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Turkeys and the critters who eat them

Wild turkeys are one of Pennsylvania’s great conservation success stories. When I was a kid, wild turkeys were like a fable, a mythical animal inhabiting far distant wild lands, that could be seen and maybe heard if you were one of the lucky few. They had been decimated by market hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s. When I took my hunter safety education course at the age of ten at the old Army Reserve building out in the farmland on the east side of State College, the Pennsylvania Game Commission staff proudly showed us films of their successful trap-and-transfer program, where wild turkeys were lured with bait into the range of nets, caught, and then driven to the far reaches of Pennsylvania’s rural areas. Usually State Game Lands with fields.

From the 1970s until the early 2000s, Pennsylvania’s wild turkey population grew and grew, until they seemed to be everywhere, including well south of I-81, the old imaginary dividing line between concrete civilization and wild man country. Apparently turkeys are adaptable to concrete wilderness, because they took up urban residence all over the east coast. Not content with being colorful freeloaders along with the ubiquitous and nasty pigeons and rats in these urban areas from Massachusetts to New Jersey, wild turkeys also provide much hilarity as they attack everything that moves in a display of misguided dominance, including mailmen, soccer moms and their kids, and dogs being walked. Look up the “incident reports” of wild turkey muggings of disbelieving urbanites; lots of funny videos to go along with them, too.

So when turkey populations began to decline in Pennsylvania and parts of New York starting ten years ago, people knew it was not due to the birds’ lack of tenacity. Something new and powerful in the old bird + habitat equation was having an effect.

And in fact in many places here in PA, formerly huge turkey populations are now really low or non-existent. I myself used to look out my windows and watch three separate flocks cycle through our clover-planted yards. When I hunted spring turkeys there (northcentral PA), I would start the day surrounded by gobbling toms, and usually had a couple different opportunities to harvest one within the first few days of the hunting season. It was exciting and fun and a great way to begin the work day, although I will say that by the end of May, I was a hollow shell of a human, having run myself ragged either chasing toms myself, or calling for friends who had not yet filled a tag.

Bottom line is, those old flocks of twenty to thirty birds no longer exist. We are fortunate to see one or two wild turkeys at all on our place. And we have excellent habitat with grouse.

What caused the loss of wild turkeys in PA has generated a discussion similar to the one surrounding the demise of the once amazing world famous smallmouth bass fishery in the lower Susquehanna River. It seems that almost everyone involved has a reasonable opinion about it, and the official experts are being second-guessed by people who have witnessed circumstances different than those described by said experts. The ubiquitous use of trail cameras since 2000 has accompanied this growth in sportsman observational opinion, and very often individual hunters will use their cameras’ footage to make very compelling arguments that contradict official wildlife managers’ narratives.

Something similar happens in the aquatic environment, when thousands of fishermen experience and see something different than what they are being told through official government channels.

So now PGC is toying with the idea of releasing martens into the wilds of Pennsylvania. Similar to the fisher that was released back in the 1990s, martens are a furry little weasel-type animal that, like all weasel type animals everywhere, has an insatiable appetite for everything they can catch and kill. Not necessarily kill and eat. All members of the weasel family (wolverines, fishers, martens, mink, otters, weasels) have periods where they become “surplus killers.” That is, they will kill many more animals than they can eat, just because they seem to enjoy the hunt and the kill. Question being now, What will the new marten do to our turkeys?

Will martens do more of what fishers have so clearly done to PA turkey populations, which is to climb up into trees and eat them while they are roosted and asleep? Will martens only eat turkey eggs? Who knows? And so it follows, why release martens into our forests and farms if we don’t know what impacts they will have?

The question I have, and which I know so many other sportsmen have, is: What kind of studies have been done to date that provide confidence that reintroducing marten will have a net-benefit result, and not a net-negative/cost result?

Most of us agree with government biologists that biodiversity in general is important, and we agree that increasing biodiversity is a worthy goal. But, what are the costs and benefits of doing so? What costs and benefits do marten bring to our forests? I can imagine quite a few costs, mostly impacts on ground nesting birds (like wild turkeys, grouse, pheasant, woodcock, and a zillion species of cute little migratory dickie birds) that are already under tremendous pressure from overpopulating (thanks to urban sprawl) raccoons, skunks, possums, feral cats etc., and I wonder if the benefit of a few hundred citizens annually catching a view of one of these cute and elusive furry weasel-like animals is worth the inevitable costs.

One of the things we must struggle with today is that, as much as we would like to return to the pristine conditions of three hundred or four hundred years ago, where humans had a measurable but relatively minor impact on the environment, the reality on the ground today is totally different. The social carrying capacity among different human groups is one consideration. The carrying capacity of other wildlife is another consideration. I imagine that before people go petitioning or pushing to have these newest predators released back into our forests, we should know what their likely impacts are going to be first. I am willing to sign a petition to have PGC thoroughly study this subject, but I would feel irresponsible to ask the agency to jump before knowing what lies ahead and below.

I will say that I like knowing fishers are in our forests, but I do not like the tremendous impacts they have had on squirrels, rabbits, and turkeys. Everywhere a fisher takes up residence, the small game and turkey populations drop dramatically. Personally, I would prefer to know that there were a few hundred fishers living across Pennsylvania, instead of the thousands we now have that are over-impacting a lot of other equally valuable wildlife (and I enjoy recreationally trapping for fisher every year).

I am not saying that adding martens to Pennsylvania will necessarily be pouring fuel on the fire burning up wild turkey populations, but we really should know. That is the responsible thing to do.


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