Once again the often-ridiculed turkey has lost a popularity contest.

A statewide survey conducted for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has found that the nearly 2,200 respondents viewed the size of Maine’s wild turkey population least favorably among the state’s big-game animals, which also include deer, moose and bear.

Although a majority of those who took the survey want the state’s wild turkey population – estimated at 60,000 to 70,000 statewide – to stay at current levels, turkeys were the only one of the four big-game animals for which the respondents who favored a decrease significantly outnumbered those who wanted an increase. Nearly a third would rather see fewer turkeys, and only about 10 percent favor an increase.

The data collected in the survey will be used in conjunction with 10 meetings across the state seeking input from the public on desired population levels for Maine’s big-game species. The sessions begin Wednesday in Portland and Presque Isle with informational meetings on the state’s bear population.

“At what point are turkeys too much of a good thing?” said Nate Webb, IFW’s special project manager. “The people who are saying they want more turkeys – it’s only to a certain point. They like seeing them, but once they start to have negative consequences, that causes them to say, ‘That’s enough.’

“The message is pretty clear. We’re hoping the public meetings shed some light on this.”

In the past, the IFW used only focus groups to gather input on species management. This time, the department paid $129,000 to conduct the statewide survey, run an online forum and hold public meetings as well as focus groups. The survey of Mainers – 933 members of the general public, 956 hunters and 304 landowners with more than 25 acres – was conducted in January and February by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Wild turkeys are native to Maine, but they vanished by the late 1800s as their forest habitat was cleared for farmland, particularly in York and Cumberland counties. The state attempted to reintroduce the bird in 1942, an effort that intensified during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, they are in such abundance that Maine has spring and fall hunting seasons for wild turkeys.

THE FARMERS’ PERSPECTIVES

Melvin Williams, who runs Beech Hill Farm in Waldoboro, says turkeys are a nuisance.

“I think the state made a mistake when they brought the birds in,” said Williams, who used to operate a dairy farm but now sells hay and raises cattle. “… I don’t have a big problem now that my cows are gone, but other people do. They get into the grain and make a mess, and the cows don’t like to eat the grain when there is manure in it.”

Williams said wild turkeys are so abundant that he sees as many as four to five each month who have been struck by cars along the road where he lives.

Blueberry farmer Basil Staples, a fifth-generation farmer at Staples Homestead Farm in Stockton Springs, doesn’t have a problem with turkeys. But he feels badly for the other farms where they cause crop damage.

The state uses data from a wild game survey to supplement public meetings to set management goals. Turkeys didn't do well on the most-recent survey.

The state uses data from a wild game survey to supplement public meetings to set management goals. Turkeys didn’t do well on the most recent survey.

“Turkeys don’t seem to love blueberries,” said Staples, 80. “… So, I’m probably a little different. I know other farmers have a lot of food the turkeys like to eat.”

Hunter Julie Johnston of Stacyville wants to see more turkeys. A member of the Maine chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Johnston said she has to drive 90 minutes south to Bangor to find turkeys to hunt.

“I guess now I’ll go to these public meetings and see what is going on. Up here, we don’t have a lot of turkeys. I’d like to see more. We like to hunt them,” Johnston said.

In areas of the state where turkeys have become abundant, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed support an increased bag limit for hunters, and more than 75 percent support extending the fall hunt.

Even among those who favor an increase in the turkey population, the majority would oppose such an increase if more residents would have to manage turkeys on their own land, if the likelihood of damage to vegetable gardens or crops would be greater, or if there would be an increase in predators to wild turkeys.

The Maine Audubon Society called Maine’s reintroduction of wild turkeys one of the state’s greatest wildlife success stories.

“Wild turkeys are a native species and are filling a natural niche, so Maine Audubon does not believe there is anything wrong naturally with their increasing population,” Audubon spokeswoman Michelle Smith said in an emailed statement Tuesday night.

‘WE DON’T SET THE GOALS’

IFW gathers public input every 15 years to help shape its goals for wildlife management. Those goals came into play in February, when the department proposed cutting 2016 moose-hunting permits by 24 percent, largely because moose sightings in northern Maine were lower than what the public called for under the 2001 management plan.

“It’s our job to manage the species to meet the public goals, but we don’t set the goals,” said Maine Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso.

However, residents do not have exclusive say over the size of wildlife populations.

“What the public wants is a very important part of making wildlife management decisions. But we need to make sure the public understands why we make some decisions about management. We have basic ecological principals that we have to abide by,” Webb said.

Public comment for the wildlife management plans will be gathered through the end of April. IFW will offer its proposed management plans to the public this fall, Webb said.