Wild turkeys are an increasingly frequent sight across the Treasure State, ranging from the Flathead’s pine forests to Fallon’s river bottom breaks. While a turkey may be a turkey to the untrained eye, Montana is actually home to two of the five subspecies found in the U.S., though none lived in the state until about half a century ago.
Montana was void of wild turkeys until 1954, when then-Montana Department of Fish and Game released 13 Merriam’s turkeys from Colorado into the Judith Mountains of central Montana. The transplant was followed by 1955 releases of 18 Merriam’s from Wyoming into the Long Pines and 26 birds in 1956 and 1957 into the Ashland area of southeastern Montana, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
It was also during that time period that turkeys of the Eastern subspecies were illegally released in the Flathead Valley, said FWP game management Bureau Chief John Vore. Eastern turkeys are native to the hardwood forests of the eastern U.S. -- habitats much different than those of the Rocky Mountain West, he said.
“Turkeys are not native to Montana, so the closest native birds to us are the Merriam’s in Colorado, and that means we want to have Merriam’s in Montana,” he said. “The Easterns were brought in in the 50s sort of like ‘bucket biology’ by some private individuals. That is, of course, illegal, and we really discourage that.”
Merriam’s and Eastern turkeys share many similar characteristics such as body size, diet and spectacular seasonal mating displays of strutting and gobbling in the spring. The easiest way to tell the difference is by looking at the tail feathers, as the Merriam’s are tipped with white while the Eastern sports chestnut-colored tips.
Other subspecies living in the U.S. are the Rio Grande concentrated in western desert regions of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the Osceola native to Florida and the Gould’s found only in Arizona and New Mexico, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Merriam’s have expanded their range in Montana both through transplants and natural movement, Vore said, while the Easterns have stayed in the northwestern part of the state. The two subspecies do overlap in places resulting in some hybrids, and wild turkeys have also been documented cross-breeding with domestics, causing various plumages of black mixed with white, he added.
“Turkey populations are doing very well, and we have more than we want in some places,” Vore said.
Hunting opportunities vary throughout the state, with some areas requiring special permits to hunt while other areas allow over-the-counter general tags.
As turkeys flourish, FWP has increasingly received complaints of “game damage” from the birds. It often starts with people feeding a few turkeys, which quickly escalates to dozens keying in on the easy food source. Before long people are overwhelmed, Vore said, adding that FWP strongly discourages feeding.
In the wild, turkeys fill a niche that is largely unfilled by native species and do not tend to compete with other animals, he said.
As with all wildlife, winter is a hard time of year for turkeys, but survival of chicks is the most important factor in the bird’s ability to maintain healthy populations, he said. Berries, seeds and forbs are staple turkey foods, but insects are particularly important as a protein source, especially for young birds, Vore said.
“Turkeys are very productive and can produce two or three clutches a year even in Montana,” Vore said. “They can get by in a lot of habitats.”
National Wild Turkey Federation regional director Jason Tarwater also emphasized turkeys’ ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats. Interest in turkeys often comes through their spring mating displays when they become receptive to hunters’ calls, he said.
“I think a lot of it is having a spring season when the only other hunting season might be spring black bear,” he said. “Then it’s the challenge and communication between hunter and bird. I know some diehard elk and turkey hunters that say the biggest difference is the time of year and size of your animal.”
NWTF condemns illegally transplanting turkeys, which is what occurred in the Flathead, Tarwater said, adding that management should be left up to state wildlife agencies. While it is unfortunate how Easterns got to Montana, they have “taken hold” in the Flathead and are now part of the wildlife landscape in the area, he said.
Last year, NWTF participated in a 90-bird release of Merriam’s along the Marias River, but has largely shifted its focus to access and hunter issues as the birds themselves are doing so well, Tarwater said.
“We haven’t gotten completely away from stocking, but for the most part, where there is suitable habitat there are birds there,” he said.
NWTF’s initiative Save the Habitat Save the Hunt centers on public access, hunter recruitment and retention and habitat benefiting all wildlife. Local chapters hold fundraising banquets for projects such as land acquisitions and easements and partnering NWTF biologists with state and federal agencies on habitat issues.
The West can be a challenging place to generate conservation interest in species such as turkeys when other wildlife already often has an established support base, he said.
“We’re broadening our spectrum with public lands, which are really important to western hunters, and that has some new folks interested,” Tarwater said. “We’re promoting our initiative and trying to stay away from just the turkey hunting aspect of conservation, because to make a difference you cannot just be single species.”