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Catch and Release Turkey Hunting - Kent Michie

On March 13th, 2015, 34 adult Merriam’s Wild Turkeys were released into their new homes in southwest Manitoba.  These birds were captured from other healthy populations within Manitoba and held in a large pen until conditions were favorable for their release.   In 2011, the National Wild Turkey Federation in the US released their 200,000th wild turkey, and it is undeniable that Wild Turkey population recovery in North America shows just how successful trap and transfer programs can be.  In Maine, for example, 41 Wild Turkeys were trapped in Vermont and released in 1977 and 1978.  Today, there are an estimated 65,000 Wild Turkeys spread across every corner of the state.

Today, we’re joined by Kent Michie, biologist and co-host of “Trigger Effect” of Wild TV fame.  Trigger Effect, Manitoba Conservation Game Bird Specialist Frank Baldwin, Manitoba Gobblers Association, Rapid City & Rivers Wildlife Associations, Manitoba Wildlife Federation, and Assiniboine Community College Environmental Sciences students worked together to ensure that the March 13th release went off without a hitch.

A Taxidermist, Hockey player, Wildlife and Fisheries Scientist, Big Game guide, and a World-Record-Holding Bowhunter.  It sounds like we could be describing 5 totally different people, but in truth these descriptions are all for Kent Michie.   We know which part caught your eye, and even though this is a turkey-based article, it wouldn’t be proper for us to skip over that world record.  In April of 2013, Kent struck gold by harvesting the world record archery, free-range, South Pacific Region Fallow Deer.  The Fallow Deer he harvested in New Zealand scored an impressive 230 0/8 inches! As described on the Trigger Effect website, Kent brings amazing experiences everywhere he goes and we look forward to hearing about the Manitoba trap and transfer through his eyes.

Kent with his World Record Setting Fallow Deer


Wilderness Obsession: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today about the Trap and Transfer program in Manitoba.  We’ve given you a bit of an introduction, but is there anything else you would like to add about yourself that we might have left out?

Kent:  No you summed that up nicely, in fact it kind of surprised me a little when you say it like that,  I had to listen carefully to make sure that was me….(Kent laughs)

Wilderness Obsession: As a bit of a background for those of us not in Manitoba, could you provide us with a bit of a primer on Manitoba Wild Turkeys?  How many turkeys are there in the province and are they isolated to one area or have they been spreading naturally, even without the trap and transfer? 

Kent:  Well the wild birds have been slowly spreading into the southern portion of Manitoba from North Dakota, Michigan and Ontario, however the true success story here dates back to 1958.  Prior to 1958 the wild turkey numbers declined in the USA and many of those states affected by this decline implemented an introduction or even re-introduction of wild turkeys to the areas that were depleted.  This movement caught on here in Manitoba shortly after and in 1958 a small group of conservation minded Manitoba sportsman joined together and formed the “Wild Gobblers Unlimited.  Inspired by the success in the USA the Wild Gobblers Unlimited released 16 wild turkeys in the Pembina Valley area that very same year.  They continued to release wild turkeys for the next few years and the birds took to their new habitat well.  Now we have turkeys throughout most of southern Manitoba and the numbers are increasing annually.  Manitoba Conservation has estimated the population to be approximately 6400 birds throughout the southern part of the province.  These estimated are from the last detailed survey in 2010.  The numbers have most certainly increased since then and there are plans to update the survey in the near future.  Our most recent release of turkeys this past March was to introduce them to new prime habitat that has never held turkeys before.

Wilderness Obsession: As anyone who has ever hunted Turkeys knows, getting close to a bird this smart isn’t an easy task.  Can you please describe the process of catching turkeys for a trap and transfer and perhaps walk us through the whole process from catch to release? 

Kent:  Well the trapping of the wild birds usually happens during the late winter early spring while the turkeys are in large groups at wintering areas.  There are a few methods of trapping they use here in Manitoba.  The two most commonly used are baited walk-in Box Traps and cannon traps called the “Martin NetBlaster”.

