The rocky hillside might have looked a little steep to many hunters but to Kurt Dyroff it was simply an obstacle to quickly overcome to get above the gobbler believed to be making its way up an opposing slope. Dyroff grabbed his gun and a single box call, gazed upward and figured out a route. Then, he put on a backpack – not because it had anything to do with turkey hunting but solely because he wanted to up the degree of difficulty. The extra weight boosted the conditioning value of this near vertical hike to the summit of this northern Idaho hill.
Dyroff, who was appointed co-CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation in May 2022, delights in such challenges. Whether he is chasing Idaho’s mountain turkeys or elk, hunting Dall sheep with family in Alaska, or planting a garden to augment his young family’s meals, Dyroff is “all in,” as the saying goes.
He’s bringing that same commitment, one matching the passion of NWTF’s dedicated members and staff, to fulfilling a mission that has always been dear to his heart.
Dyroff and Jason Burckhalter, his co-CEO, share a dual leadership role which Dyroff acknowledges as “a bit unorthodox” within the nonprofit conservation community. But, he declares, “I love it. It gives me an opportunity to focus on those aspects of our operations where I can help the NWTF the most.”
Dyroff leads mission-related duties for the NWTF, including conservation and government affairs, education and outreach, and general business support, which includes finance and accounting, legal, human resources and land holdings. Burckhalter directs membership and fundraising-related activities, including field operations and development, marketing and communications, membership, information technology, and facility management.
“Jason brings a whole different skillset and set of strengths to our organization,” Dyroff said. “We have the same vision, the same belief in the organization, and incredible respect for each other. Respect includes challenging each other, candidly evaluating ideas and sharing decision making. It’s helpful to have a colleague, at the same organizational level, you can confide in and trust and have difficult conversations.”
Dyroff, his wife Nicki and two children are creating a sustainable lifestyle at their hillside home in northern Idaho’s panhandle. The area is home to wild turkeys, deer, moose, elk, bear, grouse and other wildlife. The family raises a few hogs each year for meat, tends their ample garden and enjoys the bounty from multiple fruit trees, such as pear, cherry, and apple.
“Living off the land is important to us,” Dyroff said. “It was important when I was growing up, too. We ate wild game almost every night of the week. Lots of venison, squirrel, rabbit, grouse and turkey. We were fortunate that our part of Pennsylvania had wild turkeys when many parts of the country did not. I always had the opportunity to hunt the spring and fall seasons.”
Dyroff’s mother and father helped instill a sense of independence and resiliency in him at a young age.
“We grew up on a farm but Mom and Dad always made time to take me hunting and fishing too. It was a huge part of my upbringing and definitely helped build my love for the outdoors,” he explained. “I was trailing my dad long before I was old enough to hunt myself. I loved following that man anywhere he went.” Dyroff recalls the time he ran away from home.
“I was obsessed with animal tracks when I was little and stumbled upon a series of turkey tracks in the middle of winter ― in 3 feet of snow. I was small enough that I could walk on the crust of the snow. I got lost in my own little world, following turkeys,” Dyroff said.
Unbeknownst to him, young Kurt’s father was also out following tracks – his! The trouble was the crusty snow didn’t support a grown man’s weight and the elder Dyroff sunk to his thighs with each crunchy step.
“I had wandered a long way,” Dyroff said. “It was a worrisome thing for him, not knowing where his kiddo was at, but he could see my tracks and knew exactly what I was doing. Still, with every step he was getting more ticked off, punching through the deep snow.
“My dad finally caught up with me. He used to have this big, old vein that appeared on the middle of his forehead when he was really mad, and that’s when you knew you were in trouble. Let’s just say that I learned our property boundary that day!”
Dyroff went to school in Coudersport in rural Potter County, Pennsylvania. Depending on the weather, the commute to town could last up to 45 minutes each way.
“I was the product of two math teachers,” he laughed. “I was pretty dang good at math, but I suppose I was always a wannabe biologist. I loved biology and studying our natural resources, but I graduated from Penn State with a civil and environmental engineering degree.” His professional career began on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, working for a for-profit company.
