Some out-of-state visitors have made Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation home this winter: wild turkeys.
Wild turkeys in the area were "few and far between," said Leland Top Sky, the tribe's fish and wildlife director. Turkeys have been on the reservation for many years, but not in sufficient numbers to issue permits for hunting.
So in January, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota agreed to relocate some of its Merriam's wild turkeys to Montana.
"They were able to trap about 69 birds, and the tribe was kind enough to keep us in mind, knowing that we wanted to repopulate our turkey population that was up here," Top Sky said.
In late January the birds were transported to Rocky Boy. All 69 survived the trip, and the department is now monitoring the birds.
"They seem to be doing just fine," he said. "They've adapted very well."
They should because Merriams are mountain-area turkeys, Top Sky said.
They were originally found in pine forests in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, but have been transplanted to several other Western states, including South Dakota and Montana, according to http://www.wildturkeyzone.com.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped coordinate the turkeys' trip to Rocky Boy, transporting the birds and doing blood tests on them, Top Sky said. The tests are standard when any wild animal is brought into Montana from another state, he said.
The turkeys, which have mostly black feathers but white feathers on the back and tail, were released in two different areas of the reservation. About half were released 2 miles northwest of Beaver Creek Park. Those birds have since been moving toward the park.
"The park must have more cover or something," he said.
It is not a problem if they move off the reservation, because they will come back once winter is over, he added.
The other half of the birds were released in the middle of the reservation in the heavily wooded Sandy Creek area.
Since then, they seem to have dispersed quickly. Turkeys have been seen as far away as the Bear Paw ski bowl, Top Sky said.
Every two or three days, fish and wildlife officers go out in snowmachines early in the morning or late afternoon until they find turkey tracks. Then they sit and wait with field glasses until they see turkeys.
Because the woods are so thick, usually they only see one or two at a time, he said. Or some trips, like the one he took Friday morning, they find nothing at all.
"It's common to go out and not see them once in a while," he said. "But there are times when you strike it rich."
The tribe received a smaller shipment of Merriams from South Dakota about three years ago. Those birds have transmitters on them, which help the department locate them.
The department hopes the turkey population will stabilize over the next three years. When it does, the tribe will begin issuing hunting permits for the birds, Top Sky said.