Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gobble Gobble

Turkeys an endangered species? Such a notion, as millions of us sit down to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner, seems preposterous.

But for the wild turkey, it was once the reality. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss had reduced the nationwide wild turkey population to an estimated 30,000. What was once one of the continent's most common birds--with large flocks roosting in forests, along river bottoms and on prairie edges--was barely hanging on in pockets of habitat.

A gambling man of the time would have likely been considered a fool to bet on the turkey's long-term prospects.

In fact, conventional wisdom at the time assumed that many wildlife species were doomed, with no hope of recovery.

Theodore Roosevelt is well known for his conservation policies. What many don't realize is that in the late 1800's, Roosevelt and his contemporaries advocated for record-keeping of big game animals. The reason? Because they wanted accurate representations of these animals in museums, so future generations could know what elk and deer and pronghorn antelope looked like.

People had written these animals off. Given them no hope.

But we don't have to go to the museum to see an elk or a pronghorn today. When Roosevelt had the opportunity, he acted with vision and courage--to pass game laws, to protect special natural areas, to establish wildlife refuges. Think of that the next time you hear an elk bugling in the fall, thrill to a herd of pronghorns racing across the sage.

Or see a wild turkey. Turkeys benefited greatly by hunting regulations. They increased steadily throughout the 20th century. Hatchery programs were tried, but pen-raised birds were poor survivors--they couldn't elude predators or hunters, and were susceptible disease.

In the 1970's, wildlife managers found that trapping wild birds from abundant populations and transferring them to suitable habitat could speed the recovery. Turkeys found, literally, a new world: a world of woodlots and fields and regenerated forest. It was a good time to be a turkey.

I still remember seeing my first flock moving through the woods--scratching noisily at the forest floor, then ghosting quietly away over the ridge. It was in the early 80's on family ground. Many people did not believe that my dad and I had actually seen them.

But soon turkeys became a common sight in this area--and many others. Turkeys prospered.

Today, 7 million wild turkeys roam North America, occupying almost all suitable habitat and expanding even beyond their original range (including an introduced population in Idaho).

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that "Hope is the thing with feathers." The turkey's story is indeed one of hope, a story to be remembered when today's many environmental problems seem daunting, insurmountable, hopeless. It's something to be thankful for.

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