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The Rebirth of Illinois Turkey Hunting

About 30 years ago, turkey hunting was nonexistent in the Prairie State. Now we can hunt the birds in most of our 102 counties. We sure have come a long way.

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This story originally appeared in Illinois Game & Fish magazine. Visit their website at http://www.illinoisgameandfish.com.

The current condition and future health of our wild lands and wild animals are issues of regular debate. It would seem that environmental groups, anti-hunting organizations and animal-rights activists are constantly drawing us into the midst of one “crisis” or another that demands our attention and devours our resources.

The unfortunate reality is that we spend so much time involved in fighting political fires, hand wringing about perceived failings, and finger pointing over cause-and-effect relationships that we rarely invest the time to take stock of our accomplishments—and there are many.

If you have an interest in our natural resources, even if you don’t hunt turkey, this is a success story you should take the time to read.

Frank Nix, senior regional field supervisor for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), expressed well-placed excitement when talking about the reintroduction of turkeys in the Prairie State. “We have truly revisited the ‘Golden Age’ of the wild turkey in Illinois,” Nix said. “And that’s phenomenal!”

Though it may be hard to imagine today, the last official sighting of a wild turkey in Illinois was recorded 100 years ago. As often happens with tragedy and adversity, the only conclusions that could be reached at the time were negative in nature.

For all intents and purposes, the turkey was gone. Period.

In 1903, when the realization finally settled in that this magnificent bird was no longer to be found on the Illinois landscape, the State Legislature declared hunting seasons closed. The horse was gone and the barn door was finally slammed shut. It would take another half-century before anyone considered that this situation need not be permanent.

It was not until January of 1959 that the grand experiment began and the first wild turkeys were released in a limited attempt at restoration.

According to the booklet The Wild Turkey In Illinois, written by Jared Garver (forest wildlife biologist) and printed by the Illinois Department of Conservation (now called the Department of Natural Resources) in 1988, “Between 1959 and 1967, 65 wild-trapped turkeys from Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia were released in five areas of the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. All releases resulted in the successful establishment of turkey populations.”

This was certainly a step in the right direction. However, because of a lack of knowledge and understanding about the turkey itself, there was not much optimism about further steps.

Garver is now the wild turkey project leader for IDNR.

“The Shawnee National Forest was chosen at that time because a lot of people thought it was the only suitable habitat in the state,” Garver explained. “At the time, turkeys were only found in extensive tracts of remote timber and everyone thought that’s what they had to have.”

SURVIVING vs. THRIVING

The IDNR continued with experimental stocking and reintroduction efforts despite their concerns about limited potential range. Their tenacity paid some dividends, and after an intermission of 67 years, Illinois opened its first “gobblers only” hunt in April 1970.

In that year, approximately 1,000 hunters combed the timbers of southern Illinois in Alexander, Union and Jackson counties for a three-day turkey season. A grand total of 25 birds were tagged.

Over the next 17 years, 19 additional counties would see turkey populations grow large enough that they would support turkey hunting. Progress had been made that simply wasn’t imaginable 80 years before.

But even with these victories, no one could comprehend the extent to which the turkey would continue to expand its range. The best was yet to come.

A diagram in the booklet, The Wild Turkey In Illinois presented clear evidence of the DNR’s expectations at that time. Occupied turkey range in 1987 covered only four complete counties. Another 26 counties had turkey populations occupying portions of their areas.

While additional stockings had optimistically taken place in two-dozen locations outside these areas, the anticipated prospects for expansion covered only 27 counties in their entirety, and an additional 30 counties partially.

The common assumptions of the time were still based upon inaccurate beliefs about what wild turkey did and did not need in order to survive.

It would take years of experimental releases and study before those ideas would start to change. In all honesty, there is still much that is not known about population ecology of the eastern wild turkey in Illinois.

But despite our lack of omniscience, the DNR was persistent. The results have been astonishing. Wild turkeys now inhabit nearly every nook and cranny of The Prairie State. Populations are so strong, in fact, that 96 counties offer spring turkey hunts and 43 have numbers large enough to support a fall season as well.

From that meager harvest of 25 birds 33 years ago, turkey populations have exploded to the point where we now harvest nearly 24,000 birds during the spring and fall seasons each year!

THE SECRET TO SUCCESS

So what has changed since 1988 that would bring about such dramatic results when compared to the limited predictions about the turkey’s return?

“Nothing has really changed, except our way of thinking,” Garver answered. “In 1988 we were still just beginning to realize how adaptable they were. The fact is, turkeys are habitat generalists. They do have some specific needs, but they are very adaptable.”

Adaptability and flexibility are those characteristics we so often neglect to attribute to our wildlife populations. These very traits have allowed the turkeys to establish themselves quickly with minimal stocking. Garver wrote in his booklet, “A release of 12 to 15 wild-trapped turkeys is usually adequate to establish a population in a new area. In most cases, a huntable population is established in about five years after stocking.”

Beyond the inherent ability to survive that is found in these birds, success was also realized owing to a couple of other basic factors. Technological advancement was at the top of the list.

“First and foremost (of our reasons for success) was the development of our trapping method,” said Garver. “Prior to using the rocket-net, we were not very successful. Originally we stocked pen-raised birds. We would rob nests and raise the poults. These birds were wild genetically but they were tame acting. Game-farm turkeys simply didn’t survive well. They didn’t know a lot, like how to avoid predators or raise their young. It just didn’t work out.”

Capturing wild birds and relocating them was the problem, the rocket-net was the answer.

STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE

The DNR’s limited knowledge at the time notwithstanding, the agency’s efforts were paramount to the turkey’s rebirth. Their efforts deserve commendation, but they also had some help.