Catching turkeys from a Martin Netblaster

Feed is laid out for the turkeys to consume and this is done gradually over time to gain the confidence of the wild birds.  Once the birds are accustom to this feeding area cannon net traps are then placed alongside the feed.  When there is abdicate numbers of birds feeding at the grain the nets are shot off and the birds are captured in the nets.  They are quickly removed and boxed up for transport. 

The box trap is a very simple design.  A 12ft. x 12ft x 4ft wire pen with the top being a fly netting to prevent injury to any birds that will try to fly up once the strap is set off. This trap is built in the wintering area and feed is placed with in it.  At the beginning the feed is place right at the entrance of the trap and over a few days is gradually moved further back into the trap so as the birds will be all the way in before the door is released.  The hens and young males (jakes) are the first to enter the trap and feed comfortably were as the older Toms are more wary and harder to entice into the back of the trap.  Again when adequate numbers of birds are in the trap the door is released.  They are then captured and boxes for transport.

Depending on the number of birds captured, weather conditions, and distance to release the location, the birds may then be transferred either directly to the release site or to a hold pen for staging until favorable conditions.  Before releasing the birds at the approved location each individual bird is sexed, aged, and banded for identification.  Once that is all done and the birds have been transfer to the release location we line up all the boxes containing the turkeys in a crescent shaped line and get ready to let them go.  With a number of volunteers we each take a box containing a bird and at the same time we release them.  It is best to let them go all together in their new environment.

Wilderness Obsession: When deciding areas to release the birds, are there certain things you look for, perhaps some things people could do to their properties to improve the habitat for a future release? 

Kent:  As you may already know the wild turkey is a very adaptable animal and can inhabit many different habitats from urban yards and parks to farmland and undisturbed wilderness areas.  The available winter food sources are a key element, both natural and manmade such as cattle feed lots.  Natural food sources such as acorn are important for winter survival.   Also the turkeys will need plenty of lower cover for nesting sites and adequate roost trees.  Roost trees must be big enough to have limbs that can support these heavy birds and sometimes in great numbers too.

The recent release we conducted was in some absolute perfect habitat.  At this location we have steep valley ridges that are covered in oak trees.  These ridges are south exposure and produce an abundance of acorns each year.  There is also a great number of strong sturdy roosting trees throughout the valley as well.  Through the center of the valley runs a year round river that provides plenty of cover and feed as well. There are a number of cattle operations in and around the valley which will help support the turkeys through the tough winters.  Also the land around the outside of the valley is all agriculture land which produces mostly cereal grain crops.  Access is limited to the valley as well which will protect the birds from over harvest and or poaching until their numbers are sustainable.  So to sum it up what is ideal for new a release site would be 1/3 grassland, 1/3 cropland, 1/3 forest cover in close proximity to rivers or streams and wintering areas for cattle.

Another key factor that is practiced in Manitoba is the release sites are only approved in areas that have or will soon have a hunting season for these birds.  This is to insure that the populations are kept in check and at a manageable number.   Turkey numbers can increase rapidly if left unchecked so it is important that we manage this resource properly through an annual harvest.

Limited food sources during harsh winters and predation are two of the most common factors that turkeys will struggle with.  So reducing the predator numbers in your area and alloying the birds to access these cattle operations during the winter can really help boost the survival rates of newly established flocks. 

Captured Wild Turkeys in a Pen awaiting release

Wilderness Obsession: Winter in Canada seems like a strange time to give an animal a new home.  Are the released birds given any supplemental assistance after release, such as a feeding program until things green up and food is more readily available? 

