Game and Fish-UND study focuses on problem turkeys and what happens after they're moved
Over the next two years, Game and Fish will trap a minimum of 180 wild turkeys from problem areas, fit them with tracking devices and translocate the birds to areas with more desirable habitat.
BISMARCK – The North Dakota Game and Fish Department moves as many as 200 problem wild turkeys every year to wildlife management areas and other places where they are more apt to behave, but what happens to the birds after that has largely been a mystery.
“We really don’t know if they’re surviving – are they staying (where they’re moved) – things like that,” said Rodney Gross, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
Game and Fish historically has banded the turkeys it moves – mainly from western North Dakota – but up until a couple of years ago, the bands didn’t even include department contact information, Gross says.
“We weren’t getting very many reports, and even now, we only get a handful of reports when we move 100 to 200 turkeys in a good winter,” he said. “It’s really not telling us much.”
Now, a multi-year study launched this winter through a partnership between Game and Fish and UND aims to change that. Funded by a $466,000 federal Wildlife Restoration Program (Pittman-Robertson) grant and a $98,000 grant from the National Wild Turkey Federation, the project will allow researchers to monitor wild turkeys fitted with high-tech tracking devices to determine such basic information as survival rates, movement patterns and reproductive success.
The study includes translocated wild turkeys and a subset of “control birds” that aren’t moved to determine if there’s a difference in survival rates and nesting success.
“The only study we’ve ever done in North Dakota on turkeys showed us they like trees and farmsteads,” Gross said. “We don’t know nesting dates, peak breeding or anything like that. We’ve just been using (information) from states around us. That just wasn’t good enough for me.”
Over the next two years, Game and Fish will trap a minimum of 180 wild turkeys from ranches and other problem areas, mainly in the western part of the state, fit the birds with tracking devices and translocate the birds to areas with more desirable habitat, such as riverbottom areas along the Missouri River in central North Dakota, Gross said.
Cailey Isaacson, a doctoral student in UND’s Fish and Wildlife program, will help with the trapping and tagging effort and monitor the turkeys in the field as part of her thesis work; Susan Felege, UND professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, is the project’s faculty adviser.
The work begins
The first batch of turkeys trapped in early February – a 50/50 split between males and females, Isaacson says – were taken to the Game and Fish Department laboratory in Bismarck. The department's wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Charlie Bahnson, and other Game and Fish personnel, with help from Isaacson and Felege, then “tagged” the birds – fitting them with tracking devices and leg bands – and swabbed the birds to collect samples for disease testing before the turkeys were released.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 21, the partners had trapped, tagged and translocated 65 turkeys.
Collaborating with UND and Felege “was a no-brainer,” Gross says, given her experience with tracking devices and history working with Game and Fish on other research projects.
“I want to know, ‘What are our birds doing?’” he said. “That’s where collaboration with Susan and me was an obvious fit. She knows everything about birds and GPS and putting them on every kind of bird there is.”
The goal of the project is twofold, Gross says: To gain basic information such as survival rates and whether trapping and translocation efforts are ultimately successful.
Better information, of course, ultimately means better management.
“Are we just moving these birds and they’re all dying, or are they all surviving and having fantastic clutches of turkeys repopulating?” Gross said. “That’s something we want to figure out.”
Partnerships are crucial
These kinds of projects require substantial partnership money, Felege says. The NWTF grant, which they learned about in June, allowed the partners to purchase 70 additional tracking units on top of the 130 that were purchased with Pittman-Robertson funds, she said.
Each of the transmitters, powered by a tiny solar panel, costs $1,500 and will last two to three years.
“What we requested was to expand (the project) to make sure we had enough transmitters over the two-year period to really get information on hens and, to some extent, a little bit on males, too,” Felege said. “If we hadn’t had the big project in the works with Game and Fish, we wouldn’t have been as competitive for the National Wild Turkey Federation money.”
Male turkeys are only “a small subset” of the project, but the researchers also hope to glean more information on the ecology of jakes and toms, Felege says.
“We want to know: Are they surviving? Are they harvested? What does it look like compared to the females?” she said. “But the females are ultimately the major interest for reproduction information, as well as survival.”
As fieldwork kicks into high gear, Isaacson will track the birds not only on the ground, but through aerial surveillance utilizing both fixed-wing aircraft and, to a lesser extent, drones.
“Base stations,” both handheld and attached to the aircraft, will collect information from the tracking devices for Isaacson to download. The base stations also can upload information to the tracking devices to change how often they’re programmed to collect information.
“We’re super interested in how (the turkeys) settle,” Felege said. “We don’t need all kinds of movement data, so we only have (the devices) taking information every couple of hours on a GPS point. However, once they start getting into nesting season, we might want to drill that down a little bit more to figure out where that nest is.”
Learning more about the prevalence of coccidiosis is a key part of the project’s disease component, Felege says. A parasitic disease of the intestinal tract, coccidiosis is a big concern where turkeys are raiding ranchers’ feed supplies.
“Not only are (landowners) upset because turkeys are scratching their hay bales, tearing them up and eating their food, they also defecate everywhere,” Felege said. “There’s chances of disease transmission, and coccidiosis comes up as the No. 1 thing that ranchers identify in my discussions.”
Isaacson, as part of her fieldwork, also will interview landowners in areas with an abundance of turkey complaints to learn more about their concerns and tolerance for the birds. The project, Isaacson says, is a perfect fit with her doctoral studies, given her interest in upland game birds, both as a scientist and a hunter.
“I’ve always been super passionate about upland game birds, and this project and its novelty and just the uniqueness and location, it’s something I couldn’t pass up,” she said. “And with the adviser and collaborators and everything I want to do in the future, everything kind of lined up for me, so when I was presented the opportunity, I really had to jump on it.”
Besides the information it will provide, the project also is significant from a mentorship standpoint, Felege says; Gross received his graduate degree at UND, and she had him for a student.
“I’ve got some really cool ‘tiered membership’ – if you want to call it that – where here I have one student that left the nest and now is out there in the workforce on the professional side of it, helping to mentor another generation of professionals,” Felege said. “That makes this project a little bit sweeter for me, too, to watch as students come through the ranks, and what those relationships look like among Game and Fish and UND and other partners.
“That’s pretty cool.”