Considering how well-established the Merriam’s wild turkey is in modern Montana, most people wouldn’t think of this bird as an exotic species. However, before the mid-1950s, there were no wild turkeys to be found in the state. In her guide to the Merriam’s Wild Turkey, Mary C. Kennamer of the National Wild Turkey Federation says that the original range of the Merriam’s subspecies most likely included only Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Thanks to successful transplantation, the bird now has established populations further north and west.
After the Merriam’s turkey had been successfully introduced in Wyoming and South Dakota, biologists in Montana decided to bring the bird to their own state. In the article Cold Turkeys, Andrew McKean of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks says that eighteen turkeys were originally released in 1954, and within three years, their numbers had grown to nearly 1000. Biologists trapped and relocated some of the new birds, and the turkeys established populations in areas with good weather and plenty of food. They did not survive in some of Montana’s northern and high-altitude areas due to the cold and snow, however, turkeys are very adaptable, and did well overall. The state held its first turkey hunt in 1958, and hunters bagged close to 100 birds.
Transplanting of turkeys to new locations continued for the next 30 years, and due to the birds’ prolific breeding habits, populations exploded. Wild turkey hens lay between 10 and 12 eggs per clutch, and even through about half the eggs do not hatch due to predators or human interference, more than enough survive. As the turkeys’ range became more widespread, some landowners started to see the birds as a nuisance. In winter when food is scare, turkeys are known to steal food meant for livestock, and sometimes even chase cattle away. Fortunately for the turkeys, many people enjoy seeing them, and landowners often deal with them by putting out extra food. This of course leads to more turkeys surviving the winter, which leads to even larger populations. Wildlife biologists have slowed the relocation efforts, and moved fewer than 300 birds between 1990 and 2003. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks department also established a spring turkey hunting season in 2002 in order to help control the population.
Now that Montana has become a popular destination for turkey hunters, some wildlife advocates worry that the populations might not be able to keep up, and they urge biologists to step up transplantation efforts once again. Hopefully, advocates, biologists and hunters can all work together to keep turkey populations stable so that future generations can enjoy these birds.