Kent:  The birds that we released recently were trapped from healthy populations of wild hatched birds from right here in Manitoba.  Trapping locations were selected and throughout the winter birds were collected and then transported to our local holding pen where they were given supplemental food for the short term.  Our release locations where pre-selected at large cattle operations and feed lots with suitable turkey habitat available nearby.  Cattle operations are a key element as the birds will rely heavily on these feed lots for winter feed.  Now the birds we captured were held for a short time for more suitable weather conditions and also for the timing of the turkeys breeding season.  To prevent the released birds from traveling large distances after they were let go, the release is timed so that the hens are almost ready to breed and start nesting.  Having ready access to food at the feed lots and hens that are ready to start nesting has proven to be the most successful method of holding the birds close to the release sites.  Manitoba Conservation has in the past set up intercept feeding stations for problem turkeys but as far as feeding the birds after the release it is not recommended as we want to keep these birds independent and wild.

Wilderness Obsession: Obviously, throughout much of North America, Wild Turkeys have been successfully released in these trap and transfer programs.  How will you measure success of these releases? 

Kent:  With turkey numbers on the rise in Manitoba they are already a success story however we just wanted to help them expand their range throughout the province and into some new prime habitats.  I guess I will judge this release as a success if in approximately 3-4 years I can walk from my house early on a spring morning and call in a long beard that was hatched and raised right here in our valley.  We are very fortunate to have such great habitat available and land owners who are excited to participate in this project. 

Wilderness Obsession: When selecting birds for transfer, is there an ideal ratio of toms, hens, and jakes/jennies that you strive for?  Or is it just a matter of “catch 40 turkeys” and then deciding based on those captures which ratio will be released in which location? 

Kent:  Well it is a little of both as you get what you get when trapping wild birds.  However the ideal ratio is I Tom to 3 hens.  If the trapped birds are being held in a staging area we can then collect birds from several trapping locations and sort them accordingly to achieve a better release ratio of Tom’s verses hens. 

Wilderness Obsession: From following the Trigger Effect Facebook page, I noticed that you released 34 adult birds, and approximately 40 overall.  Could you please speak to the age/sex class as well as the overall number of birds released? 

Trigger Effect Season 3 is coming soon to WildTV!

Kent:  This past march the released birds were primarily all adults with only two juvenile hens in the bunch.  Those juvenile hens will most likely breed this spring and produce young so we have a great start for a breeding population.  The ratio of Tom’s to Hens in this release was about 1 Tom to 2 hens.  Not ideal but certainly adequate for starting a health population.

Wilderness Obsession: We’ve read that there are additional releases planned for the future in Southwest Manitoba, are there concrete plans in place, or will that be judged based on the success of this release? 

Kent:  No the additional releases are concrete and will happen next year at this time.  Ideally once a site is approved we want to have 3-4 releases of 15 or more birds per release to establish a solid breeding population before moving on to another location.  Now that we have completed our first release this past March we are at the top of the list for next year for additional releases.   

Wilderness Obsession: In many urban areas today, whitetail deer have become overpopulated.  It’s been suggested that a trap and transfer program to move these “problem” deer back to “the woods” would simply result in extremely high deer casualties and the animals are often harvested instead.   Given the history of the Wild Turkey recovery, obviously Turkeys do not have these difficulties with transfer programs.  Do turkeys not suffer this high casualty release upon release, or is it simply that they have such a prolific reproduction rate to overcome any losses? 

Kent:  The wild birds that we trapped are very hardy animals and are not too prone to causalities due to handling.  Of course we do all we can to minimize any stress while handling them too.  Releasing these birds at or near food sources and adequate habitat also helps keep the mortality rates low as the birds become familiar with their new environment.  The fact that the turkeys can be such prolific breeders is also a benefit to us, as we can easily see the population increases over a very short time period too.

Once again, we’d like to thank Kent for his time and for sharing his experiences with us.  Make sure to check out Kent and his Trigger Effect team as they begin to air 13 all new episodes on Wild TV this summer.  Trigger Effect is on the air four times a week, and is part of the excellent “Hunting Night in Canada” lineup on Sunday evenings, airing at 6:30pm CST.

2015-04-11 04:32:16


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