I spent most of my time sitting behind a computer, taking farmland and converting it to pavement,” he said. The work was quickly seen to be at odds with his core convictions.
“This is not what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he told himself. “And that’s when I found my passion working in the conservation nonprofit arena.”
“I’ve always been a sort of a duck – or turkey – out of water, as a trained engineer working with biologists, foresters or even policy makers,” Dyroff said. “However, I’m the biggest fan when I sit down with a bunch of turkey biologists. I could just pop some popcorn, dig into the bag and listen all day long to the expertise, passion and dialogue coming from people who know and love their profession.”
Indeed, Dyroff says the entire NWTF team nurtures within him a compelling sense of pride.
“We have nearly 200 of the most amazing staff anywhere,” Dyroff said. “They are among the most dedicated in the business, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with many in the industry. I know they’re just as passionate as our board, volunteers and incredible members when it comes to fulfilling our mission. They make it a pleasure to wake up in the morning, get on the road and get to work, knowing you’re surrounded by people who believe in the organization.”
Dyroff says the NWTF’s staff relationships, accented by each person’s diverse skills and specialties, are one of its greatest strengths.
“We are at our best when we recognize and appreciate the level of expertise each person brings, creating a reciprocal trust. Once you’ve earned that trust, we can all appreciate the various perspectives each brings when looking at an issue,” he said. “It’s that trust that has allowed us to become a stronger, better team.”
The NWTF is concluding its 50th Anniversary celebration. The annual conference in Nashville was a smashing success. The Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. campaign wrapped up by exceeding early target numbers across multiple focus areas.
Dyroff believes NWTF can sustain and gain momentum.
“My goal is to make sure the NWTF realizes its full potential,” he said. “Our tremendous work over the past 50 years has provided a foundation for us to do even greater things especially through the tremendous passion of our people. I want to help channel that, ensuring we are doing the right thing at the right time, the right place and at the right scale.”
As the nation evolves and changes, so must the NWTF adapt. “Our mission hasn’t changed. Supporting hunting, conserving the wild turkey and their habitats, and focusing on wild turkey research, that’s our DNA. That is our north star, but there is an opportunity to do more.
“We are a volunteer-led, membership-based organization,” he continued. “When people ask me about the NWTF, I don’t say we have 200 employees, I say we are 220,000 members strong. There is an opportunity to grow those numbers, broaden our membership and become even stronger.”
Dyroff cited the recently signed master stewardship agreement with the USDA Forest Service, the largest and longest such agreement ever, as indicative of what the future might hold. “Some people ask why we’re so involved in forest management – trees,” he said. “Here’s why: there are roughly 6 million wild turkeys on the landscape right now. Tonight, every one of them is going to sleep in a tree. That’s why we care about the health of our forests. There is a lot of opportunity there, a lot of critical work in terms of the health of forests across our entire country which provide additional benefits including clean water, abundant wildlife, resilient communities and recreational opportunities.”
He also shared that new prospective partners are coming to the table saying they want to work with NWTF. “That’s because of what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of national successes and the work that our volunteers tirelessly undertake at the local level. Together, it all makes a difference,” he said.
Dyroff is totally committed when it comes to the future of hunting.
“We need to maintain ground by continuing to focus on outreach efforts and the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters. However, if you look at the total population of this country and compare it to the number of hunters, it’s equally important for us to have the social license and general public support for hunting,” he said.
Dyroff said the NWTF staff, guided by a “supportive and amazing” board of directors, is working to ensure business decisions are sound and forward looking. “We’re treating your dollars right,” he said. “We value your membership, your commitment to the organization. You’re making a difference, and a contribution to the NWTF is one of the greatest investments you can make for turkeys and conservation.”
Back to the Idaho mountain bird that Dyroff was pursuing. It turns out the bird zigged instead of zagged, crossing a small dirt road traversing this rugged timberland and was sounding off on an opposing hilltop. Dyroff got a general fix on the turkey’s position, scrambled down the slope he had just climbed and then ascended the other to confront his quarry. About an hour later, he descended again, this time relishing every step, courtesy of the longbeard riding over his shoulder.
“Every day, I wake up and realize how blessed and fortunate I am to work for the National Wild Turkey Federation.”