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Once captive turkeys causing damage near Mitchell

Some local hunters still have a chance to bag a turkey, but any birds they find might not be too wild. There are too many turkeys surrounding northern Mitchell, according to Josh Delger. Delger is the Terrestrial Resources Supervisor for South Da...

A flock of turkeys wander through a field of corn back in January just off Shanard Road northeast of Mitchell. (Matt Gade/Republic)
A flock of turkeys wander through a field of corn back in January just off Shanard Road northeast of Mitchell. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Some local hunters still have a chance to bag a turkey, but any birds they find might not be too wild.

There are too many turkeys surrounding northern Mitchell, according to Josh Delger. Delger is the Terrestrial Resources Supervisor for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks' Region 3, which includes about 20 counties in southeast South Dakota.

Delger said the department wants to increase the turkey population in most areas of the state, but has made an exception for a roughly 70 square-mile area around Mitchell in Davison and Hanson counties. This area is where Delger said the turkey population has been inundated by formerly captive birds.

"People buy these birds and they'll release them on their farm or wherever. They grow and they populate, and those are not the birds we want out there in the wild," Delger said.

Delger said these domesticated turkeys are not as timid as their wild counterparts, so they wander onto private property and cause problems, like eating crops or chasing children.

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"During the breeding season, they get kind of aggressive. They chase people, and if you've got kids around, it can be kind of a scary situation for those little kids," Delger said.

Wild turkeys, on the other hand, are more apt to avoid human contact, so they cause fewer problems.

Andy Petersen, a conservation officer in the Davison County area, said the issue is nothing new, but the population of formerly domesticated turkeys has risen to the point that they outnumber wild ones, which Petersen called an Eastern breed.

"It's steadily been getting worse since the population has been increasing right around the city limits there, specifically to the east and to the north," Petersen said. "I would say, just from what I've been seeing the past few years, there's definitely getting to be more of these domestic release birds than the wild Eastern turkeys."

Petersen said GF&P released Eastern turkeys south of Interstate 90 in the 1990s, so the entire hunting bloc is restricted to areas above the interstate.

Domesticated turkeys often have white on their tail feathers or throughout their bodies, Petersen said, while Eastern turkeys are darker with fully brown tails, but if they are not strutting, they may be hard to distinguish. Furthermore, the mixed-breed captive turkeys can boast a "broad range of colors," he said.

GF&P issued 100 resident tags this year in the Davison-Hanson unit, which were valid for male and female turkeys. The same number was issued in 2014 and 2015. Petersen said he won't know how many birds have been harvested until hunters return surveys, which will be sent out after the season ends on Jan. 31.

Petersen said the formerly captive birds may not be as wild, but they still provide a high-quality hunting experience for those who find one. But inside such a small hunting area, many turkeys live on private land, so it can be difficult for hunters to get to them.

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Delger said the problem occurs in various parts of the state, where people buy turkeys to raise like chickens or ducks but get sick of the birds as they age and begin to roost in trees or on roofs, causing damage. The owners will release the birds, who then remain in the area and cause the same problems for other people.

"We really want to be able to push our actual, wild birds as much as we can," Delger said. "We probably can't get enough people on all these properties to make a difference on the short term, but anything to try to knock those numbers back would be a good thing."

Wild habitat

Hunters also had an opportunity to purchase a turkey tag in 11 other units, including Hutchinson, Yankton, Bon Homme, Brule, Gregory and Tripp counties. Landscapes along the James River and the Missouri River feature deep bluffs that serve as prime turkey habitat, according to Brian Humphrey, a conservation officer in Hutchinson County.

Captive turkeys are not a problem in the area, but Humphrey said wild turkeys cause depredation as well, and a fall turkey season helps curb the damage.

"It's kind of a tool to help control those birds. Instead of having a kill permit issued, we can just issue to the hunters that way," Humphrey said.

There were 30 resident tags issued in Hutchinson County this year, with another 150 each in Bon Homme and Gregory and 50 each in Brule and Tripp counties. Turkey tags are sold out across the state for this season.

Last year, GF&P issued unlimited resident tags to hunters in Gregory, Lyman and Tripp counties, among others. Charles Mix and Douglas counties also saw a cutback this fall, with total available tags falling from 200 in 2015 to zero, and Jones County went from unlimited to none.

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Declining tags for fall prairie turkeys has been a trend for years. Between 6,900 and 11,300 tags were sold from 2006 to 2013, according to GF&P, but less than 2,000 were sold in the last three years. In addition, 370 fall mentored youth turkey licenses, which help introduce children to turkey hunting, were sold in 2015.

Harvest success - the percentage of tag holders who bagged a bird - fell below 40 percent in 2012, which is below the limit in which GF&P considers turkeys to be at a healthy population. It dropped to 22 percent in 2013 and was 33 percent in each of the last two years, leading the department to focus on raising the population.

But Humphrey said turkey hunting is more popular during the spring season, which runs from April into May and opens turkey hunting to more counties across the state. Humphrey said hunters often buy a fall turkey tag in hopes of bagging a "bonus critter" while they hunt for deer or pheasants.

"You get that tag, and if you happen upon one while you're deer hunting or pheasant hunting or whatever, you have that opportunity to harvest that critter," Humphrey said.

With temperatures falling and snow on the ground, Humphrey recommended turkey hunters seek out food plots, but he urged them not to underestimate the oft-maligned bird.

"I wouldn't say they're as stupid as most people think," Humphrey said. "People will probably find that out pretty quickly when they start hunting them."

Related Topics: HUNTING
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