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Marin Giving No Thanks for Tasty Visitor

County officials say turkeys, introduced for hunting, are gobbling up space and fodder.

September 02, 2003|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

Marin County officials are alarmed at the soaring wild turkey population on public lands, and they have asked a state agency they hold responsible to fix the problem.

Officials of the Marin Municipal Water District blame the California Department of Fish and Game for introducing turkeys for hunting on private land on Loma Alta Hill outside Fairfax in 1988. The birds eventually spilled over to nearby public land, and that's when the problems started.

Now the turkeys are edging out native wildlife and plants and gobbling up acorns at a pace that threatens the growth of new oak trees.

"They're definitely at the pest level," said Pam Nicolai, manager of the Marin Municipal Water District. She said she had driven to the Sky Oaks ranger station recently, "and a whole flock was running alongside the road."

At first, Nicolai recalled, when the turkeys started appearing in Marin County a few years ago, they were a rarity. Now, she said, there are many flocks. She said the birds, which roost in trees at night for safety, don't seem to have any natural enemies to keep their numbers down. And the water district, which manages 20,000 acres of land, doesn't allow hunting.

The water district and several other public agencies in Marin and Sonoma counties complained to Fish and Game about a year ago, and the state agency issued a draft report last month proposing a policy allowing the trapping and relocation of problem birds.

But that solution is drawing fire.

Mike Swezy, resources specialist with the water district, said relocating the birds is "sort of like exporting the problems."

He also questioned the effectiveness and cost of trapping and whether it is humane to put turkeys in cages and truck them hundreds of miles away to rural areas, as the state proposes.

Swezy said he believes shooting the birds should be considered as a way to manage the rising turkey population.

But the state seems reluctant to allow that in Marin.

Scott Gardner, a wildlife biologist with state Fish and Game who helped write the report, acknowledged that "some people would like us to simply kill them. That's a pretty drastic measure. We don't feel we have enough need to do that yet."

He noted that state law doesn't allow his agency to issue depredation permits for turkeys. That's a rule Fish and Game proposes to change, though any such permits would be given sparingly.

Although Fish and Game still plans to encourage trapping and relocating as a way to reduce problem populations overall, the agency's report concedes that it's not a feasible method for stopping destruction in vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in the short term.

In those areas, where the state says the turkey population has grown greatly in recent years, "depredation permits would provide immediate relief."

Gardner said Marin water district officials have cited numerous problems caused by turkeys, including scratching cars and upsetting the balance of nature, but "we don't know about them causing ecological issues."

However, a ranger at Olompali State Historic Park in Novato has seen as many as 50 turkeys at a time mowing down fiddlenecks, which are orange wildflowers resembling caterpillars, said Tom Lindberg, sector superintendent of the Marin park district.

A scientist with the Audubon Canyon Ranch, which has three preserves in Marin and Sonoma counties, started a three-year study of the problem last spring.

The scientist will measure the effects of turkeys on the native habitat at the group's Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen in Sonoma County by comparing the effects of the foraging birds on accessible areas to developments in fenced-off enclosures, said John Kelly, research director of the group.

And though he doesn't know what the study will find, Kelly said, his group doesn't support introduction of any nonnative species, including turkeys.

"We'd like to rid them from our sanctuaries," Kelly said of the birds. "They're all around."

The turkeys may not be natives to California, Gardner responded, but "we've had turkeys for a very long time in the state."

And though he has no way of knowing how many wild turkeys there are in California, Gardner said, he wouldn't be surprised "if we have a couple hundred thousand," up from an estimated 100,000 in 1990.

Because of increasing complaints about turkeys causing nuisances, state Fish and Game officials have not stocked them anywhere in the state for hunting since 1999, Gardner said.

He noted that the state agency had been sued by the California Native Plant Society after turkeys the agency had released on private land ended up in a San Diego park.

And though he concedes that trapping and relocating turkeys is expensive, Gardner said the National Wild Turkey Federation, which is made up of turkey hunters, has agreed to pay for the effort.

The relocated birds probably would go to remote state wildlife areas, Gardner said.

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