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What happens to turkeys after Thanksgiving?
Relocation programs help turkey populations
By Brian Wakeling, big game program supervisor,
Arizona Game and Fish Department
Many sportsmen think about turkeys maybe two or three times a year. Generally speaking, the “hunter-turkey cycle” goes like this. Hunters apply for fall hunts right after the spring season is over. Turkeys are gobbling during the spring hunts while hens sit on nests. The hens raise their broods during the summer. Then hunters apply for spring hunts about the time that they hunt turkeys in the fall. Oh yeah, hunters think about turkeys on Thanksgiving. But what happens to turkeys after Thanksgiving?
Well, biologically, there are a lot of things that happen. They feed on mast crops like acorns and pine seed and typically move to lower-elevation winter range. They spend the winter losing weight, avoiding deep snow and avoiding predation. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is actively involved in relocation programs to help restore and expand the range of turkey populations, and winter is prime time to capture and relocate turkeys.
History of translocation efforts
Historically, turkeys were among the first wildlife species to benefit from trap and translocation endeavors. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), this species has increased from about 30,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to well over 7 million in North America today, as a direct result of management activities like trap and transplant actions. Arizona got into the program in the 1930s, and our efforts are still ongoing today.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department, with the help of NWTF, volunteers, other governmental and private cooperators, and the Mexican government, has reestablished the Gould’s turkey in Arizona. This subspecies of turkey historically occupied the southeastern river corridors and mountain ranges in Arizona, but was extirpated by 1920. Arizona currently supports about 800 of these birds in historic habitat and offers limited hunting opportunity annually, due to the translocation efforts from Mexico. To date, about 230 individual birds have been relocated from Mexico to Arizona. An additional 100 turkeys have been moved from an established population in the Huachucas. Currently, Gould’s turkeys inhabit the Huachuca, Chiricahua, Pinaleno, Catalina, Santa Rita, and Galiuro Mountains.
Merriam’s turkeys (the other subspecies of turkey native to Arizona) have also benefited from translocations, although their numbers were never eliminated from the state. Arizona currently boasts about 20,000 of these birds, which range throughout the ponderosa pine belt of Arizona. Within the past two years, the department, again with NWTF and volunteer assistance, has moved about 150 turkeys into Pine Mountain in Game Management Unit 21, Big Bug Mesa in Unit 20A, and Mingus Mountain in Unit 19A. Their numbers are doing so well statewide that 6,246 permits were authorized this spring (a new record high), and 5,870 were authorized for next fall.
The trap and transplant program has served hunters, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, NWTF, and the turkey well. The enjoyment you get from hearing a spring turkey gobble or watching a brood chase bugs along a meadow roadway in summer can be attributed to the active management exercised by wildlife managers. Should you be fortunate enough to draw a tag, your next Thanksgiving meal may be attributed, in part, to these management activities as well.