turkey hunters statewide spend their mornings in April and early May tiptoeing through forests and fields trying to entice a big gobbler into shooting range. About 30,000 of them find success each year, enough to catapult Michigan to the No. 7 spot for spring turkey hunting nationally.
But few know the now-thriving flock's whole story, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. It's a turkey-turn-around.
The DNR declared in late 2014 that turkeys for the first time inhabit all counties in the Lower Peninsula. This is a big improvement from decades past.
“There was a time when turkeys were gone from Michigan,” said Katie Keen, a wildlife technician for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Cadillac office.
European settlers, long before the days of set hunting seasons and bag limits, whittled the state's wild turkey population from 94,000 to zero by the turn of the 20th century, Keen said.
“There were no regulations, anyone could take however many they needed,” Keen said. “Most wildlife we see today had a huge drop during that time.”
A string of reintroduction efforts began 110 years ago when a mining company released turkeys on an island in Lake Superior near Munising, according to DNR documents.
That flock died and so did ones planted in the Sanford Game Refuge in 1919 and 1920 by the DNR. Restoration efforts continued in the 1950s when the DNR planted turkeys imported from Pennsylvania in the Allegan State Game Area. They continued to supplement that flock and eventually opened a regulated hunting season in the area in 1965.
Many of today's flock draw their lineage to birds imported from Pennsylvania and Missouri, Keen said.
The reintroduced populations thrived in the heart of their historic range, south of a line drawn across the Lower Peninsula between Bay City and Muskegon, said Ryan Boyer, a regional wildlife biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The NWTF and the Michigan Wild TurkeyHunters Association both joined the effort to reintroduce the birds and protect habitat where the birds flourish.
“We estimate that turkey populations are somewhere around 200,000 birds statewide,” Boyer said.
Hunters in those early years had a tougher time getting licenses and a season was only open in select areas. Those applying for a license in 1977 had only a 25 percent chance of getting a tag. Those who won the license lottery still had only a 10 percent chance of bagging a bird, according to DNR statistics.
Wild turkeynumbers continued to rise through the end of the 20th century and eventually gained a solid foothold in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula where snowpack and harsh winter conditions make survival more difficult, Boyer said.
Today hunters in the Grand Traverse region can apply for one of two limited-quota seasons that take place during the last two weeks of April. Or they can buy a license over the counter that is valid for the entire Lower Peninsula from May 4-31. Hunter success rates today are 30 percent across all the seasons.
The over-the-counter license, known as Hunt 234, was created in the 1990s as a limited-quota hunt but in the past decade was changed to a guaranteed license, Boyer said. He hunts the later season and calls it a good option for those who couldn't hit the fields during the short limited-quota hunts.
“Hunt 234 is kind of a neat opportunity,” he said. “We looked at the harvest data and it's pretty even throughout the end of May. We continue seeing folks being successful. If you only have the weekends to get out, it gives you two or three.”
Boyer expects the Hunt 234 option will continue to be available as long as the state's flock remains strong. There are even some areas where DNR officials have opened fall hunts because the population is above target numbers, he said.
“So long as we can continue to sustain the population of turkeys we have throughout the state, I think we will continue to see this option out there for hunters,” he said.