As Thanksgiving approaches, many Utahns think about turkeys. After all, the tasty birds are served as holiday dishes throughout the land.
But those who love the outdoors also like to observe, listen to or hunt the wild turkeys that have slowly been introduced in the mountains and deserts throughout the state.
Where it was once difficult to see a turkey in the wild, they are more common now in Utah. Many who hike Zion National Park’s Riverwalk Trail, for example, see the birds in that canyon.
Others, like Ty Benson of West Valley City, enjoy the challenge of hunting the big birds. He likes trying to call a turkey in and the challenge of matching wits with a smart and wary adversary.
While it might seem like heresy in this day and age, legend has it that founding father Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey and not the bald eagle to be the symbol of the United States. (According to an article by the History Channel’s Christopher Klein, that’s not the case. But Franklin did respect wild turkeys more than bald eagles.)
Utah’s turkey population numbers around 25,000 wild birds, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources. That’s a far cry from the 1950s, when established turkey populations hadn’t been seen in Utah in more than 100 years.
“Based on historical and archeological evidence,” says Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, “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.”
DWR researchers say there was a failed reintroduction in the 1920s, but there are no records of wild turkeys being in Utah from the time Europeans began exploring the state to the successful reintroduction of the birds in the 1950s.
That’s when biologists from the agency, then called the Utah Department of Fish and Game, successfully released Merriam’s wild turkeys in southern Utah.
The agency then started to release Merriam’s and Rio Grande subspecies and the populations started to expand greatly in the late-1980s.
“As the years went by,” said Robinson, “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.”
So, if families want to see wild turkeys, where should they look?
As winter nears, the big birds, which can fly and roost, move to lower elevations into agricultural fields and rivers and streams near the high-country where the birds live during the warmer months.
Robinson suggests looking on slopes of hills and mountains that face south.
As for hunting the birds, much of that takes place during the spring. Benson said there is an early-season draw hunt where hunters can get a permit usually every other year and a over-the-counter statewide hunt with unlimited permits after that.
“It’s by far the hardest to hunt,” said Benson, the West Valley hunter. “They are smart. People think about a dumb turkey. But they are very intelligent and have good eyesight. It’s a very hard hunt.”
There is a map that shows where turkeys live in Utah on page 35 of the 2017-2018 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. You can get the free guidebook by visiting www.wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks. Or call the nearest DWR office or its Salt Lake City headquarters at 801-538-4700.