There were yelps, alarm putts and lots of other turkey noise coming from big boxes on a hilltop in extreme northeast South Dakota in 1996. At the count of three, staff from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department and other interested parties opened the boxes, allowing big Missouri wild turkeys out of confinement.
With loud, flapping wings and screaming yelps, the large birds flew toward the cover offered by trees that dotted the coulee. The moment of the turkey release signified the beginning of new populations of Eastern wild turkeys in northeast South Dakota. Although smiles of joy and satisfaction were plastered on everyone's face, there was a definite feel of apprehension in the air out of concern for the birds' survival.
Although there are five different subspecies of wild turkeys in North America - Eastern, Merriam's, Rio Grande, Osceola (Florida) and Gould (Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico) - three subspecies or their hybrids populate parts of the Dakotas. And with each passing spring, more and more hunters take to the prairies and woods in search of wild turkeys that are as diverse and beautiful as the Dakota landscape in which they thrive.
Wild Turkeys in South Dakota
History tells us there were some Eastern turkeys that were indigenous to the woodlands of southeastern South Dakota, but by 1920 there were no wild turkeys in the state.
Today's populations are the result of introductions or reintroductions of wild birds by state agencies or conservation-minded organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation. To acquire wild turkeys, SDGFP traded pheasants and sage grouse with Missouri, Colorado and other states.
Over 5,400 wild turkeys, including birds from the Eastern, Merriam's and Rio Grande subspecies, were released in South Dakota from 1930 to 2004. Almost all of the birds were captured via trap-and-transfer means. Some were trapped in areas of South Dakota and subsequently released in new habitat, and some birds were acquired from other states.
Any apprehension of releasing or reintroducing wild birds back into the landscape, though warranted, was soon proved wrong by the resilient birds. Released-bird survival rates were good, and in some places, too good. As wild turkey flocks grew in numbers, so did landowner complaints of too many birds in farmyards and on stored livestock feed.
Since the Eastern subspecies was known as a wary bird and not as likely to venture into farmyards as other subspecies, it was decided to import Eastern birds. The first Easterns were released in Union County, north of Elk Point, in 1990 and in Sanborn County in 1993.
Rio Grande turkeys from the King Ranch in Texas were released in the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge in Day County in 1963. In 1972, Merriam's and Rios were stocked in Marshall County, and more Rios were planted there in 1979.
Today's large northeast population is derived from Eastern wild turkey stockings in Marshall and Roberts counties and on the east escarpment of the Coteau des Prairie (a glacier-made plateau rising from prairie flatlands in northeast South Dakota, which is sometimes also called the Prairie Coteau). Subsequent releases of Easterns in Grant County and again in Marshall County occurred in 2000.
Generally, Merriam's populate the Black Hills area and West River prairie units, with an occasional yet strong presence of Rio Grande genetics in a few areas.
Central South Dakota turkeys are Merriam's and Rio Grande hybrids. Other hybrid turkeys, with Eastern, Merriam's and Rio Grande genetics, are now found in northeast South Dakota and along the James River in the southern part of the state. Merriam's populate extreme southeast South Dakota along the Missouri River.
At first, no hunting was allowed for several years in released-bird areas, which contributed to their high survival rate. With some resident Merriam's and Rio Grande birds in the same habitat, it didn't take long for birds to hybridize in all areas of eastern South Dakota.
When other birds are transplanted into an area, they will mingle and interbreed, said Ron Schauer, a wildlife biologist with the SDGFP. It might be right away or take a couple years, but when populations expand and come in contact with other birds, the result will be hybrids. Today's wild turkeys in specific areas are a blend of all three subspecies.
Supposedly, a few years ago hunters could obtain three of the four birds required for a Grand Slam of a Merriam's, Rio Grande and Eastern, in Roberts County in northeast South Dakota.
Hunters have claimed to have done that, Schauer said. We need DNA to be completely correct, and we don't have that for our use.
Different subspecies of birds do mingle, primarily along the South Dakota-Iowa border and the Big Sioux River. Lincoln and Union counties have lots of hybrids, but also Merriam's, Schauer said. Merriam's far outnumber Easterns along the Missouri River.
Today, hybrids make up the highest population of wild turkeys in South Dakota.
Wild Turkeys in North Dakota