MILES CITY, Mont.--Montana’s spring turkey gobbler season opens April 13 and ends May 19. Hunters from other parts of Montana and non-resident hunters should understand the opportunities to harvest a turkey in and around the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest are not as abundant as they have been in the past. But existing resident turkey populations elsewhere across southeastern Montana can provide spring hunting opportunities.
“Hunters need to know that turkey populations, especially in and around the Ashland and Sioux Ranger Districts of the Custer National Forest have experienced population declines compared to five years ago. ”, states Dean Waltee, Region 7, Broadus area Wildlife Biologist. These declines are attributed to significant snowfall in April of 2008, the severe winter conditions of 2009-10 and 2010-11, and the recent wildfires of 2012 which burned approximately 500,000 acres across southeast Montana, many of which were suitable turkey habitats. Several fires burned very hot resulting in the loss of critical ponderosa pine stands, valuable shrub cover and natural food sources. Large, hot fires destroy important turkey habitat and can produce negative impacts to resident populations. Turkey roosts are destroyed and readily available food sources are removed. Insect populations, especially grasshoppers can be severely impacted; forbs and grass cover are temporarily removed. The combination of these factors can impact the health and well being of the resident turkey populations.
Biologically, turkey populations have an inherent potential to rebound from lower than normal population numbers. Hens may lay a clutch of 10 - 12 eggs and if conditions are favorable all the eggs may produce a poult. If a nest is abandoned or destroyed, renesting sometimes occurs. A study of Merriam’s turkeys reported a 27 percent renesting rate; other studies found lower renesting rates among juvenile hens. Because turkeys are harem breeders, where one gobbler courts numerous females, the harvest of gobblers in the spring will not impact the reproductive opportunities of the population. In some cases, where the male to female ratio is closer to 1:1, reducing the number of males actually improves reproductive success.
In other areas of the region, turkey populations appear to be more stable. According to Melissa Foster, Region 7 Wildlife Biologist, “Turkey population numbers seem to be good especially along the lower Yellowstone River.” There are many hunting opportunities outside of Custer National Forest. Turkeys are present along the Tongue, Yellowstone, Powder, Little Powder and Little Missouri Rivers and Box Elder and Beaver Creeks. Turkeys can also be found in the pine forested areas surrounding Colstrip and the forested areas between Colstrip and Hysham.
Turkeys utilize a combination of natural and human related food sources during the winter. In open winters turkeys can survive entirely on natural food such as pine nuts, seeds and berries. When these food sources become unavailable turkeys typically winter in and close to working farms and ranches and become dependent upon agricultural small grain food sources in barnyards, grain fields, silage pits, hay stacks or feedlots. Snow depth and duration, food availability, and the presence of suitable roost trees are key factors that determine where turkeys winter.
Hunters should remember when transporting a spring turkey within the state of Montana, one leg and foot must be left naturally attached for evidence of sex. Montana law requires permission for all hunting on private land.
Licenses are available from all Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks offices, on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov and from FWP license providers across the state.
The 2013 Spring Turkey regulations, with details on turkey hunting in the general area, are available online at fwp.mt.gov, at most FWP offices and license providers.