Wild tur­keys were al­most hunted to ex­tinc­tion

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - ED GODFREY’S OUTDOORS - ED GOD­FREY’S

Grow­ing up in Le Flore County in the ‘60s, Jack Waymire never saw a wild turkey un­til state wildlife of­fi­cials brought a cou­ple of dozen of the wild birds and re­leased them on his par­ents’ prop­erty.

“No­body I knew of had seen a turkey,” Waymire said.

It was the early days of the Ok­la­homa Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion’s ef­fort to re­store wild tur­keys to the state. The birds thrived in Ok­la­homa be­fore state­hood, but as more people ar­rived, more birds van­ished. Wild tur­keys were al­most hunted to ex­tinc­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion was so dire, that a decade af­ter state­hood a law was passed to pro­tect the wild tur­keys. For the next half-cen­tury and more, a wild turkey sight­ing was a rare thing in the state.

That’s why when the wild tur­keys — which had been trapped in Mis­souri and Arkansas and trans­planted to Ok­la­homa — were re­leased at Waymire’s child­hood home, it was a big deal.

“They were ac­tu­ally roost­ing in our barn for a few weeks,” Waymire said. “We watched them for five years. They re­pro­duced and ex­panded. In about five years, we were see­ing big pop­u­la­tions, win­ter flocks of 300 plus birds. The pro­gram worked well.”

State wildlife of­fi­cials then be­gan net­ting the wild tur­keys on Waymire’s land and tak­ing them to other ar­eas of south­east Ok­la­homa to es­tab­lish pop­u­la­tions.

The Wildlife Depart­ment had turkey farms where they raised birds and re­leased them into the wild, but that didn’t work. It takes a wild bird to sur­vive in the wild.

Out west, the agency’s restora­tion ef­forts be­gan with just a small flock of 18 Rio Grande wild tur­keys that were trapped and trans­planted from the Texas Pan­han­dle.

“By the mid-70s, the whole state had tur­keys,” said Waymire, who be­came a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist.

In June, the se­nior wildlife bi­ol­o­gist for the Ok­la­homa Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion will re­tire af­ter 27 years with the agency.

Most of his time has been spent man­ag­ing the Push­mataha Wildlife Man­age­ment Area, a pop­u­lar turkey hunt­ing des­ti­na­tion.

Part of Waymire’s du­ties has been to track the turkey har­vest across the state. He has been the agency’s turkey guru on the East­ern species of wild tur­keys, which make their home in east­ern Ok­la­homa.

His early ex­po­sure to wild turkey restora­tion ef­forts in the state played a role in his ca­reer choice.

“I breathed hunt­ing and fish­ing so I al­ways wanted to do that, but yeah, that had a big part of it, watch­ing the bi­ol­o­gists and what they did work­ing with turkey and deer restora­tion, as well,” he said.

Deer and tur­keys are the state’s two big­gest wildlife restora­tion suc­cess sto­ries. Wild tur­keys can now be found in ev­ery county in Ok­la­homa. Pop­u­la­tions reached record highs from 2002 to 2004 be­fore the ex­treme drought took its toll.

The East­ern pop­u­la­tion was knocked back sig­nif­i­cantly be­cause of drought and floods over sev­eral years. There is now a short­ened turkey hunt­ing sea­son in south­east Ok­la­homa with stricter bag lim­its as a re­sult.

Turkey sea­son in eight coun­ties of south­east Ok­la­homa opens April 23 with youth hunt­ing days on April 21 and 22. The hunt­ing sea­son is presently open ev­ery­where else and ends statewide May 6.

The present pop­u­la­tion of East­ern wild tur­keys in Ok­la­homa is still far bet­ter than it was 50 years ago. In 1990, the state Leg­is­la­ture pro­claimed the wild turkey as Ok­la­homa’s game bird, quite a come­back for a na­tive species that al­most dis­ap­peared.

Other states have ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar restora­tion suc­cess with the help of the Na­tional Wild Turkey Fed­er­a­tion. Ok­la­homa has more than 40 NWTF chap­ters, and a meet­ing to es­tab­lish a new chap­ter in Ok­la­homa City is sched­uled Wed­nes­day at 6 p.m. at the Wildlife Depart­ment’s ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter on Lake Ar­ca­dia.

When the Na­tional Wild Turkey Fed­er­a­tion was founded in 1973, there were about 1.3 mil­lion wild tur­keys in North Amer­ica.

Af­ter decades of work, that num­ber hit a his­toric high of al­most 7 mil­lion tur­keys, but has now de­clined to about 6 mil­lion due to de­clin­ing habi­tat, said T.J. Good­pas­ture, re­gional di­rec­tor of NWTF in Ok­la­homa.

“They are just los­ing their places to live,” he said.

Waymire, 66, will no longer have to worry about tur­keys and where they live when his ca­reer ends in June. But he says he still will.

“I turkey hunt, so I will worry about it,” he said.


In this Jan­uary 1970 photo, wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Bill McCaslan of Shat­tuck places him­self un­der a net with about 100 Rio Grande wild tur­keys in an ef­fort to grab one. The wild tur­keys were be­ing caught, tagged, boxed and trans­planted to other re­gions of...

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