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Despite the recent weather in the upper midwest this week, spring has officially sprung, and with it spring turkey season. It’s the time of year that tens of thousands of people take to the woods with the goal of getting themselves a gobbler. But besides those birds, something they probably don’t think as much about is that fact that turkey season is proof of the efficacy of the North American model of conservation, balancing the needs and desires of sportsmen with the overall health of a particular species.

The general principle is that game animals are a public trust, a resource owned by everyone. Therefore, they must be protected and managed for both our benefit as well as for future generations going forward in, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, “the womb of time” who will follow us.

Everyone must have the opportunity, as the enjoyment of hunting or the mere pleasure of viewing wildlife cannot be restricted to only a certain class. Funding is obtained through excise taxes levied on firearms and ammunition, as well as the sale of tags so that the people who use the resource pay for its maintenance.

Commercial sale of wildlife, such as meat and fur, is prohibited. Seasons are strictly defined, limits are placed on the harvest of animals, and animals cannot be killed for frivolous reasons. There must be cooperation with neighboring nations, as wild animals have no concept of borders. Conservation efforts must also be rooted in scientific study and principles.

A number of species have benefited from this model, such as whitetail deer, but arguably the biggest beneficiary of this system is the wild turkey. Meleagris gallopovo is found in 49 states today and much of Canada. Americans can hunt gobblers in 49 states. That’s right, there’s even turkey hunting in Hawaii.

In the pre-Columbian era, while the estimates naturally vary, the population of wild turkeys was well into the millions, distributed across what are now 39 states and much of Canada. Additional populations were found across Mexico, extended from the now border regions, down into the Yucatan and into Belize and Guatemala.

As settlers arrived and harvested them without limit for food, their numbers began to dwindle. Deforestation during westward expansion and development certainly did them no favors either.

According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, wild turkeys had become extinct in Connectict by 1812 and in Vermont by 1842.

By 1920, the situation was grim. Those millions of birds had declined to fewer than 200,000. Some estimates peg it as low as 30,000. They were found only in isolated pockets in 18 of the 39 states they had formerly occupied, with hunting being sporadic and restricted by that time.

Regulations such as the federal Lacey Act as well as a number of other state laws limiting hunting helped stop the decline. The Pittman-Robertson Act, an excise tax on firearms and ammunition, helped funnel millions of dollars into national and state fish and wildlife programs, some of which was spent on capturing and relocating flocks of wild birds into new habitats reestablishing the species.

Early restoration efforts began in the late 1920s in the Virginias, and by 1959, 31 states were actively engaged in restoring wild turkey populations. The introduction of cannon nets in the 1950s allowed wildlife personnel to capture whole flocks of wild birds, made trap-and-transport programs wildly successful, as farmed birds quickly perished when released into the wild.

By the mid 1970s, the wild turkey population had rebounded to more than one million animals. Today, there are an estimated seven million wild turkeys in sustaining populations roaming 49 states and six provinces in Canada.

Hunting has also increased. By 1994, an estimated 2.1 million hunters harvested more than 650,000 birds; according to a 2017 USA Today article, the number of hunters is now almost 3 million.

Turkeys have become one of the most popular game animals in North America, and they were darn close to being extinct. Steven Rinella, host of the “Meat Eater” hunting show and author of some very distinguished books on hunting and wild game cooking, has been saying for some time that we’re living in the “good old days” of turkey hunting.

The wild turkey is living proof of the efficacy of the managed hunting-conservation model. One hopes that, despite political challenges and attacks by anti-hunting groups, the North American model – as well as the wild turkey – will continue to thrive for many more generations to come.

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  1. Cutting down the coyote and fishers helps. They have been devastating for us, finally starting to see rabbits come back as well.

  2. “Commercial sale of wildlife, such as meat and fur, is prohibited. ”

    Is there an exception for invasive species we’re actually TRYING to exterminate like boar?

  3. Where I live, in central Wisconsin, we have many, many wild turkeys roaming freely. Usually the only time I see them is when they are strutting down the roads or foraging along side of the secondary roads. Only occasionally do I see any in flight. I don’t hunt them as I tend to limit my shooting to target work and it would be damned difficult to take one with a .22 pistol, I reckon. I love to see them in their natural element and am surprised that I’ve yet to see a road-kill turkey. I want them to live live long and procreate. But that is only me.

    • In my neck of the woods, they live on the fringes of new neighborhoods, and are often seen strutting up and down the street. You have to shoo them out of the way with your car, as they have no fear. Until hunting season, when the miraculously disappear.

