CASPER, Wyo. — In fall 2018, 1,078 wild Wyoming turkeys were harvested by 1,699 hunters, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
While turkeys are a mainstay of the up-coming holiday, Wyoming’s wild turkeys haven’t always been an option to anchor Thanksgiving feasts.
“It wasn’t until 1955 when hunters could harvest the historic wild turkey in Wyoming,” Game and Fish said on Monday, Nov. 25. “It all started in 1935, when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department swapped sage grouse with New Mexico for 15 Merriam’s turkeys – nine hens and six toms.”
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“The imports were released on the George Waln Ranch on Cottonwood Creek in Platte County that spring and were reported to lure some of the ranch’s domestic turkeys with them into the Laramie Mountains. The turkeys thrived in these hills west of Wheatland under the auspices of ranchers and the Game and Fish and were estimated to number over 1,000 by 1947.”
The turkeys in the Laramie area mountains became “seed stock” for attempts to restore the turkey population to other areas. After some “futile” attempts, the restoration efforts took hold in an area of the Black Hills in about 1951-1952.
“Thirty-three Platte County turkeys, along with 15 more New Mexico transplants, found new roosts near Redwater Creek in the northwest Black Hills,” Game and Fish says. “The introduction served as the foundation for Wyoming’s most recognized turkey hunt area.”
Wyoming offers turkey hunting seasons in both the spring and fall.
“Fall turkey hunting is a different ballgame than the camouflaged calling of the spring,” Game and Fish says. “Although turkeys can spot hunter orange, and with corresponding big game seasons still underway, fall turkey hunters may consider wearing orange or pink for safety.”
Game and Fish Newcastle area wildlife biologist Joe Sandrini also researches wild turkeys and says that the birds tend to move to middle and lower elevations as winter sets in.
“’When flocks are startled and busted up, the birds can often be called back as they seek to reunite,'” Sandrini says. “‘Doing this from a concealed location is an effective fall hunting technique that is used in many parts of the country.'”
Game and Fish says that wild turkeys tend to have less fat than domestic turkeys which can make their meat drier.
“A ‘cooking bag’ can help the fowl retain its natural moisture,” the department adds. “Or place bacon strips across the breast, covering with foil and then removing the foil a few minutes before serving to brown the bird.”
“Another technique is brining and then smoking the bird; this will help retain moisture and compliment the wild flavor. When cooking, understand wild turkeys won’t stay on their backs like domestic birds, and may need to be propped up.”
While the meat may be drier, Game and Fish says that many people prefer the flavor of wild turkeys.
“The taste is primarily the result of the birds forest buffet,” they add. “Traditionally ‘mast’ or hardwood nut eaters, Wyoming turkeys seek hawthorne and scrub oak nuts plus chokecherry, plums, currants and buffalo berry. Seasonally the birds will also pluck tender grass shoots and buds.”
“Juvenile turkeys garner the favor of farmers and ranchers by feeding almost exclusively on grasshoppers their first summer. Adults snare hoppers, too, when the insects are abundant. Ranchers often return the favor by letting the birds use their yards as winter refuge from deep snow.”
Turkeys tend to move to higher elevations as spring approaches.
“Come March, gobblers start establishing areas or ‘strutting grounds’ along the edge of creek bottoms or forests,” Game and Fish says. “With loud gobbles and strutting posture, males amass a several-hen harem and drive smaller rivals off.”
“Hens nest in the strutting ground vicinity and close to reliable water. The females lay an average of two eggs every three days until a clutch of 10 to 13 is produced. After about 28 days of incubation, with no help from the gobblers, the chicks meet the world.”
The chicks gain the ability to fly up to roost in trees within a few weeks of hatching. They then stay with their mothers until the start of the next breeding season, accord to the Game and Fish Department.