Wild turkeys stage epic comeback in Colorado

It’s a difficult time for wild turkeys.

As low temperatures and snowfall drive these large, plumed birds from higher elevations and into Boulder County, they’re more susceptible to natural predators such as foxes and coyotes, and hunters.

Boulder is home to more than 35,000 wild turkeys. But this wasn’t always the turkeygraphic-01case.

Merriam’s wild turkeys, a species known for their flamboyant plumage and ponderosa pine habitats, are native to Colorado. They were completely eradicated in the 1800s because there were no hunting regulations or preservation tactics in place to protect them.

“It is commonly accepted that during settlement days, turkeys were nearly extirpated from their range by what was effectively subsistence harvest,” said Ed Gorman, the small-game manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Dwindling turkey populations in Colorado mirrored a larger national trend. By the 1930s, there were only 30,000 wild turkeys left in the United States.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife began working on strategies to increase the wild turkey population in the late 20th century by closing hunting seasons. The state agency also began an aggressive reintroduction program in conjunction with other wildlife agencies and, later on, the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Wild Turkeys now live in 53 of Colorado’s 63 counties.

The state is home to two species of turkey — Merriam’s and the Rio Grande, which are known for their earth-toned feathers.

“Today, wild turkeys are an excellent example of wildlife conservation and management recovering a species that was nearly extirpated,” Gorman said. “Today they have recovered to the point there are millions of wild turkeys.”

Wild turkeys face little chance of extinction today. Gorman said they have an ideal habitat in Colorado, which has ample open space for nesting. He also said hunting isn’t considered a threat to turkey populations because it’s heavily regulated, unlike in historic times.

“As long as there is good habitat for turkeys, they are in no danger of becoming scarce,” he said. “Harvest is carefully monitored by the various state wildlife agencies.

In Colorado, more than 19,000 hunters purchased turkey licenses in 2015, and more than 16,000 actually hunted turkeys in spring 2015. Hunters can go after turkeys three times each year — at specified dates in spring, fall and winter.

Some Boulder residents enjoy hunting their own turkey to eat at Thanksgiving.

“They’re delicious,” said Gene Kraning, a volunteer naturalist with Boulder County Parks and Open Spaces. “They have less breast meat because they fly. Wild turkeys are more dark meat.”

Wild turkeys are far different from the turkeys most Americans consume on Thanksgiving. They’re smaller, for one, and they can fly — up to 55 miles per hour.

Kraning said it’s not uncommon for toms — adult male turkeys — to become aggressive.

“We had to take a broom to one a couple of times,” he said. “It would attack people. Then it would see his reflection in a car window or hubcap and attack it too.”

That’s why Kraning advises people not to interact with these large birds of prey.

“Enjoy looking at it, but don’t approach it,” he said. “They’re wild animals. They’re not meant to be petted.”

 

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