Prior to European colonization of the Americas, the wild turkey population in the United States was estimated to number at least 10 million birds. Once a primary source of food for Native Americans and early settlers, reduction of their habitat from urban expansion, the clearing of forest for farmland, and unregulated hunting caused wild turkeys to steadily decline into the 20th century. Despite forward-thinking restoration attempts during the Great Depression by the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, they teetered on the brink of extinction by the 1940s. As few as 30,000 remained nationwide.
Fortunately, our overall understanding of how to approach wildlife preservation has been refined since then. In the 1950s avid turkey hunters, Herman Holbrook with the United States Forest Service, and wildlife biologist Wayne Bailey pioneered capturing wild turkeys with cannon-fired nets. Bailey worked for nearly 20 years stocking his catch across West Virginia and Holbrook relocated over 240 in South Carolina. Their individual efforts resulted in the first successful reproduction of wild turkeys in the United States. This inspired a wave of wildlife conservation programs in 31 states by the end of the 1950s. Much of this groundbreaking work was supported by the revenue generated from local hunter's license fees and a widespread recognition that maintaining healthy populations would ultimately provide a long-term sustainable source for hunting and food.
Even now this shared vision and collaboration continues and has gone on to become one of the greatest achievements in conservation. Today the wild turkey population is estimated at nearly 7 million birds, an increase of over 200 times since reaching their lowest point in the 1940s. Sustaining this phenomenal growth are the wildlife conservation organizations who are able to continue their work in protecting this remarkable bird thanks to the time-tested model of hunters financially supporting their efforts. One organization leading the way, and providing countless benefits to the hunting community, is the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Founded in 1973, their mission from the beginning has been focused on conservation. Together with volunteers, partners and staff, they work to preserve local habitats; represent the interests of landowners, farmers, the broad outdoor community; and educate the public on best practices in forest and wildlife management.
Aside from joining a wildlife conservation organization such as the NWTF, one of the most important ways you can support the protection of wild turkey is to boost nesting and brood rearing in your local habitat. In doing so you will increase the carrying capacity for your local flock. Proper land management is central to the success of wild turkey, so ensure your woods are adequately maintained, any invasive plants are under control, a sufficient canopy layer is available to hide nests from avian predators, and that you have a reliable year-round feeding schedule in place.
Whether you're a die-hard wild turkey hunter or not, you can be proud in knowing that by being a part of this community you have played a role in making this a conservation success story.