It was the middle of May 2016, prime turkey-hunting season in Minnesota. Kevin Roth was sitting in a field across the road from the Sauk River near St. Martin, trying to attract the male “tom” turkeys with his hen call. There was an oat field across the way, the oats just greening up. He could hear a tom gobbling off in that direction. Then, just as he was making another hen call, a tom “gobbled across it,” essentially cutting him off.
“So I knew he was coming for me,” said Kevin (or coming for the hen he thought he was hearing). He was facing west, with thick brush to his left, and he knew the turkey was coming from the left, but he couldn’t see him. Just then, a car went by on the road. Unable to see the tom, Kevin looked at the car, hoping to gauge where the turkey was by noticing which way the driver and passengers were looking. Hunters use whatever tactics they can to help them in determining where the animal is that they are hunting… but this time it didn’t work. Kevin couldn’t tell anything by where the car’s occupants were looking. And as soon as the car was gone, there was the tom.
“And I still had the gun on my lap!” exclaimed Kevin. The tom was only 20 yards away at that point, “but,” remembered Kevin, “he had made me.” Kevin hoped that he could call the bird back, but the tom was too nervous by then and the opportunity was gone.
“If I’d had a decoy then, he would have gone right to it,” said Kevin a little wistfully. But he was fairly new at turkey hunting then and had not yet invested in decoys. Kevin, a farm bill wildlife biologist employed by Pheasants Forever – in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) – has been a hunter all his life, and especially loves hunting game birds, such as pheasants and grouse.
A turkey hunting trip to Nebraska earlier that year had netted two toms, one for Kevin and one for his friend, so he hadn’t been completely skunked… but he was looking forward to hunting turkeys in his home state of Minnesota, especially since they have made such a successful comeback in Minnesota.
Wild turkeys were once plentiful in the area, as recorded by early explorers and settlers. But by the beginning of the 20th century, wild turkeys had virtually disappeared from the state due to unregulated hunting and destruction of habitat.
Environmentalists and sportsmen became concerned; efforts were made to bring wild turkeys back to Minnesota starting in the 1920s. Initially, turkeys that were raised in pens in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas were brought to Minnesota and released in 11 southern Minnesota counties. The effort was not successful. In the 1950s, another attempt was made to release pen-raised turkeys. Again the turkeys did not survive; the introduction failed.
The focus was changed to bringing in wild turkeys that had been live-trapped in other states and releasing them in southeastern Minnesota. The birds were brought from Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, where the Merriam subspecies is found. But the Merriam subspecies, native to ponderosa pine forests and western mountainous areas of the United States, were also not able to adapt to Minnesota’s environment.
Finally, a breakthrough came in the early 1970s, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources brought in 29 eastern wild turkeys, captured in Missouri, and released them in Houston County. The eastern wild turkey is a larger and hardier bird than the Merriam subspecies, and immediately adapted to the southeastern Minnesota habitat. Once the birds had become established, the DNR expanded its catch and release program to other areas of Minnesota. Now, according to the Minnesota DNR’s website, there are over 30,000 wild turkeys across Minnesota.
“Wild turkeys do very well in a landscape similar to the one we have in this portion of the state,” said Kevin, referring to Central Minnesota’s “transition zone” between the woods of the eastern part of the state and the prairies of the west. Wild turkeys like to roost in large trees at night, said Kevin. And in Central Minnesota, “We have large oak trees and other large trees that – because of their large size – the eastern strain of wild turkeys need to roost.”
“Mixed agriculture also helps,” he continued. “You will find turkeys in food plots over the winter or other grain fields (no-till corn is popular). In the spring, turkeys can often be seen in grass hay or alfalfa fields or early emerging small grain fields. These fields attract bugs that are an important part of their diet in the spring once the weather begins to warm.” In the western part of the state, said Kevin, turkeys are less widespread. They can be found mostly near river systems, where – again – there are large trees for roosting.
In contrast with wild turkeys, said Kevin, pheasants don’t do as well in Central Minnesota. Instead, they “tend to prefer the grasslands and cattail sloughs of the western part of the state.”
“Pheasants,” said Kevin, “need grassy areas for nesting.” Although hayfields, fairly common in rural areas of Central Minnesota, would seem like the ideal place for a pheasant nest, the timing of the first cutting of hay causes problems. According to the Minnesota DNR, most first cuttings of alfalfa in Minnesota are around the first week of June, which is usually just prior to the peak of the pheasant hatch, between June 7 and 15.
Pheasants used to have a better time of it in the state, but as agricultural practices changed after World War II, the pheasant population plummeted, according to the Minnesota DNR website. As small farms gave way to larger agricultural expanses, there were simply fewer areas that were good pheasant habitat. A variety of agencies were established to promote conservation and increase wildlife habitat over the years, some successful, some not so much. In 1985, responding to environmental concerns, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency, the Conservation Reserve Program compensates farmers for “removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality,” according to www.fsa.usda.gov. This program and others like it help to provide habitat for pheasants and other wildlife species, as well as protecting water resources, reducing soil erosion, and helping to resolve other conservation issues.
Pheasants Forever, established in 1982, also works to help improve and establish habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. Relying on their thousands of members across the United States, Pheasants Forever has “created or enhanced wildlife habitat on more than 15.8 million acres across the United States and parts of Canada,” according to their website. Through partnerships with government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they have been able to participate in increasing the pheasant population in Minnesota and other states. In 2016, according to a news bulletin on the Minnesota DNR website (http://news.dnr.state.mn.us/2016/09/06/state-pheasant-index-up-29-percent-from-last-year/), the state pheasant index was up 29 percent from the previous year.
Turkeys, of course, have done even better. Proud of this accomplishment, the Minnesota DNR wild turkey information page on its website proclaims: “The restoration of the wild turkey over the past 25 years is one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories.”