Nebraskans have become accustomed to seeing wild turkeys from border to border but it has not always been that way. When I was growing up in southwestern Nebraska in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was much more of a rarity to see them.
Similar to many wildlife species, wild turkeys are native to Nebraska but factors related to Euro-American settlement wiped them out of the state in the early 1900s. Along with a lot of other wildlife, though, turkeys have flourished with the spirit of conservation led by hunters, anglers and other conservationists. The nation’s entire turkey population was estimated at 1.3 million birds in 1973 – now some estimates say it tops 7 million.
Nebraska’s turkey rejuvenation began in 1959 when 28 birds were released in the Pine Ridge. In the fall of 1962, 13 years later, the birds’ population in that area had expanded to 3,000 — good enough for the state to issue 500 permits in its first hunting season.
How far have we come? More than 20,000 birds were harvested in Nebraska last spring at a success rate topping 67 percent.
Three of the five wild turkey subspecies – or at least a hybrid of them – can be found in Nebraska. They are the Merriam’s, eastern and Rio Grande.
I always hate to pick favorites among wildlife, but I must say the Merriam’s subspecies that we have in the Pine Ridge is tough to beat in the looks department.
A bird that thrives in pine forests, Merriam’s prefer living in mountainous elevations of 3,500-10,000 feet. Even though they might not gobble as loud or as often, or have as big of spurs as those other subspecies, their feathers more than make up for it. Those conspicuous wide white tips on the toms’ fans nicely accent black bodies that reflect in blue, purple and bronze as the birds strut among our beautiful scenery.
Bryce Gerlach of Chadron is a wildlife biologist and forester for the National Wild Turkey Federation and works to improve habitat in the Pine Ridge – an area that he says provides Nebraska hunters the best chance to find a true Merriam’s.
“Nebraska is pretty much as far east as the Merriam’s come and in the Pine Ridge they’re pretty pure,” he said. “You can get some hybrids throughout the state of Nebraska that look like a pure Merriam’s. There is a lot of public land here with the national forest and state wildlife management areas that offer all kinds of opportunities.
While the Merriam’s may not be the easiest bird of the bunch to pursue, hunters from afar come to the Pine Ridge for them – and the turkeys are not the only attractions.
“A lot of it has to do with the terrain you’re hunting in,” Gerlach said. “You’ve got a lot of pretty views when you’re out here hunting in the ponderosa pines.”
Great views, and thanks the work of conservation-minded people, there are more than a few turkeys around to hunt.