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Status of the Wild Turkey - Past, Present, and Future

By: Dr. James Earl Kennamer

Just a couple of decades ago, wild turkeys were not nearly as common as they are today. Few states had enough birds to hunt and states that did have birds offered only limited seasons. Over the last 20 years, however, wild turkey numbers have skyrocketed throughout North America. The increase and thanks is due to the dedicated efforts of state wildlife agencies and the support of the NWTF and its volunteers.

During precolonial times, wild turkeys were abundant, but European settlers on the North American continent nearly destroyed all habitat for wild turkeys by harvesting timber for homes, farm and pasture. Settlers also hunted wild turkeys year round for food. By the 1950s, wild turkeys were eliminated from 18 states considered part of the birds' historic range and the nationwide population was less than 500,000 birds.

Initial restoration efforts in the 1930s and 1940s consisted of releasing masses of pen-raised birds. All the early efforts quickly proved fruitless because pen-raised birds did not have the necessary skills to survive in the wild. Thanks to the development of the cannon net, and later the rocket net, biologists began catching wild birds and moving them into suitable areas to start new populations.

Today, wild turkeys can be found in every state except Alaska and throughout much of their ancestral range in Ontario, Canada. Currently, wild turkey numbers are at their highest levels with nearly 5.5 million birds.

The restoration of the wild turkey is a tremendous achievement and one of the greatest conservation stories of our time. Still, there is suitable range in the western United States and Canada that needs to be stocked.

The advent of the rocket net solved the problem of trapping birds, but simply highlighted the need of finding enough manpower and cash to move birds. Cooperative efforts between state wildlife agencies and the NWTF made moving wild turkey across state lines possible. In addition, NWTF volunteers helped solve some of the manpower and money problems. Volunteers have helped biologists trap, transport and release turkeys and have raised money for the Wild Turkey Super Fund, which often augments wildlife agency budgets by funding the purchase of equipment needed for wild turkey trapping. Since 1987, more than 12,000 Eastern, Merriam's, Rio Grande and Gould's wild turkeys have been moved to establish new populations. The cooperation of the state wildlife agencies and the NWTF has enabled wild turkey restoration to proceed at a fast pace.

Early restoration efforts were also impeded by the limited knowledge wildlife biologists had concerning wild turkey biology and what comprised good habitat. With intensive research throughout the country, we have been able to learn about the needs of wild turkeys. The NWTF, in fact, has funded more than $10 million worth of research over the last 20 years. The research showed turkeys are more adaptable than ever imagined and are thriving in areas we never thought possible. We also learned that wild turkeys are prolific and can establish high populations quickly if habitat is available and they are protected.

Biologists working on modern-day wild turkey transplant projects face just as many obstacles today as they faced 60 years ago, but the impediments are generally of a different nature. Presently, the greatest challenge associated with moving birds is transplanting them into areas not considered part of the wild turkeys' historic range. Some biologists believe, with no supporting evidence, that turkeys may eat native plants and animals that are considered threatened and endangered species. Not one of the numerous studies, however, conducted on the diets, habits, behavior, etc., of wild turkeys has ever shown that turkeys have any such impact. Wild turkeys typically feed on common, readily-available foods, because they are easier to find and require less energy to get. It is unfortunate that many of the people who oppose wild turkey range expansion use this argument to carry out their personal agendas on environmental issues.

The success of wild turkey restoration has greatly increased the opportunities for wild turkey hunting. In 1958, the nationwide population of wild turkeys was less than 500,000 birds with an annual harvest of about 45,000 birds. In 1999, the population had increased to nearly 5.5 million birds with an estimated harvest of 750,000. Obviously, the interest in the wild turkey has grown with the increase in birds' range and numbers.

The growth in turkey populations and in the number of turkey hunters has provided a great economic boost to local, state, and national economies. A study completed in 1989 found that in six states scattered throughout the country, the average expenditure per state for wild turkey hunting was just over $12.3 million. Assuming that this figure applies as well in each of the 49 states that allow hunting, turkey hunters contribute more than a half billion dollars annually to the nation's economy. Obviously, the money has tremendous impact on many rural communities that depend on dollars from hunters.

Turkey hunters and turkey enthusiasts are very lucky that we have been able to successfully restore the wild turkey to most of its former range and beyond. The restoration has lead to a greater awareness of the need to make wild turkeys and habitat management decisions based on sound scientific research. Managing the wild turkey also helps many other wildlife species by improving habitat conditions for animals with similar habitat requirements. This, in the end, will lead to more turkeys, more quality habitat and more dollars pumped into local economies.

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