Private Property, Public Hunting

Private Property, Public Hunting

4 Min Read

Turkey season opened with a grim forecast of snow. We went anyway. And it snowed. But not right away. The season dawned gray but dry. A gobbler thundered his approval from his cottonwood roost down by the creek. Things went downhill after that.

“Sounds like he’s moving down canyon,” Jason whispered, his camouflage face mask capturing any errant coronaviruses. There hasn’t been a reported case of COVID -19 in our entire county, but like I told Jason “There aren’t any people in this county either.”

I thought the bird might sound farther away because it had flown down to the creek. The roll of hill we sat on reflected the sound. Then he shut up. Jason was ready to move. But I’ve been there, done that enough, and stumbled onto more than my fair share of toms that were sidling in quietly.

“He’s probably displaying for the hens. If not, he might be strutting his way up here. Let’s sit tight yet.”

The next time he gobbled he was far up a side draw. On the opposite side of the canyon. We went down to the roost site and tried calling there, hoping he’d think he’d left a hen behind. He didn’t. “They’re not going to stay in the trees all day. They should be cruising the open ground. Let’s glass.” We climbed back up our side. Found 16 elk, two moose, a few mule deer, a happy pair of harriers mating, a golden eagle soaring on a dream.

“There they are. Above that draw where he last gobbled. Looks like he has three hens.” On further examination they proved to be jakes. Three jakes and a gobbler and we couldn’t lure any of them over for a fly-down dance. Pathetic. And then we saw the other hunters.

“There’s a guy down there getting on a four-wheeler,” Jason said. “He was parked within a long bow shot of the roost!”

“And there’s a pickup in that field behind the ridge they’re on now.” Four hunters. One gobbler. Do the math. We beat it over there anyway, just in time for the snow. Eight miles of hiking, 760 feet of vertical, good exercise, and frustration was our haul for the morning.

No wonder so many of us want our own farms and ranches. And here we sit, my wife and I, with one. Yet we’re reduced to hunting public land turkeys.

“Hey, Forest Service is our land too!” the optimistic Betsy always reminds me. True enough, but we have to share it with some 350 million others. So…

The question is, do we invite turkeys? To our ranch? This is not a hypothetical question. Currently, there are no turkeys on this side of our county. They’re held at bay by a consortium of treeless fields, a major highway, and a mile or two of sage grasslands. The nearest wild turkey would have to hike at least three straight-line miles of open ground to even discover there are trees on this side of the valley. I’ve a hunch area ranchers and even Fish & Game want it that way. All the wild turkeys in the state came from introductions. Must not have introduced them here for a good reason.

And that reason might be Tyrannosaurus rex. That must be what these towering, two-legged scavengers look like to small, quivering life forms like recently hatched pheasants, ruffed grouse, sharptailed grouse, meadowlarks, vesper sparrows…

I don’t know. The literature isn’t clear on this, but you’ve heard the anecdotes. Given the enthusiasm with which our laying hens attack scraps of venison trimmings, I can easily imagine a horny turkey beak plunging from three feet up to hammer a helpless nestling.

But even if they don’t prey on small birds and mammals, turkeys are stiff competition for forage and space. You need a lot of seeds to maintain a flock. This is obvious each winter when every turkey comes off the forested mountain slopes across the valley to mooch off a handful of cattle feedlots.

The fact that Dancing Springs Ranch is a haven for native Columbian sharp-tailed grouse should inform our decision, and to date it has. We’ll continue grooming our native habitat, planting food plots and forage plants that benefit those birds plus the ruffed grouse, blue grouse, introduced ringnecked pheasants, and gray partridge that seem to coexist here quite peacefully.

And we’ll drive across the valley to compete for the public land turkeys there.

Even paradise has its limits.

By Ron Spomer

For more than 40 years, Ron Spomer has shared his passion for the outdoors through stunning photography and insightful writing. In "Living with the Land," Ron and Betsy, a retired flight nurse, will document the joys and struggles of restoring and optimizing wildlife and human habitat on their off-grid Dancing Springs Ranch.

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