Too many turkeys, who is responsible?

Photo by Lizzie Blumenthal “Wild” turkeys roam the streets in Red Lodge, blocking traffic and creating a possible predator threat.

 It’s hard to go a few days in Red Lodge without someone, either a local or especially a visitor asking, ‘What is the deal with all the turkeys in town?’ Therefore, CCN has taken the issue upon us to try to uncover some truth behind the turkeys and discuss possible solutions to help control their increasing population. After talking with Fish, WIldlife and Park (FWP) and Red Lodge City Officials, the question unfolds over who has the proper authority to make decisions about the turkeys. According to Rob Gibson, information and education manager at FWP, because the turkeys that roost in Finn Park are not purebred wild Marion turkeys, rather crossbred, FWP does not have the jurisdiction to relocate them. “We’re not going to capture them and take them out in the wild someplace and turn them loose. We don’t want to dilute the Marion turkeys we do have in the wild,” Gibson said. “So what FWP has done has turned the management of turkeys to the city.” One issue they addressed was public feeding of the turkeys.

To help control their population, City Officials with advice from FWP Biologists revised an ordinance effective March 28, 2013 that specifically prohibited, “the keeping, housing, feeding, and/or maintaining of any and all wild animals within the city limits…” defining turkey as a wild animal and establishing punishments for offenses. Essentially, the hope was that the ordinance would solve the turkey problem, but for those who live in Red Lodge, the turkeys still rule the town. Mayor Ed Williams said once they passed the ordinance they really looked at whether feeding the turkeys was the root of the problem, but found there were no changes in the numbers.

He estimates about 200 turkeys in town. “FWP needs to help the city sort out his problem and we’re willing to work with them,” Williams said. Continuing the conversation, Gibson explained the options the city has-- hunting being one of them. Gibson said that with the proper tags, it is legal in Red Lodge to hunt with bow and arrow for turkeys in city limits. The problem, he said is that unless it’s a clean kill, the whole ordeal could be quite messy. In response, Mayor Williams said, “There is no way we’re going to allow hunting in town.” Because the turkeys roam downtown and in generally crowded areas, Red Lodge City Planner, Forest Sanderson added that hunting in town would also violate the basic rules in hunter safety-- to keep your weapon pointed in a safe direction.

The other option, Gibson noted, is the city could draft a plan to “take care” of the turkeys, similar to what they’re doing in Helena with the aggressive Mule deer population. “If that's the case,” Gibson said, “FWP definitely would help, but that’s not going to be a nice capture and release thing. What happens when they have a plan to get rid of turkeys is they go in and kill the turkeys until they have few enough of them until everyone is happy.” Sanderson proposed one possible solution-- to establish a written agreement between the city, FWP and interested landowners to relocate the turkeys onto private land and accommodate public access for hunting. “We’ve got people who have volunteered to take the turkeys and relocate them,” Sanderson said. The issue, Williams said is whether FWP considers the hybridized turkeys “wild.” If they do, the city can not follow through on such decisions. It appears the city and FWP have not established a proper definition in regards to their jurisdiction over the turkeys, but both groups agree that there is an inherent problem. Although Williams said he does not mind having a few turkeys in town, the boom in population does create a potential threat especially from predator species. FWP and City Officials noted mountain lions as the biggest concern.

“The worry about having that many turkeys in town is that it is now worthwhile for predator species to move into town.” Gibson said, which would create a whole new series of problems. While the turkeys are not the smartest animal on the food chain, because they remain to feel safe and unthreatened in Red Lodge, they will continue to call it home and the turkey talk will go on. CCN, the City of Red Lodge and FWP plan to address the issue in further detail to help find a solution. Gary Hammond, FWP regional director was unavailable for comment.