Turkey populations have been dropping significantly. The disappearance of a trade may be the perpetrator.
By Makayla Scott – Montreat College
Spring in West Virginia means one thing to hunters- Spring Gobbler season. You see hunters buying new camo to go out in, buying decoys, and practicing their shrill calls to attract a wild bird. But what if there are no turkeys to respond in the first place?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Wild Turkey was virtually wiped from the United States. There were under 1,000 in existence, and the population was dying fast. Wild Turkey went from one of the most widespread animals in the United States to a bird on the brink of extinction. Even after numerous relocations, breeding, and other efforts to restore the populations in the early 1930s with the upcoming economic depression, they abandoned their efforts. The legacy of Wild Turkey would be lost. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that you see successful attempts as restoring the wild turkey population. Thanks to Virginian wildlife biologist Herman (Duff) Holbrook and West Virginian wildlife biologist Wayne Bailey, Wild Turkey still had a golden thread of hope. Four releases of caught turkeys were successful, and their populations took off. This success kickstarted 31 other states, using the biologist’s method to repopulate the wild turkey. This effort was considered one of the greatest and most successful repopulation efforts in the world. (Wild+Turkey+Population+History+and+Overview.pdf (nwtf.org))
Over several decades, the Wild Turkey populations were consistently rising. With the added support of the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) and hunters license fees, Wild Turkey started making a big comeback. Their population went from 1.5 million in 1973 to 6.7 million in 2013. Despite this massive gain in numbers, the population is once again on the decline. Since 2013, the turkey population is about 6 or 6.2 million birds, a 15% drop in population. What caused such a devastating drop?
Although there are millions of answers from many different people online, I am a “show-me” kind of person. I want to go out in the field and see for myself. Last year, during a spring gobbler hunt with my fellow writer and colleague Larry Case and outfitter Appalachian Outdoor Addicts, they spoke about the turkey populations on their farm dropping significantly. I asked them why they had such a decline. They took me over to the edge of the woods and pointed down at the nest in the thicket.
There were broken turkey eggshells scattered and yolk dripping out of half-eaten eggs. “That right there is a ‘coon.” Said Larry. “They demolish the nests in the spring.” Connor and Parker from AOA told me they had an extensive raccoon problem, and they were starting to affect their spring turkey hunts. They described how every year, they started seeing fewer and fewer turkeys in their fields. After hearing this, a lightbulb went off in my head. Back at home at our small farm, we used to see several flocks every spring. Now, you see no trace. There was no sign in the woods or even a lone hen. The habitat and the food sources were still there. Why did they all disappear?
Once I looked at the eight fat raccoons on our game cameras, I finally realize these masked bandits were the culprits. It finally dawned on my father and me this is where our turkey population went! After conversing with my father about the situation, he spoke to me about his trapping days. He told me that was how he made his money every year for school; he would set a trap line and sell the hides every year when they brought good money. Over time, the fur price dropped to pennies, and nobody wanted to buy any furs. You were lucky to get anything out of a prime fox hide.
The loss of the fur market contributed to the loss of the trappers. This, in turn, caused a population surge in predators such as raccoons, coyotes, and foxes, all predators that prey on the wild turkey. Raccoons eat the eggs in the spring, and if any eggs survive, the coyote and fox will eat the defenseless poults.
This was when I asked my father to teach me everything he knew about trapping. I wanted to help the population. He taught me how to prepare appropriately, set traps, and even skin and stretch various hides. During the trapping season, we caught 12 raccoons and a possum. I plan to continue to trap next year and hopefully get more people, especially youth, to learn about trapping and its benefits to the woods and populations. We have also taken the initiative to plant food plots for the game and even consider contacting the NWTF to see if they can do some turkey stockings in the area. After talking with local farms and hunters, there seems to be no turkey in the area. It is our duty as sportsmen and conservationists to take care of our populations and our land.
The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed six-person group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire, and educate participants within our community.