As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, many Utahns aren’t aware that they share their state with a thriving population of wild turkeys. Late November is a perfect time to get outside and see them.
Today, Utah’s turkey population numbers almost 25,000 wild birds. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, until the 1950s, established turkey populations hadn’t been seen in Utah in 100 years or more.
“Based on historical and archeological evidence,” said Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), “it’s clear Native Americans and turkeys coexisted in Utah. That evidence includes pictographs, petroglyphs, blankets made from turkey feathers and turkey bones found at places Native Americans lived.”
Except for a failed reintroduction in the 1920s, no records exist of turkeys being in Utah from the time Europeans started exploring the state to the successful reintroduction of birds in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, biologists with the Utah Department of Fish and Game (the agency’s name was changed to the Division of Wildlife Resources in 1967) successfully released Merriam’s wild turkeys in southern Utah. Subsequent releases, of both the Merriam’s and Rio Grande subspecies, happened through the years. Wild turkey populations in Utah really took off, though, starting in 1989.
“As the years went by,” Robinson said, “houses and roads started eating up pheasant habitat in parts of the state. As a result, pheasant populations in those areas declined. We wanted to give the state’s upland game hunters another opportunity, and wild turkeys fit the bill perfectly. Under the leadership of former DWR Upland Game Coordinator Dean Mitchell, turkey reintroductions increased, and the state’s turkey population took off.”
At first, biologists brought birds in from other states, with South Dakota providing most of the birds Utah received. Now, turkeys in Utah are doing so well that biologists can simply move birds within the state, either to start new populations or supplement populations that have room for more birds.
In addition to gathering around your table to enjoy a turkey feast, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is a great time to get outside and see wild turkeys in Utah.
As winter approaches, Robinson said turkeys move out of the high country and congregate in areas at lower elevations. He said two of the best places to see turkeys are agricultural fields, and also rivers and streams, which are near the high-country areas in which the birds live during the warmer months. “Slopes of hills and mountains that face south are also good places to look,” he said.
Turkeys usually stay in these lower elevation areas, and on south-facing slopes, until March. Then, as the snow melts and the temperature climbs, the birds travel to higher elevations to breed and nest.
While April can be a difficult month to find birds, it’s also the most exciting time to watch them. “April is when the birds’ breeding season begins,” Robinson said. “The males are in their bright, colorful breeding plumage. Watching them strut and gobble, as they try to draw the attention of female turkeys, is one of the most interesting and exhilarating things you’ll see in nature.”
To find turkeys in April, you’ll have to travel to higher elevations. “Once you arrive in a higher elevation area,” he said, “look for three things: large cottonwood or Ponderosa pine trees the birds can roost in, thick brush the birds can feed and hide in, and water.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ll even see them as you’re driving along a road. It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
A general idea of where turkeys live in Utah is available in the 2017-2018 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. You can get the free guidebook at wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.
“A map that shows where turkeys live in Utah is available on page 35,” Robinson said. “The dark splotches on the map indicate the general areas where turkeys are found in the state.”
If you have questions about viewing or hunting turkeys in Utah, call the nearest Division of Wildlife Resources office or the DWR Salt Lake City office at 801-538-4700.