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1973–2013 40 Years of Conservation

NWTF Founder Tom Rodgers

By the 1960s, sufficient research showed that increases in human population and related development were threatening the wild turkey’s habitat in many areas of the United States, especially along the eastern seaboard. If Tom Rodgers could only start now, he held the key to fulfilling the dream of restoring the grandest of game birds to large regions of the country and pointing the economic bullwhip of recreational turkey hunting toward research and restoration programs. He admonished himself further: There always would be a need for educating the public about wild turkey conservation. The year was 1972.

Forty years later, the goals and mission of the National Wild Turkey Federation remain as valid as the day the organization was founded.

Here are just a few highlights from four decades of wildlife conservation and hunting heritage preservation.


A wild turkey organization of some type had danced across Rodgers’ mind since 1968, when he first realized the detrimental effects that development and human population growth were having on the wild turkeys he liked to hunt near his home in northern Virginia. He knew the acreage lost each day could never be returned to the wild.

“Northern Virginia was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country at the time,“ Rodgers said just months before his death in 2008. “They were wiping out hunting habitat as fast as you can imagine. They were building harbor complexes, shipping centers, homes on speculation, and I said, ’This is bad. Turkeys are going to take a hit.’ And they did.“

In 1976, 1,000 signed and numbered art prints donated by Russ Smiley and featuring the Osceola subspecies were released to raise funds for the NWTF. Rodgers said he noted how well the Federal Duck Stamp worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Oddly enough, the first sales didn’t come from hunters but from art collectors,“ Rodgers said. The Wild Turkey Stamp Print program would prove phenomenally successful, raising more than $200,000 that first year, and boosting the NWTF’s income to $334,045.

“We raised a couple hundred thousand dollars — it shocked the board, shocked me, shocked the industry — but it worked and went on to become the largest fundraising tool ever in conservation at the time.“

It gave the organization enough income to add a full-time wild turkey biologist and other positions to its staff.

In the March 1979 issue of Outdoors in Georgia magazine, Turkey Call Editor Gene Smith educated readers about the organization:

[The NWTF] is a national, nonprofit, educational organization working for the restoration and wise management of the wild turkey and other valuable resources. What does the NWTF do? It supports scientific wildlife management on public, private and corporate lands. It upholds traditional American sport hunting. It emphasizes the need for clean air and water and every citizen’s right to enjoy an aesthetically pleasing outdoor environment. Specifically, the wild turkey is the recipient of the Federation’s primary attention. It works to see that good wild turkey habitat is defined and preserved; it helps state game and fish agencies educate landowners, sportsmen and the general public to the basic requirements of the wild turkey; it supports financially some of the wild turkey research projects being carried on by colleges, universities and government agencies around the country; it has welded together enough grassroots support, through membership strength, to make a decisive difference wherever and whenever the wild turkey or its habitat needs to be defended.


Dr. James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., chaired his first Technical Committee meeting at the June 1980 convention in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The committee approved three research projects totaling $13,800. Arrangements were made for 1,100 turkey transport boxes to be delivered to 17 states, and plans were approved for 3,000 more boxes to be made for the coming year.

Groundbreaking for construction of the Wild Turkey Research Center took place on April 14, 1980. Formal dedication and occupancy occurred on Nov. 1, with South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley cutting the ribbon. Sen. Strom Thurmond, NWTF chapter presidents from 13 states, and other dignitaries were also present.

The NWTF Research Foundation was chartered in 1982 and a fund separate from the general fund was established to support it. The purpose of the foundation was to receive and hold deposits and gifts, and to administer funds exclusively for wild turkey research programs nationwide.

The NWTF Atlanta Chapter set the date of Nov. 17, 1983 for the NWTF’s first fundraising banquet at the Peachtree World of Tennis in Norcross, Ga. Dick Kirby of Quaker Boy Turkey Calls was the guest speaker. Each ticket buyer received a one-year NWTF membership and a free diaphragm turkey call.

A defining moment in NWTF history occurred July 1984, when a task force made of board members and senior staff met to form a long-range plan. They would use the fundraising banquet program as the organization’s main source of revenue and develop programs to increase membership.

Chief among membership plans came the direction to pursue youth, which turned into the JAKES program and hunter education activities later that decade.

A few key events ensured the successful restoration of the wild turkey beyond the Wild Turkey Super Fund. Before the NWTF launched Target 2000, the NWTF Technical Committee was already doing things behind the scenes without formal agreements; just a handshake and the word from key people were the catalyst for the changes that made the dream of restoration possible.

“In 1982, Charles Allen with Champion Paper wanted to bring Eastern wild turkeys to east Texas, which is about 23 million acres, but the Lacey Act handcuffed them. They had no wildlife to trade with states that were willing to give them Easterns,“ Kennamer explained. In 1986, Technical Committee members Joe Kurz, chief of game management of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Terry Little, supervisor of wildlife research with the Iowa DNR; John Frampton, director of the South Carolina DNR; and Kennamer hammered out an agreement that allowed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to reimburse the capture expenses incurred by donor states without violating the Lacey Act. No wildlife was ever sold, and the donor states benefitted by purchasing public hunting property with the TPWD funds. The first Eastern wild turkeys of Target 2000 shipped from Georgia to east Texas in 1987. The birds thrived in the new habitat.

