Will the turkey habitat bill actually accomplish anything?

Representatives from the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters, National Wild Turkey Federation and Michigan Department of Natural Resources release wild turkeys near Mio that were trapped near Hastings. Photo: Courtesy of MDNR.

LANSING — Controversial legislation aimed at creating more northern wild turkey habitat in Michigan and determining whether disease may be suppressing those populations is on its way to Gov. Rick Snyder for a signature.

Senate Bill 412 passed the Michigan House of Representatives March 28 with a unanimous 109-0 vote. It was introduced in March 2011 by Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, and goes into effect immediately, once signed.

The bill calls for the Michigan DNR to create wild turkey habitat on state and national forest lands and private lands; conduct annual turkey hunter surveys; and provide for disease testing if sick birds are brought in voluntarily by hunters. Some turkey hunters say that isn’t needed. Much of it is already being done.

The bill also requires the DNR to annually report to the Legislature how money is spent for Michigan’s wild turkey program.

“We need to get a better handle on how the money is being spent,” said Booher, who says he hunts turkeys. “If two-thirds of it is going to wages and benefits, I should be able to show you wildlife openings all around the state, but that’s not the case.”

The push to legislate how and where the DNR manages turkeys or spends its funding originated with disgruntled turkey hunters who approached Booher, contending they were dissatisfied with the DNR. They maintain that Michigan turkey numbers are dropping and that restricted turkey funds are not spent in the northern regions of the state.

Jim Maturen, of the Pere Marquette Chapter of the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association, told Michigan Outdoor News that northern wild turkey populations have declined in recent years. He thinks bad weather may have contributed, but worries that disease may have a role.

Maturen initially asked for mandatory disease testing of turkeys and statewide turkey population surveys, two provisions in the original bill that were dropped to reach a compromise with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Both groups supported the final bill, along with the DNR and Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

“We want to require the DNR to put money back into state forest lands on parcels with potential turkey habitat,” Maturen said. “We need to have grassy openings, and that isn’t happening. We have $1.5 million in restricted turkey funds generated every year, but the DNR has invested nothing in the 3.9 million acres of state forest lands.”

Tony Snyder, the Michigan chapter president for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said the bill “really adds nothing” and requires things that already are being done. NWTF opposed the original legislation. He said his group has a number of northern turkey habitat projects lined up. It also worked with the DNR and Maturen’s group on a turkey-relocation project that began in 2011 to revitalize the northern Michigan wild turkey population.

The groups released 28 wild turkeys in the region around Fairview, an area known as Michigan’s “Wild Turkey Capital.” The birds were trapped by the DNR in the Hastings area.

Those were the first of several planned releases. Another 54 were captured in Kent and Barry counties this year in February and were released in the Mio area.

“We opposed it (the original bill) because of the amount of money it was going to take away from habitat projects,” Snyder said. “If you do population surveys across the entire range it takes a lot of effort and a lot of bodies. The same goes for mandatory disease testing.

“There isn’t a disease problem in Michigan, and turkey numbers all across the Midwest are down a small percentage as a whole.”

Booher’s bill is an attempt to redistribute where turkey funds are spent. The funds largely are expended in southern Michigan, but not exclusively, according to state wildlife officials. Turkey license sales and applications generate $1.5 million in funding. Of that, $1.3 million is earmarked for scientific research, biological survey work, and turkey management. The bill added voluntary disease testing and turkey hunter surveys to learn where hunters see birds.

Booher said four turkeys were tested for disease in 2010, and 11 or 12 were tested in 2011. He said the disease-testing provision should help raise hunter awareness.

“If we can double or triple the number of birds from around the state that are tested, we will know if there is a disease problem or not. If we find we have no problem with the flock, then we have something different going on out there,” Booher said.

State wildlife officials maintain that turkey management in Michigan already is a high priority and dispute the assertion that no money has been spent on state and federal forests.

Turkey habitat work is being conducted in the Upper Peninsula in Delta County, along with other areas of the northern Lower Peninsula. That includes developing food plots around Alpena and wildlife openings around Baldwin.

A 2010 DNR list of turkey habitat-specific projects includes creating openings in Benzie, Missaukee, Mecosta, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Lake, and Wexford counties.

Brian Mastenbrook, the DNR’s wildlife supervisor for the northern Lower Peninsula, said the DNR is spending $162,000 of turkey fund revenues on food plots and opening maintenance in the region this year. Approximately $100,000 will be spent on state lands; another $20,000 will go for work on private lands; and $42,000 will be spent on national forest lands.

Mastenbrook and others say the DNR pays for turkey habitat work in the north both with turkey fund dollars and Deer Range Improvement Project Fund (DRIP) money. The combined approach stretches limited dollars by going for multiple benefits.

Openings made for deer also benefit turkeys and other species, he said.

“The outcome is the same,” said Al Stewart, the DNR’s upland game bird specialist. “You can spend DRIP money up north, but not down south, but you can spend turkey money anywhere.

“The majority of work creating openings in the north is done with Deer Range Improvement dollars, and the majority of southern openings are done with turkey money,” he said. “The same prescription is used for southern and northern Michigan openings.”

Stewart said the DNR already explains its expenditures to the Legislature every year. It is required for the agency to get its annual appropriation of restricted turkey funds.

Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Meyerson

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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