While the rocket-net was key, it was still necessary to find birds for capture, locate suitable places for their release and then pay for the operation. Garver explained that the DNR’s venture was augmented by volunteers, private landowners and the NWTF through countless man-hours, cooperation regarding access to private property for capture and release sites, and the generous open wallets of sportsmen.

It was the dedication and cooperation of all these concerned parties that made up the second major component of the winning formula.

“There are not really any solid statistics on the program costs,” Garver explained. “There’s been trading (of wildlife) between states and some states were more or less selling birds for releasing that did fix a dollar amount. The set value was $500 for each turkey. But actual trapping costs vary considerably. Actual cost may be as low as $50 (per bird), other times as high as $500.”

Since the reintroduction program began, there have been 4,752 turkeys released at 278 sites in 99 of Illinois’ 102 counties. The costs have been substantial.

“Many of the trapping costs were paid through the department’s budget, such as salaries, but we are rapidly recouping those costs,” Garver said. “For instance, we sell 40,000 permits in the spring at $15 each, and we sell fall archery and gun permits, too. We’re taking in a lot of money.”

Garver also credited NWTF for their financial contributions and equipment donations.

According to Nix, the first Federation Chapter was chartered in this state in 1986. Since that time, 110 NWTF Chapters have been created in Illinois, the most found in any state in the nation. “Illinois has the distinction of being the state with the most NWTF members, at 42,000,” Nix said. “That’s even more than Ducks Unlimited.”

These members are active. In “cooperative dollars”, which include matching funds for various projects, the NWTF has pumped approximately $5 million into projects and programs aimed at wild turkeys in the Prairie State.

“We’ve been involved in everything for restoration,” Nix said. “We’ve bought cannon nets and rocket charges, donated man-hours, provided boxes for shipping to relocation sites, purchased ATVs. There’s also habitat. We’ve bought plows, grain drills, planters, burn equipment, seed, seedlings, trees, tree planters. We’ve helped with wildlife openings in the Shawnee National Forest and assisted with private-land habitat improvement projects.”

His bottom line, however, had little to do with money. “The turkey program in Illinois is proof positive that hunters can make a big impact on wildlife.”

By recognizing the need, stepping up to the plate and working in cooperation with one another, landowners, sportsmen, private organizations and the DNR put together a program that has produced unprecedented results.

WHAT NEXT

Technically speaking, the turkey is restored in Illinois. But are we done?

Garver’s concerns lie in the area of habitat preservation. “We need to always try to promote conservation,” he said. The turkey may be an adaptable bird, but its needs revolve around the land, as do those of all our wildlife species. The future will depend upon our consistent and intelligent guardianship of our resources.

Nix had similar concerns, but took them one step further. “We have to continue to support initiatives for better habitat and wider distribution,” Nix said. “But we also need to improve public education about hunting, and not only our rights but also the necessities of hunting.”

Nix talked for some time about the programs that NWTF has put in place for public education, and there are many, but of huge importance is the ongoing education of the hunting community itself.

The DNR accomplished a gargantuan task in not only bringing back the wild turkey, but also in allowing it to flourish across a landscape they didn’t realize could support this bird. In the process they’ve learned a great deal.

The question is, have sportsmen learned anything through this experience?

Richard Bach wrote an interesting passage in his book, The Bridge Across Forever: “There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”

The wisdom described in this quotation may be hard to swallow. It would have been inconceivable to even consider 100 years ago that the disappearance of this magnificent bird would lead to a positive outcome.

However, since that time, we have learned and we have taken steps that continue to change our concept of wildlife management and the role we play in maintaining our natural resources.

The isolated result is the rebirth of wild turkeys in our own neighborhood. But the long-term results, if what we have learned is applied appropriately, could have impacts upon management of our natural resources across a broad spectrum.

From this writer’s perspective, three important lessons have come out of the resurrection of the Prairie State’s turkey populations.

First, and foremost, is the fact that we do not yet fully understand the complexities of the outdoor world. Every question we answer leads us further into the unknown, deeper into the mysteries of nature. If we have learned nothing else, we should have come to realize that there are many things we simply do not comprehend. There are many questions we may never truly answer.

But ignorance should not stifle us. We can only learn by doing, and sometimes that means making “mistakes”.

Second, we underestimate the adaptability and resilience of our wild places and wild creatures. This is not to say that we shouldn’t show concern when things appear to be out of sync, but every change in our environment and in our wildlife populations is not necessarily a pending disaster.

We must be cautious in our evaluation of what is and is not possible. When we make decisions based upon assumptions or emotions rather than firm knowledge, we cannot predict the outcome of our actions.

In believing that turkeys required a specific environment, we hampered our own progress. In the 100 years it took for us to see such dramatic results, the greatest population boom didn’t occur until these last 15 years.

This can only make one wonder what other barriers we have placed in front of ourselves, and our wildlife and wild lands, because of pre-conceived notions. This is not an indictment of the DNR. The DNR is, after all, made up of humans with all the inherent weaknesses we all possess. The point is, if we are to make true progress we need to leave behind the accepted ideologies that go beyond the scope of proven science. If we don’t know something to be fact, we shouldn’t rely upon it as being so.

Finally, we should have learned that we can make a difference. Despite our missteps and our limited vision, we sportsmen and our representatives can accomplish Herculean tasks when we work in concert with each other and with the natural world’s capability for self-adjustment.

The story of the wild turkey in Illinois is exciting because it details a dramatic change that came about through perseverance, dedication and hard work. Beyond that, this story has significance in its promise of what we can accomplish tomorrow, the day after and in the next 100 years.

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