Sky Island Gould's

Sometimes, restoration and rehabilitation efforts can prove successful beyond wildest expectations. Such is the case of the reintroduction of Gould’s wild turkeys into the Sky Islands, an array of impressive mountain ranges rising above the low desert that dominates much of the southern Arizona landscape.

Now, decades after the first thoughts of restoration, the birds above Tucson have been restored to sustainable hunting levels. Populations are growing so well, gobblers have even been witnessed to leave their mountain enclaves for a stroll into town to make friends with other fowl in backyard hen houses and to watch planes take off and land at the local airport.

Heffelfinger of Tucson, Arizona stands with his 21-pound bird that sported an 11-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.

Arizona Game and Fish Department Wildlife Science Coordinator Jim Heffelfinger was a key player in the multi-organization restoration project. Heffelfinger’s work with Gould’s restoration spans more than 20 years.“What has happened here is incredible,” says Kurt Dyroff, NWTF Western Region director of conservation operations. “This restoration effort is a perfect example of what we as a conservation community can do: taking an area where turkeys had been extirpated (totally eradicated) and restoring the birds and their crucial habitat. It’s an amazing success story of transforming essentially zero birds to a huntable population.”

“This was a species that was pretty much gone — done for — in the United States, and look at where we are now,” he said. “We’ve populated all the primary, first-tier, Gould’s habitats in southeastern Arizona’s Sky Islands, and we’ve recorded a good population [there].”

Just the facts:

  • A 2014 survey in Arizona and New Mexico showed a stable Gould’s population estimated at 1,200 wild turkeys. Most are in Arizona, with about 150 reported in New Mexico. 
  • The first turkey hunting tag was issued in the early 2000s; today, 60 tags per spring are available.
  • Through 2016, 740 new-population turkeys were moved from one group to help start or add to other groups.

Telemetry research is continuing to help us learn what helps Gould’s turkey thrive. Radio backpack-equipped turkeys are helping the research by transmitting data back to biologists who analyze the data. We are learning:

  • Timing of egg-laying, incubation and where hens like to take their newly hatched broods

Gould’s specific nesting habits, which could cause a shift in the hunting seasons to optimize nesting success

  • Where Gould’s turkeys tend to hang out, roost, eat and drink

Gould’s comeback took vision and planning

  • By the numbers — Arizona set legal hunting seasons in 1929, too late for the Gould’s. Early settlers, miners and ranchers almost completely wiped out the Gould’s by the early 1900s.
  • Good planning — Habitat modeling helped prioritize isolated mountain ranges in the Catalina Chiricahua, Pinaleno and Santa Rita mountains before turkeys were released.
  • Birds — 35 turkeys, which were trapped in northern Mexico, were the first to burst from their transport boxes and head for the trees in their new American habitat in the early 2000s
  • Habitat — Lush savannas, tree-lined creeks, oaks, pine, pinyon and manzanitas are classic Gould’s habitats.
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