Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wild turkey brood © DNR File

Wild turkey broods are common sights across the state now, thanks to a successful reintroduction.
© DNR File

February 2015

Trading ruffed grouse for wild turkey

A historic exchange that has hunters smiling today.

R.J. Longwitz

It was 1980 and I had one semester to go to complete my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was majoring in natural resources, but had a double minor in wildlife ecology and poultry science.

I enjoyed studying and working with birds so my academic advisor suggested I try an internship as a stepping stone into the "real" world and to fulfill some credit needs. I discovered an opportunity involving the wild turkey reintroduction program in the southwestern part of the state working with UW–Madison and the Department of Natural Resources. It had something to do with birds, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I travelled through the Wisconsin River Valley to Spring Green — the central area where the internship work would take place — and met the wildlife manager for Sauk County who would become my field supervisor. He found me a place to stay a few miles west in the tiny town of Lone Rock. An elderly widow had a big farmhouse and was looking for some company and someone to cook dinner for.

Once settled, I got busy studying all the work that needed to be done. I could tell I'd be kept busy.

Wild turkeys were once native to Wisconsin (the northern edge of their range) occurring south of a line from Prairie du Chien to Green Bay. The last native bird in the state was sighted in 1881 one county south of where I was assigned to work.

Clearing of mature oak forests and unregulated hunting led the list of factors contributing to their demise. But I found that those very slow–growing oaks were growing back.

In February and March, 40 wild turkeys were captured in southeastern Missouri and transported to Wisconsin to be released at two sites in northern Iowa County, just south of the Wisconsin River from where I was working. Missouri birds had first been stocked two and four years prior in Vernon and Buffalo counties and appeared to take hold.

The goal of the "trap–and–transfer" program was to reestablish a native species back into its former range and it was a mutual effort on the part of both states. What was Missouri getting in exchange for the turkeys? Wisconsin answered with ruffed grouse and would send Missouri three wild–caught "ruffs" for every wild turkey received.

My internship centered on the grouse trapping program with the goal of supplying Missouri with the 120 grouse we owed them and hopefully more, for a total of 250 grouse.

The first couple weeks centered on building traps and gathering supplies for setting them up. Most of the land around us was privately owned so we met with landowners, many of them farmers, to offer program details and ask permission to trap their land. Most of the people we talked to were just as excited about the program as we were and agreed to let us take a few grouse off of their property. They understood the eventual payoff.

We hired two grouse–trapping crews, one of which included a local farmer who knew the land and who also knew other farmers who knew many more. Trapping took place throughout northern Iowa County and parts of southern Sauk County. Trapping was scheduled so it would end largely before the grouse were to undergo their natural and annual fall dispersal.

I spent three days at a wildlife refuge in central Wisconsin under the guidance of the DNR's ruffed grouse biologist who happened to be running a grouse trapping program in order to band birds and study their population patterns. It gave me an excellent basis to work from. We were assisted by a university professor who specialized in game bird biology. He suggested the trap design that eventually proved most successful.

My background in poultry science was put to use in designing holding pens for the birds that would be used for the three to eight days the grouse were held prior to becoming Missouri–bound. They were predator–proof and held drinking water. Before and even during trapping we hiked the forested hills, field woodlots and river bottoms to locate areas with multiple birds or multiple bird possibilities. Sometimes we flushed two or three birds, sometimes a brood, and sometimes an area looked so promising that a trap was set without having flushed a bird.

Once an area was deemed "trap–worthy," we used machetes and shovels to clear the area and then placed the traps. It was hard work, sometimes on hot days, usually in the accompaniment of mosquitoes, deer flies and gnats. We faced hillside inclines and I loved it all. It reminded me of my grouse–hunting days.

There were other obstacles. We encountered ground–nesting yellow jackets, thorn–covered brambles and the prickly ash shrub. The tiny fruits of the prickly ash shrub have a pleasant aroma and the shrub provides good grouse cover in the understory. On the down side, its branches are covered with large thorns. By the time we completed our work, our forearms looked like roadmaps of scars. Some braved the heat and wore long–sleeved flannel shirts for protection.

My supervisor had to take a week off during our 43–day trapping effort because of a severe reaction to poison ivy. I also recall hiking a field edge one day and hearing a rattling noise before the crew member next to me yelled, "Snake!" I saw a 3–foot long timber rattler coiled up and ready to strike.

But once the traps were set up, the most time–consuming activity became checking them on a daily basis. In fact, we checked them twice each day to lessen the amount of time the birds were actually out in the traps. This made for some long days.

Single birds were easy to gather, while a brood of 10 to 12 birds in one trap made the work much more interesting. The state game farm lent us field boxes to use in transporting the birds to the holding pens.

Occasionally, we'd have to release a non–target animal that had happened into the trap. We trapped thrushes, robins, catbirds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums and even an ornate box turtle. I was working alone and near the end of a trap line one evening when I heard an animal growling at me. It was a raccoon.

A competitive spirit developed between the two trapping crews, which made the work more fun and productive.

Based on field observations, we determined that the broods began to break up in late August and the fall dispersal took place in early September. We advertised through wanted posters, newspaper articles and radio and television spots that we were looking for turkey and grouse brood sightings. Talking to landowners helped spread the word about our activities. Public involvement was key to the program's success.

I got to ride along with one shipment of birds. The 4 a.m. flight lasted just over two hours and we landed in northwest Missouri. It was hot — over 100 degrees. The birds were weighed and fitted with leg bands that would be used to monitor their health and survival.

I met with Missouri state wildlife staff who came to inspect their birds and prepare them for release.

Ruffed grouse were once common in Missouri — the southwestern edge of the species' natural range. But due to habitat degradation, they were essentially eliminated from the forest habitat there by the 1930s. Reintroduction efforts came on the heels of regrowth of the bird's habitat.

On Sept. 15 we loaded our sixth and final shipment of grouse to Missouri. Wildlife managers there seemed content with the 202 grouse they'd received as a result of our efforts.

We sent thank you letters to participating Wisconsin landowners since 63 percent of the grouse sent to Missouri came from private land. Two years after our efforts, Wisconsin and Missouri had their first hunting seasons in the modern era on each respective species. Restocking efforts would continue in both states for the next few decades.

Today, the wild turkey reintroduction — especially in Wisconsin — is arguably the single–most successful recovery story ever. There are now self–sustaining populations in all 72 counties. It is a tribute to the bird's hardiness and adaptability that it now inhabits the northern half of Wisconsin — an area where they didn't even exist in the 1800s.

Appreciation goes out to all those who helped with the reintroduction including hunters whose dollars financed much of the effort. Wild turkeys are now here to stay.

I was rehired as a DNR limited term employee in the summer of 1982 for three months prior to beginning graduate school, undertaking a research study of, what else, ruffed grouse. I returned to Spring Green as a consultant and to help set up another season's trapping efforts. During one notable afternoon, I was by myself, hiking a forested hollow of some private land set back in the forested hillside, looking for spots to set more grouse traps. I was more than startled by the thunderous wing beats of a huge bird flushing. And then a second one. Rising up to the top of the treetops and then out of sight. Wild turkeys! It was something I'd never, ever seen before.

I smiled and felt a tinge of satisfaction. I'd learned what it means to turn a ruffed grouse into a wild turkey.

R.J. Longwitz writes from Fall Creek, Wis.