A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The wild turkey in Kentucky — the comeback story of a native species

First of a two-part series on the wild turkey in Kentucky — remnant flocks, limited hunting opportunities and early restoration efforts.

It’s not unusual to drive down a country road in late March or early April and see a group of wild turkey hens being “courted” by a strutting gobbler in a roadside field.

If you live in wild turkey country, and count the days until the spring hunting season, unseasonably warm winters like we’re having now are especially excruciating. Gobbling and other breeding behavior can start weeks before hunting season opens.

The spring wild turkey season is such an anticipated date on Kentucky’s hunting calendar now that it’s hard to imagine a time when this native species was absent from our state. Incredible as it might seem, it was 65 years from the first experimental stockings, to the time when in-state trapping and relocation of wild turkeys ended. Most of the restoration work took place in a 20 year period beginning in 1975, at a cost of about $3.5 million.

An estimated 10 million wild turkeys were present on the North American continent in the early 1800s, but by the 1930s, populations throughout the eastern U.S. had fallen to their lowest levels. Wild turkeys had all but disappeared from Kentucky by 1900 because of year-round subsistence hunting and habitat destruction. Bringing the big birds back to Kentucky would take decades. (Photo Provided)

An estimated 10 million wild turkeys were present on the North American continent in the early 1800s, but by the 1930s, populations throughout the eastern U.S. had fallen to their lowest levels.

Wild turkeys had all but disappeared from Kentucky by 1900 because of year-round subsistence hunting and habitat destruction. Bringing the big birds back to Kentucky would take decades.

The species native to Kentucky is the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), the most abundant of the five subspecies in North America.

Restoration in Kentucky was made possible by sportsmen, and conservation groups, who helped pay the bills, the foresight of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, and decades of careful management by biologists of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Today, wild turkeys are abundant in all 120 Kentucky counties.

Early Restoration Efforts

One of the earliest documented stockings in Kentucky was in February 1932, when 46 wild turkeys, trapped in the wild, were stocked on four of Kentucky’s 13 big game refuges: Isaac W. Bernheim Estate, near Bardstown, 20 turkeys; Mammoth Cave National Park, 17 turkeys; Jones-Keeney WMA, in Caldwell County, five turkeys, and Armco Steel property, in Boyd County, four turkeys.

In 1938, the Hillman Land and Iron Company property, some 40,000 acres owned since 1840, came under federal management with the creation of Kentucky’s first national wildlife refuge — Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

In-state live trapping of turkeys with rocket nets began in 1981 and gradually increased the number of birds available for relocation. From 1978 through 1997, 6,760 birds were released on 430 sites across Kentucky, establishing small flocks in every county. (Photo Provided)

The refuge would prove to be important to the success of Kentucky’s wild turkey and white-tailed deer restoration programs. Known locally as Coalins Forest, the land had become a state wildlife refuge in 1935. By 1946, it was believed that Kentucky’s only known population of native wild turkeys was on this wooded property along the Cumberland River.

Between 1949 and 1965, 395 wild turkeys were live-trapped off the Kentucky Woodlands NWR, and stocked in more than 15 counties in eastern Kentucky. Those early attempts at restoration in the heavily forested region were commendable through none of the releases were successful at establishing viable populations.

Limited Hunting Opportunities

By 1954, the statewide wild turkey population was estimated to be around 850 birds.

Hunting opportunities were very limited, but the first spring turkey season in 35 years was held on April 27–29, 1960.

In 1963, Kentucky Woodlands NWR in Lyon County near the town of Fenton, closed with the creation of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL). Thousands of acres of the former refuge were flooded when Lake Barkley was completed in 1966.

The wild turkey flock surrounded by Kentucky Lake to the west and Lake Barkley to the east, in the 170,000-acre LBL, was the largest in the region, and the focus of many avid hunters.

But, research conducted on LBL in the early 1970s indicated that the remaining native wild turkeys were poor reproducers, who often failed to re-nest if their initial attempt was disturbed. The population needed an infusion of “new blood” from other wild flocks, so turkeys were obtained from the Missouri Department of Conservation for release in LBL.

Kentucky’s 1972 spring wild turkey season was held in just 18 counties, and shooting hours ended at noon.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

Restoration Efforts Intensify with Hiring of Turkey Biologist

In 1975, George Wright was named turkey biologist, and Kentucky’s tremendously successful wild turkey restoration program became a national model in the next two decades.

The undisputed architect of Kentucky’s wild turkey restoration program, Wright guided the program for 27 years, retiring in 2002.

That same year the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) presented Wright with its highest professional award, the Henry Mosby Award, given to only one person annually judged to have made the most significant contribution to wild turkey restoration and research study. His research on gobbler mortality was ground breaking.

Wright credited the success of wild turkey restoration to department administrators and the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission who “realized early on how important turkeys were to Kentucky.”

Next Week: Wildlife trades boost turkey stockings, live trapping and relocation, expanded hunting opportunities, upward harvest trends and flocks reach carrying capacity.

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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