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Harsh winter means tough times for wild turkeys

A gobbler strides atop the snow near a rural residence northwest of Proctor on Thursday morning. Nearby residents say they have seen the gobbler displaying this spring to attract a hen. (Bob King / / 3
A tom turkey takes flight in the woods north and west of Proctor on Thursday morning. Wildlife biologists say the severe winter likely will result in some mortality among wild turkeys. Turkey hunting begins Wednesday in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Bob King / / 3
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Even with 2 or 3 feet of snow remaining on the ground, wild turkeys in the Northland cannot resist the call of love.

“My daughter found where one was strutting yesterday (Monday),” said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager at Brule. “The birds are just starting to show up in places they haven’t been. They’re getting the urge.”

Spring wild turkey seasons open Wednesday in both Minnesota and Wisconsin and continue into May. The seasons consist of several five- to seven-day hunting periods. More than 237,000 permits are available through a preference drawing in Wisconsin, and 5,781 permits are available to Minnesota hunters in a lottery drawing. But in Minnesota, hunters no longer have to enter the lottery for a turkey permit to hunt one of the final five periods of the season.

The big question for hunters in each state’s most northerly hunting zones is what kind of effect the severe winter had on the birds. Winter Severity Index readings were extreme in both states, and some turkey mortality is expected.

Snow will remain on the ground when seasons open on Wednesday, presenting less-than-ideal conditions for hunters.

“Obviously, hunters are going to be hunting in the snow,” said Jeff Lightfoot, Minnesota DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids. “It changes their tactics and turkey behavior somewhat, but spring is spring. (Turkeys) go by photo-periodism (length of daylight hours). As the daylight lengthens, they’ve got to do what they have to do.”

Like sharp-tailed grouse on their dancing grounds and ruffed grouse drumming on their drumming logs, turkey gobblers will be strutting and displaying, trying to attract hens for mating. But snow and cold weather might alter their patterns a bit, Lightfoot said.

“They may be a little later getting off their roosts, especially if we have snowfall or precipitation,” Lightfoot said. “They may not be active for as long in the morning.”

DNR wildlife officials aren’t sure how many turkeys might have died in the severe winter.

“The birds may be down somewhat from last spring,” Lightfoot said.

The same is true in Wisconsin, Kessler said.

“Everybody is curious to see how many actually survived the winter,” Kessler said. “Obviously, it was a tough winter on them. We had reports of them dying by mid-January. If they were snowbound without readily available food, they were in trouble.”

Foresters and coyote trappers found several dead turkeys along roads, Kessler said.

The Wisconsin DNR usually sells unclaimed licenses from the lottery over the counter, but the state decided not to do that this year.

“It was a social decision, not a biological decision,” Kessler said. “We did that after feedback from the public, knowing we were losing a significant number of birds.”

Kessler said he has no way of knowing how many turkeys might die in a winter like that of 2013-14.

“The only good gauge we have is our (hunter) success rates,” Kessler said. “We’ll see after the season what our success rates are. I would expect very difficult hunting in many areas.”

Last spring’s success Hunting conditions were difficult last spring in northern turkey zones in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, where lots of snow fell during the season. Last spring, Minnesota issued nearly 39,000 turkey permits, and hunters registered 10,390 turkeys. That was 12 percent below the five-year average. Hunter success rates averaged 30 percent, right on par with the five-year average.

In turkey zone 508, which includes the areas closest to Duluth, a total of 3,868 hunters took 1,170 turkeys, for a 30 percent success rate.

In Wisconsin’s spring 2013 season, turkey hunters registered 37,804 turkeys, which, according to DNR officials, was an 11 percent decrease from the spring 2012 turkey season. Overall, the statewide success rate was 18 percent, compared with 21 percent in 2012.