  4. Reintrodiction of turkeys has definitely been a success. I can remember in the late 1970s when you might run in to a couple turkeys in the far NE and SE corners of Iowa where they were stocked. Now they’re everywhere, even coming into towns and harrassing people at bird feeders. No big deal to see huge flocks in winter along I-80. They are now turning up regularly on my lake property in N MN as well.

    More than turkeys, though, IMO, are the damn Canada Geese. They’re everywhere, many don’t even bother to fly south anymore with all the local business ponds in the burbs in close proximity to picked corn/bean fields to feed in. (Probably global warming since we just got 3″ of snow Sunday and more is expected tomorrow- in mid-April.) Businesses have even sprung up with a mini-van and some mutts to go business to business to try to shag them away. And perhaps the most effective way to hunt oiur abundant whitetails around here has become the evening drive.

    Damn auto insurers got the legislature to pass an extra dollar per deer tag for the HUSH (help us stop hunger) Program. Cripes, I pay for the gun, practice, ammo, gear, tags, travel and all the other expenses, then have to pay an extra buck so the deer doesn’t end up on someone’s bumper, and then shoot the critter, take it to a locker and give it away so the bums can eat. Not a fan of that one. Some people just like killing stuff, though.

  5. Want another example of the American wildlife restoration from near extinction? Most people don’t know how close the pronghorn antelope came to snuffing it. From a population estimated about 30+ million at the start of the 19th century, pronghorn had been hunted for meat down to about 20,000 individuals by 1924. The last, largest herd was left in the area of what is now the Sheldon National Antelope Refuge area in northwest Nevada (look just east of the northwest corner of Nevada on a map).

    From that small number of pronghorn, numbers have recovered to over 1 million pronghorn, with over half of that number here in the state of Wyoming. This is probably a bigger accomplishment, because turkeys can live anywhere – they’re like large, noisy rats on two feet around here. Pronghorn need a specific landscape type; they’re pretty finicky about where they like to set up shop in terms of landscape. They want to be able to see a long ways off, they don’t want steep mountains, etc.

    • Any idea what’s going on with the Pronghorn hunting up there in the last couple of years? I hunted around Medicine Bow for a lot of years, just drawing doe tags. It always seemed like they would just throw a doe tag at you. But I have been skunked for the last 2 years, even putting in preference points and trying for bucks and dose. No luck drawing at all. And the same for everyone else in my hunting party. Is there something going on with the herd?

  6. I understand Craig. We have some resident “Wisconadian” geese that reside in the area. I think they are beautiful but know all too well of the messes they are capable of creating. They pond in front of the Liberty Mutual building is a veritable “Goose Sheraton” several times a year.

  7. 30 years ago, you rarely saw a wild turkey in Eastern Kansas. Now they are almost a nuisance. Whitetail deer are thriving. My 90 year old father says that during the Depression you seldom saw either.

  8. lefty dizz was proof that wild turkey has been conserving wildlife since before i was born.
    “buy me a 101.” walter williams.

  9. I just wish I could hunt them with a .22 rifle instead of a shotgun, but California–and probably most states–will have none of that. I guess one well-placed shot to the head is unsporting, although I’d druther not have to dig the pellets out of them. My brother is a big fan of turkey hunts, and I think he enjoys the punishment of those magnum rounds. For me? Pass.

  10. One thing that seriously damaged the turkey population in N. Florida was a jump of a disease from the poultry populatin to the wild turkey population in the ’70s. I was just a kid, but that’s what I was told. We’ve seen a serious decline in turkey population on the farm with the proliferation of feral hogs. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I ain’t stupid. Anyway, if you enjoy hunting (and fishing) support the organizations that support your sport. Remember,what benefits a turkey eventually benefits a deer and a quail. Benefits a duck? Benefits another wetland species. They all overlap.

  11. We get turkeys in our quiet, long-established suburb here in CT. They still have a little fear of humans, so not really a nuisance.

    • I see deer in my yard all the time. Though an avid hunter, there is no sport in harvesting them. Just sip my coffee and watch them from the kitchen window.

      • We get deer too. I suppose one could take them with a bow and arrow, but not really sporting. Of course, if my wife catches them eating her flowers she’d probably just strangle them.

  12. Too much protection for raptors though!
    There are places where other birds and small mamals just dont stand a chance.

  13. Have seen more than usual this spring. Same for Pheasants though there # are WAY down from 10yr ago. Damn disease infested whitetail rats are everywhere on the roadways. No hogs yet.

  14. “The general principle is that game animals are a public trust, a resource owned by everyone. ”

    FALSE. Turkey, like every other creature is owned by the King, who, when feeling generous charges us exorbitant taxes (disguised as “fees”) and impose, ridiculous rules with micro hunting “seasons” for said chance to hunt HIS game.


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