Monday April 21, 2014

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Local wants wild turkeys in the southeast

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1) (L-R) Estevan Wildlife Federation representative Garry Leslie accepts a cheque for $6,000 from Brad Orsted with Enbridge Pipelines. The money will be directed towards a risk assessment for wild turkeys in Saskatchewan.

It's an initiative that has been about five years in the making: the arrival of wild turkeys in southeast Saskatchewan.

Garry Leslie of Lampman is an outdoors enthusiast who has been spearheading a pilot project for the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF) to bring wild turkeys to the region. The Estevan Wildlife Federation has given Leslie its blessing to proceed with the wild turkey project, and Leslie said the epicenter of the drive to bring wild turkeys is Estevan.

He has also approached the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment about the possibility of bringing in the birds, and a risk assessment is currently examining whether the project is feasible.

"We've done a lot of legwork as far as talking to land owners, and making sure that there's going to be a tolerance for introducing these birds onto private property," said Leslie.

Many of the landowners that they have spoken with have been very receptive to the idea, Leslie said. Fourteen of them have signed contracts to allow the birds on their land. There are five potential sites.

Local acceptance was the first hurdle for the project, Leslie said. Without it, the concept would have been dead.

Several other wildlife federations are interested in the project, including the Moose Mountain Wildlife Federation. He has also received interest from people in Maple Creek, Prince Albert and Lloydminster, even though the latter two communities are probably too far away for the wild turkeys to migrate from during the winter months.

There is a large existing population in the Cypress Hills region of southwest Saskatchewan, he said, and there are smaller numbers in North Dakota.

The risk assessment is an important step, too, as it will gauge whether the birds would be suited to the province, and vice-versa. A firm out of Pilot Butte has been hired to tackle the assessment. Leslie said they're very credible, and they have been involved with many similar studies involving wildlife.

"It studies all of the economic impacts, socio-economic impacts, impacts on native species, impacts on other wildlife and domestic livestock, and where they would winter – all of those things that could be potential negatives – and also studies the potential positives as far as having a new bird species on the landscape for bird watching and just the enjoyment of having more wildlife," said Leslie.

Enbridge Pipelines and Glen Peterson Construction (GPS) have stepped forward with financial support for the assessment. Enbridge donated $6,000, while GPS contributed $5,000.

Leslie is hopeful that the assessment could be finished in about six weeks, but that would depend on how much information is received, and if follow-up queries are required. The document would then be scrutinized by the wildlife branches, the SWF and the Ministry of the Environment.

Any possible problems or amendments would then be taken back to the assessment company before the document is given final approval.

Leslie said several biologists with the Ministry of the Environment are on-board with the wild turkey initiative, because wild turkeys are not an invasive species.

"The wildlife federation is 100 per cent against any invasive species," said Leslie. "It's a bird that fits within the Prairie landscape as far as cohabitating with Hungarian partridge and pheasants, and not having any risks for wild boars."

If the assessment shows there are too many negatives, or if the negatives outweigh the positives, then Leslie said he will abandon the wild turkey pilot project. But he suspects the results will be favourable.

"The history of the birds, among other jurisdictions, shows that there are almost no negatives," said Leslie. "They're a very clean bird, they don't carry disease and they don't impact the native species."

Winter sustainability is a key element for wild turkeys. They tend to gather together in the winter, much like deer.

"They'll roost in among the cattle and in and among the bales and things like that, so we have to make sure we have good wintering grounds for them," Leslie said.

Leslie said they'll need a cattle feeding area for the animals each winter. It's another reason why landowner acceptance is critical for the project to happen.

Saskatchewan wouldn't be the first jurisdiction in Canada to successfully import wild turkeys. Ontario trapped and transferred birds from Maine years ago. The numbers in Ontario have reached the point where the province now has a spring hunting season.

Manitoba trapped and transferred some of Ontario's birds, and there is now a thriving and thriving population of wild turkeys in the southern portion of Manitoba.

"If all of these jurisdictions can do it, why can't Saskatchewan?" he said.

Leslie suspects that Saskatchewan would need to trap the birds in Manitoba, and transfer them to this province. Fifty birds would likely be a good number to start with, he said.

If Saskatchewan's wild turkey program proves successful, the long-term goal would include a hunting season, Leslie said. A hunting season for wild turkeys isn't his priority, he said.

"I think they're a cool bird," Leslie said. "They were the original species on the landscape, back in the days when (Christopher) Columbus sailed. It's been proven that they have been on the Prairie landscape, North American-wide, until man took over, and then eventually they moved off."

Leslie does have a word of caution for local landowners. He noted that some are releasing turkeys from their own land, and those animals won't survive in the wild. He is also worried about seeing animals released into the wild that might carry disease.


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