Many of the people who hunt turkeys in West Virginia assume the birds have always been here.
Though native to the state, wild turkeys weren’t always as abundant or widespread as they are today. A hundred years ago, they were downright rare. Case in point: The statewide turkey harvest in 1921 totaled just 106 birds.
It took half a century of struggle, but natural resources officials finally got things turned around. Last year’s spring gobbler harvest totaled 11,545. By all accounts, turkey populations are thriving in all 55 Mountain State counties.
How, after the dismal interlude of the early 1900s, did West Virginia regain its turkeys? Mainly through trial and error.
Conservation officials started trying to restore turkey populations as early as 1928. Problem was, those early efforts involved taking farm-bred turkeys and releasing them to the wild.
Game farming was in vogue at the time. Pennsylvania and other eastern states had full-blown game farming facilities, and West Virginia developed one, too — the French Creek Game Farm, which later became the West Virginia Wildlife Center.
From 1933 to 1940, workers for the state Conservation Commission released 3,075 farm-raised turkeys in areas of prime turkey habitat. The birds, which lacked the survival instincts of forest-born birds, couldn’t survive in the wild. They never became established.
By 1950, the state’s turkey population numbered just 7,000, and those birds were concentrated in the Eastern mountains. Most of the state’s counties had no turkeys at all.
That began to change when Wayne Bailey, then a biologist for the Conservation Commission, decided to trap wild turkeys in areas where they were relatively abundant and stock them in areas where they didn’t exist at all.
The first stockings were small. In 1950, Bailey trapped 15 birds and put six of them in Coopers Rock State Forest and nine in the Bluestone Wildlife Management Area. Both of those stockings took.
For several years, the stockings remained small-scale because Bailey could catch only a few turkeys at a time. That changed when he developed a technique that could capture entire flocks.
Bailey’s method involved using small mortar-like explosive charges to shoot a net over the birds. His innovation made the trap-and-transplant practice much more efficient.
In the early 1970s, Division of Natural Resources biologists found that stocking 50 birds at a time got much better results than stocking half a dozen at a time. Trap-and-transplant shifted into high gear.
The stockings established turkey flocks in areas where no wild birds had been seen for decades. By 1989, viable populations had been reestablished in all 55 Mountain State counties.
According to biologists, today’s statewide flock has grown into just about all the state’s available habitat and can’t get much bigger. The population fluctuates with changes in breeding success, insect abundance and habitat availability, but not by much.
The springtime harvest now fluctuates between 10,000 and 12,000 gobblers. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, biologists believe it should remain in that range for years to come.