By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The reintroduction of wild turkeys in Colorado has proven so successful that flocks of the gobblers are intruding on farms and ranches, prompting wildlife managers to expand hunting of the iconic American bird on private lands.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has adopted new regulations in two northeastern Colorado counties allowing increased hunting of the birds where they have raided grain silos, eaten hay left by ranchers for livestock or dug up crops.
Hunters can now target beardless turkeys - hens or juvenile males called jakes - into the late hunting season, so long as the landowner grants permission. Licensed turkey hunting had been limited mostly to adult male birds, or toms.
The new rules were prompted by complaints of turkeys congregating at feeding troughs and contaminating cattle feed with droppings, a problem that has grown acute in late fall and early winter when forage becomes scarce.
"The goal is to minimize those conflicts," said Theo Stein, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Once numbering in the millions along the riverbeds of Colorado's eastern plains, wild turkeys were hunted to near extinction by the 1920s. Colorado officials began aggressively reintroducing turkeys to their ancestral range in the 1980s.
There are now between 25,000 and 30,000 wild turkeys in 53 of Colorado's 64 counties.
CHALLENGE FOR HUNTERS
Unlike their flightless, ungainly domesticated cousins, wild turkeys are swift and a challenge for hunters to stalk. Between 3,200 and 3,700 were bagged by hunters in 2010 and 2011.
Stein said the expanded hunting was limited in scope, and the wildlife agency "didn't declare open season on turkeys."
Some farmers welcome the wild turkeys who Benjamin Franklin once said should have been named the national bird instead of the bald eagle, which he described as "a bird of bad moral character."
Five years ago, flocks of the birds showed up at Harvey Colglazier's corn and wheat farm near Holyoke, Colorado.
"They're a new type of wildlife that we haven't seen out here before," he told Reuters.
Colglazier said he would not allow turkeys to be hunted on his land.
"We have a bigger problem with deer because they lie down in the fields and crush the wheat," he said.
Stein said other states that have seen soaring wild turkey populations were facing similar conflicts with agricultural interests.
Bob Rogers of Wray, Colorado, said he has seen the gobblers swarm onto cornfields along the Republican and Beaver rivers in south-central Nebraska.
"Flocks of 300 to 400 can take out 10 to 12 acres in a hurry," Rogers said. "They scratch the ground and dig the corn up."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Ian Simpson)