James Pinsky: Wild turkey comeback a conservation success story

James Pinsky

By now, the mere mention of the word turrr ….


I understand you may have had more than your fair share of the fine-feathered family feast fowl. And, while gluttony may be the word best associated with most gobbler-gorged guts today, it wasn’t too long ago the mere sight of a turkey truly was an occasion for giving thanks.

You see, the wild turkey, that goofy, gobbling, gravy-enhanced bird some folks mistake for a vulture with a good makeup artist, almost became extinct. Yes, like the dinosaurs – only worse because it was our fault. The comeback of the wild turkey is one of the conservation world’s best success stories

It was no accident.

​​ The wild turkeyaccording to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is native only to North and Central America and was discovered by Europeans in Mexico in the early 1500s. After that it didn’t take settlers long to figure out was how tasty turkeys were, and ever since then they found, killed and ate every turkey they could, anywhere and everywhere and at any time. By the 1930s, the wild turkey population was estimated to be at less than 30,000 birds.

​​Then, the conservationists began to spread their wings of influence on habitat restoration, laws and local advocacy.

​​According to research published in a May 2001 story written by James Sterba in the Wall Street Journal, turkey restoration efforts actually started before 1900. Sterba wrote, “wildlife biologists hatched wild-turkey eggs, raised hatched birds in pens and put them into the wild. They died, lacking survival skills. Biologists also tried catching wild turkeys in traps and moving them. These birds flourished. But catching wild birds (that can fly 55 miles an hour and run faster than deer for short distances) wasn’t easy until the invention of a cannon-net trap in 1949. What came next was a giant catch-and-relocate effort by state wildlife agencies at the behest of hunters, who paid a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition to fund game-restoration programs.”

​​In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded and together with local, state and federal turkey conservation efforts wild turkey populations, which were at one time strutting down the path of being more of a myth than an everyday meal, exploded with today’s numbers estimated to be more than 7 million birds across the United States.

​​Like I said, the turkey’s comeback was no accident. Its resurgence can be attributed to quite a few factors like the bird’s remarkable adaptability, the passing and enforcement of just-in-the-nick-of-time wild turkey hunting and game management laws, the nationwide restoration and protection of wild turkey habitat, the capture and redistribution of wild turkeys across the United States and plenty of funding fueled mostly by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, or more commonly as the Pittman-Robertson Act.

​​The Pittman-Robertson Act is an excise tax requested by the firearms and ammunition industry on the sale of firearms and ammunition products to help fund wildlife conservation in the United States. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, since the program’s inception, more than $10.1 billion has been collected from manufacturers and awarded to states through the Pittman-Robertson Act making the firearms and ammunition industry America’s largest contributor to conservation and access.

​​The money collected from the Pittman-Robertson Act goes to fund a lot more than just wild turkey restoration, but the point for conservationists here is that there’s no limit to the influence and impact of a spirited conservation movement with the key to success seemingly being to target the people who have the most interest in keeping whatever it is you want conserved around in the first place.

​​For turkeys, it was hunters. 

​​Now, if only we could figure out who needs and wants clean water …

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.