Turkey: West Virginia’s wiliest game

Turkey hunters are well aware that the wild turkey is among the state’s wiliest game. Turkey, however, apparently weren’t always that crafty.

Tales of market hunters in the late 1800s killing turkey with clubs  to provide meat for the East’s finest restaurants certainly implies a less-crafty animal. Overhunting, especially from the commercial hunters led to a serious decline in the state’s turkey population. The decline was so severe that the wild turkey nearly joined the state’s then ever-growing list of extirpated and extinct animals, such as the bison and eastern elk.

By the early 1900s, turkey survived only in the highest, craggiest and most remote places of the high mountains in eastern West Virginia. Turkey experts surmise that only the craftiest animals survived overhunting, leading to a process of accelerated evolution that gives us our cunning bird of today.

But restoring the turkey from the bring of extirpation to the healthy populations of today took generations of hard work, determination and resourcefulness.

The federal Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937 placed a tax on firearms and ammunition to fund efforts to restore wildlife. To qualify for this funding, states were required to have a professionally-trained staff and the funds would have to be dedicated to sound wildlife-management programs. That funding made it possible to have full-time biologists working to restore game populations. This was key, because nobody had any idea of how to do it.

West Virginia’s first attempt at restoring game, such as turkey and deer, was quite aggressive, but a dismal failure. In the early 1920s, the state created the French Creek Game Farm in Upshur County as a “Noah’s Ark” of sorts. There, animals would be bred in captivity, raised to maturity and released to repopulate the state.

The game farm was quite popular with residents, in 1927, 20,000 visitors came – a remarkable statistic given the lack of transportation and good roads at the time. For most, it was the only place where they could see game animals.

Biologists, however, learned fairly quickly that pen-raised game was ill-suited to life in the wild.

What did work, however, was trapping game in the craggy recesses of the highlands in the east and releasing those animals in other parts of the state. However, not only was the turkey in serious trouble, very little was known about it. In the 1950s, West Virginia turkey biologist Wayne Bailey not only conducted a landmark decade-long study on turkey-population dynamics, he aggressively and successfully lobbied state lawmakers to devote resources to saving and rebuilding West Virginia turkey. He and his fellow biologists developed revolutionary methods for restoring turkey that were later used in other states to restore turkey. Bailey was also one of the founders of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Turkey hunters know well how difficult the turkey can be to shoot – imagine trying to actually trap one. One notable Bailey advance (although other biologists were also working on this) was a contraption called the “Rocket Net -” a rocket propelled net that  biologists could fire at turkeys and trap them.

Bailey left West Virginia in 1970 to take a similar job in North Carolina. This literally marked the end of the decline of the North Carolina turkey.

Jim Pack didn’t just pick up Bailey’s torch of turkey management, he ran with it, continuing Bailey’s turkey-management revolution and creating a legacy of his own. Pack was the godfather of modern wildlife data collection.

Pack’s epiphany came in 1966, when he was a junior biologist sent to southern West Virginia to study squirrel migration. In his hotel room, he listened to the radio, which included a DNR report calling for a banner year of hunting.

“We had a freeze that went from Maine to Georgia right when everything was flowering,” Pack recalled to me a few years ago. “It just knocked out mast. I thought anybody who knows mast would never make a prediction like that. In 1970, I got a chance to do something about it.”

Pack created the state’s first annual mast survey, which has become the basis for most hunting predictions. The DNR had the manpower to conduct mast surveys, but turkey were a different matter entirely. To gauge the amount of mast, one simply had to walk through the woods and look at what nuts were on the ground and in the trees. Collecting turkey data would have required an army of biologists. As a result, the DNR was in the dark about the true condition of the then-rebounding turkey populations.

Pack’s most crucial moment of genius came in 1979 when he realized he already had that army of biologists, albeit amateur ones, already afield who were qualified to collect the data. There were thousands of turkey hunters in the woods each spring, paying very close attention to the very data he needed.

“When you start talking about using 500 hunters,” Pack told me, “hunting a total of 10,000 hours or more… that information is so much more valuable. Even 20 or 30 (full-time) biologists can’t beat that.”

During the 1980 spring season, hundreds of hunters participated in Pack’s Spring-Gobbler Survey. After the season, Pack and his staff compiled the data from the survey – which has been repeated each year since – into crucial data for managing the West Virginia turkey.

As a result of Bailey and Pack’s tireless efforts, few, if any state, can boast the wealth of historical data on turkey populations that West Virginia has at its disposal.

David Payne Sr.

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