In 1981, the NWTF recognized that youth held the key to the future of hunting and conservation. JAKES — Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship — became the first outreach program added under the NWTF mission. It was a fitting acrostic that draws parallels between young wild turkeys and the kids’ own youthful standing.


By 1990, 1,127 turkeys had been released from about 75 sites under the Target 2000 banner.

“We had other states get involved,“ Kennamer said. “There were about 100 Eastern wild turkeys in east Texas before Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and other states got on board.“

Before the east Texas project would conclude, wild turkeys came from as far away as Missouri, Wisconsin and Iowa. In all, nearly 4,000 birds from other states were released in Texas in one year. In addition, 337 birds went to four other states to supplement their in-state stocking programs that first year. Compared to 1983, when only 5,000 birds were moved for restocking in the entire United States, Target 2000 was off to a good start. By 1990, 12 state fish and wildlife agency restocking projects were complete, with 16 other states predicting completion by 1995.

Stockings of Rio Grande wild turkeys in Nevada are just one example of how the program helped bring back huntable populations of our favorite bird.

The Nevada Division of Wildlife’s first release of Rio Grande wild turkeys in 1986 was made possible by a trapping effort in California that was supported through the NWTF Wild Turkey Super Fund. That stocking ultimately led to Nevada’s first-ever turkey hunting season in spring 1990 in the western part of the state, south and west of Reno. Stocks were supplemented in 1995 with 125 Rio Grande wild turkeys from Oklahoma.

Biologists followed up that effort in January 1998 with the release of 100 more of the Rio Grande subspecies from California as well as in-state trapping, into unoccupied habitat in the northeastern and western parts of the state.

Beginning with the hiring of Luke Lewis, the NWTF’s first regional biologist, in 1999, and moving through the national network of biologists available to members today, conservation is at the forefront of the NWTF mission, which is succinctly summarized with its three-word slogan: Conserve. Hunt. Share.

The NWTF developed the model for the Women in the Outdoors program in 1997, but didn’t officially launch it until 1998. With a mission dedicated to providing interactive educational outdoor opportunities for women, the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of the hunting tradition, Women in the Outdoors was created to provide women an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the outdoors in a non-competitive, non-threatening atmosphere that fostered learning, camaraderie and a love of the outdoors.


The NWTF also recognized the need to help people with disabilities enjoy the outdoors and have opportunities to participate in hunting and shooting sports.

Wheelin’ Sportsmen came to the NWTF in October 2000 as the result of a merger between the NWTF and Wheelin’ Sportsmen of America, which was founded by Kirk Thomas. He and his staff came on board and Wheelin’ Sportsmen NWTF was born.

The North American Wild Turkey Management Plan, adopted shortly after the turn of the 21st century, has helped identify, improve and protect more than 1 million acres of critical upland wildlife habitat since 2004. NAWTMP has the support of state wildlife agencies, the USDA Forest Service, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Management and NWTF state chapters. NWTF biologists have been ahead of the game for decades, having introduced numerous NWTF regional habitat programs during the organization’s 40-year history.


The JAKES Take Aim program, launched in 2011, is the newest outreach effort of the NWTF and is focused on providing opportunities for youth ages 17 and younger to try target shooting and shotgunning in a safe, fun environment. This was made possible by a donation from Larry and Brenda Potterfield, owners of MidwayUSA, through the Midway Foundation. The goal to is to reach 150,000 youths over a four-year period.

Each NWTF state chapter in the lower 48 states will receive a fully equipped air gun trailer to use during local JAKES and other youth events. The trailers allow chapters to have a presence at outdoor expositions, community celebrations and other venues, and provide opportunities for youths to try their hand at target shooting. The heart of the shooting range system is an inflatable indoor/outdoor BB gun range designed and sponsored by Daisy.

Also in 2011, experts and volunteers from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the NWTF trapped the 200,000th wild turkey in southern Arizona. The bird was one of 15 of the Gould’s subspecies trapped in the Coronado National Forest, then transferred to Gardner Canyon, which had suitable habitat but no wild turkeys.

Efforts by government agencies and the NWTF have enabled the wild turkey population to soar to nearly 7 million today, elevating it to the second-most popular game species in the U.S., behind white-tailed deer, with more than 2.5 million turkey hunters.

Thanks to the efforts of wildlife management agencies and the NWTF, wild turkeys currently occupy 99 percent of suitable habitat in North America.

The number of turkey hunters was up 15 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data. During that same period, hunting for all other game species combined declined by a whopping 19 percent.

“This illustrates how successful we’ve been in reintroducing the wild turkey to so many states,“ Kennamer said. “To have hunting in 49 states, Canada and Mexico is tremendous. They even opened a turkey hunting season on Long Island, N.Y., for the first time in 100 years. Now more people than ever before have the opportunity to experience this grand bird in the wild.“



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