Last week, we were talking turkeys at the Maine Legislature. Yes, I know there’s an obvious analogy to be made here, but I’m not going there.
Maine’s wild turkey population and hunt was the subject of a public hearing on a proposal that Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, sponsored at my request. A group of farmers who are also legislators stole the show. Reps. Russell Black, R-Wilton, Craig Hickman, D-Wayne and Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, presented powerful testimony about the impact of turkeys on farm crops, fields, forests and even other wildlife.
When Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife introduced wild turkeys to the state in the 1980s, they failed to consult with the farming community, and farmers have been complaining ever since. Those complaints have grown louder as the turkey population exploded all over the state.
Black spoke as a farmer and a hunter who has first-hand experience with the effects of turkey introduction in Maine. “It’s been too successful,” he said, noting he often counts as many as 100 turkeys in his yard.
He expressed concern that turkeys were having a negative impact on deer by consuming “acres of clover that is mowed to the ground, leaving nothing for deer.” He also noted turkeys were eating most of the apples that dropped from his trees, leaving few for deer.
Timberlake arrived at the lectern with examples of turkey damage, handing out branches from his honey-crisp apple trees. Turkeys ate the buds on every branch. He noted, “The fun is gone,” with turkeys. “Like people, turkeys like honey-crisp,” he said. “Each bud represents two or three apples worth $2 to $3 per apple. In the spring, it’s unbelievable,” he reported.
“And in the fall, it’s worse,” he said. “They destroy hundreds of apples per tree. It would not be extreme to have a turkey season that goes from January 1 to December 31 with no bag limit,” he concluded, to the laughter of the audience.
I am not sure he was kidding. While his testimony was entertaining, his loss of tens of thousands of dollars a year because of turkeys was sobering.
Hickman, an organic farmer, said, “I used to like wild turkeys, quite a bit. And then the flocks increased exponentially every year. Then they got into my collard greens. I love my collard greens.”
He also noted that turkeys carry ticks that cause Lyme disease. His farm sports two flocks of 50 turkeys each.
Hickman started finding ticks in his long hair after working in the field, “so I shaved my hair off and I’m blaming turkeys. I want them gone. I want my hair back,” he said, to more laughter from the audience.
He would like to extend the fall season to the entire month of October with an increased bag limit.
Maine has lost almost half its turkey hunters over the last seven years. Last year, only 13,179 hunters purchased turkey permits. And those hunters harvested only 6,872 turkeys. That is an incredibly small percentage of the huge population of turkeys in this state. No one can argue that we cannot harvest a lot more turkeys.
Saviello’s bill focuses on reversing the decline in turkey hunters and addressing the problems of farmers and private landowners by increasing the turkey harvest. It eliminates the turkey permit and fees so that turkey hunting may be included in DIF&W’s hunting licenses without additional payment.
The most important element of this bill is the elimination of the fee. And I’m not the only one who thinks the fees are too high. Brad Allen, DIF&W’s top bird biologist and the go-to guy about turkeys, told me last March that “$20 for a turkey permit is horribly high, and $20 more for a second tom is worse.”
You may not be a farmer, but you probably don’t like turkeys, either. One year, just before Christmas, Linda Gifford of Manchester called my hunting buddy Ed Pineau and begged him to shoot the turkeys that had eaten and destroyed the Christmas decorations on the deck of her house. She was disappointed to learn that we could not harvest a few of those birds for our Christmas dinners.
Even though Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposes the bill, it may have a chance. I was impressed that Senate President Justin Alfond co-sponsored the bill — apparently turkeys are a problem even in Portland.
And while they were not heard at the public hearing, I know the turkeys on the hill behind the Capitol were watching closely.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.