Sunrise Gobblers of the East Kootenay: Part I

F.J. Hurtak looks at a game bird that's sporting and challenging to hunt.

FJ Hurtak

There are about 12 different species of turkeys in North America, and the species we have in the Kootenays is the Merriam’s turkey.

Adult Merriam’s males are clearly distinguished from some of the more popular species, such as the Eastern, Florida, and Rio Grande turkeys, by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins. Its size is comparable to the Eastern turkey, but has a blacker appearance with blue, purple and bronze reflections.

The Merriam’s also appears to have a white rump due to its pinkish buff, or whitish tail coverts and tips. These tail feathers are very conspicuous especially when a strutting gobbler appears against a dark background. In the spring, seeing a mature tom in full plumage strut his stuff at close range is truly a breath taking sight.

I had my first experience hunting turkeys in the southern states in the late sixties, and it was there, as a very young lad, that I gained a great deal of respect for this beautiful bird.

They have incredibly sharp eyesight and hearing, making them a sporting and challenging bird to hunt. In many parts of the U.S., turkey hunting is as much of a religion as elk or whitetail hunting is in the Kootenays. It’s fair to say, I think, that the very poor management of this great game bird in our region would not be tolerated in the U.S., where turkey hunting, particularly in the spring months, is a huge boost for the economy in many small towns and cities.

It was that way here too in 2004, the first year turkeys came off of LEH. I remember Mountain Man Outdoors’ Manager, Randy Martin, telling me that business started to improve at least three weeks before the mid-April spring season actually started.

“We achieved a significant increase in business, as hunters were buying calls, guns, ammunition, decoys, and clothing,” Martin said.

Another store owner told me they had hunters in from Illinois, Alert Bay, Fort St. John, the West Coast, Pennsylvania, the Okanagan and much more, and that it resulted in a major increase in business for them. It is a far cry from that these days, and turkey hunting is a mere shadow of what it used to be.

I interviewed Rob Bishop, President of the now defunct East Kootenay Strutters, (a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation) and he was not surprised at the great influx in business back then.

“Other areas like Ontario showed large increases in business when they instituted their own turkey season, so I didn’t think it would be any different here” Bishop said.

I did that interview in 2005 and Bishop believed then, as he does now, that most hunters want a paid tag system, which will provide essential data to properly manage the species. That was 9 years ago and Ministry officials have really dropped the ball on this issue in my opinion, as we still don’t have a tag system in place. They have cited reasons for not instituting a proper tag system such as:

• We need more time and discussion to be sure the tag system is the way to go.

• We don’t want to over regulate if we don’t have to.

• Wild turkeys pose some risk to natural bio-diversity.

Some say the rationales provided are simply smoke screens to curtail and eliminate turkey populations over time, because the powers-that-be in Victoria do not believe wild turkeys should be part of the landscape in the Kootenays. It’s hard to argue with that logic considering the fact that the Ministry has done nothing in almost a decade to change that opinion; except for expanding the seasons to allow the elimination of more birds.

A paid tag system makes a lot of sense, because it would provide valuable information to manage the species and could even be used in part to fund a compensation program for ranchers who do face crop damage at times from these birds. I do know of some ranchers who also feed turkeys in tough winters because they enjoy having these birds around and for those who do, some money could go to offset the cost of feed. Perhaps they could even be allowed to charge a fee for access to their property, to allow hunters to hunt. These are just a few of the options, which a legitimate tag system for turkeys would bring.

Next week: Sunrise Gobblers   Part 2  (Hunting the Merriam’s)

F.J. Hurtak is the author of the books,  Elk Hunting in the Kootenays and Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays available at selected retail outlets in B.C. and Alberta. All profits go to acquire land for wildlife.