Published April 15th, 2023 in the La Grande Observer
One rainy fall morning, I found myself sitting quietly in an old hay shack on the edge of an alfalfa field. My friend Dan sat to my right. A calico barn cat desperate for friendship perched upon a hay bale to my left. As dawn cracked, the sound of raindrops pinging on the rusted tin roof was disrupted by a cacophony of turkey “yelps” from their roost far above us in a pine stand. The cat continued preening, uninterested, but Dan and I glanced at each other in curious anticipation.
Moments later, over one hundred Rio Grande turkeys sailed down from the roost into the alfalfa field before us. Video of the hunt shows turkeys gliding in from the pines for nearly five minutes. The discordant “kee-kee” and “yelp” calls from a flock that large were defeating as the birds gathered before eventually spreading across the emerald alfalfa carpet where they engaged in synchronized feeding.
Having never successfully hunted turkeys, it was hard to maintain my composure with that many birds front and center. A large jake (a juvenile male) finally separated from the flock, allowing a safe shot. Upon squeezing the trigger, it was unclear which, the cat or the shot wad, left the shack in the biggest hurry – the cat having launched from the haystack so quickly that it virtually vanished into thin air. At that moment, the largest flock of turkeys I had ever seen before or since lifted off, leaving the jake behind to bless my dinner table.
That parcel has produced most of my wild turkeys over the years, regularly holding flocks with greater than thirty birds during the fall and winter. This is common across the nation in areas with patchwork landscapes of agriculture, forest, and grasslands or pasture, making it hard to believe that the wild turkey was once pushed to the brink of extinction in North America.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, approximately 10 million wild turkeys roamed North America at the time of European settlement – a fine food source for settlers. Like most “game species” known today, turkeys were hunted year-round without regulation for subsistence and the market.
As the eastern colonies grew and settlers moved across America, timber was cleared for agriculture and community development. The cumulative impact of hunting and habitat loss decimated and isolated wild turkey populations.
“Connecticut had lost its wild turkeys by 1813. Vermont held out until 1842 and other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada, in its supposed ancestral range.“
North American wild turkey populations plummeted below an estimated 250,000 by the 1930s, but pending legislation and the Great Depression would serve the wild turkey well.
In 1900, the first iteration of the Lacey Act regulated market hunting by prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that were illegally harvested, possessed, transported, or sold. This Act, in concert with early wildlife management regulations, reduced the overall hunting impact on turkey populations.
The Great Depression fell upon America in 1929, and over the following decade, homesteads and small farms were vacated as 14 million people sought work in cities and factories. With fields left fallow, natural succession converted former cropland to grasslands and shrublands. This natural landscape change resulted in the rebirth of wild turkey habitat.
Another keystone piece of legislation – the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 – established a conservation fund via excise tax placed on the sale of sporting goods and ammunition. These funds were used as seed money to establish large-scale conservation efforts. State fish and game agencies began trap-and-transport programs to reestablish turkeys throughout their native range. “By 1952, bird numbers nationwide had grown to 320,000.”
By 1973, the national wild turkey population estimate was about 1.3 million birds. At that time, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded with the mission of “wild turkey conservation and the preservation of North America’s hunting heritage.”
These and other conservation efforts have resulted in the recovery of wild turkeys with over 6 million estimated across 49 US States and five subspecies in 2014 – Eastern (4.5-4.7 million), Osceola or Florida (115,000), Rio Grande (853,000), Merriam’s (260,000), and Gould’s (1,200). This incredible recovery since 1973 is no simple coincidence with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Sitting quietly, tucked into the brush at the bottom of a canyon, I listened to the excited gobbles of seven Rio Grande toms echo between the canyon walls. A young but robust bird with an exceptional beard was en route, lured by my feeble attempts to mimic a hen turkey yelp. Moments later, I stroked the bird’s iridescent plumage in the evening sunlight while the other toms and a dozen hens made their way back up the canyon. The wild turkey is perhaps one of the greatest conservation successes in North America. Moments like this make me proud of our continental conservation model, and thankful for the opportunity to hunt one of this nation’s greatest game birds.
If you have not hunted wild turkeys, now is the time to join the ranks in one of America’s oldest hunting traditions.
 History of the Wild Turkey in North America. James Earl Kennamer, Mary C. Kennamer, and Ron Brenneman. National Wild Turkey Federation Bulletin No. 15.
 Wild turkeys: A conservation (and hunting) success story (usatoday.com)