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Wild turkeys, nearly gone by the early 1900s, began a comeback in the Depression.
By the early 1900s, it was apparent that wild turkeys were disappearing from the Southeast at an alarming rate. House builders and farmers had cleared much of the native bird’s prime habitat – grassy forest edges with lots of grasshoppers, and mature oaks and hickories for nighttime roosting and winter food – and there were no regulations on hunting. According to the South Carolina-based National Wild Turkey Federation, the population had dwindled from an estimated 10 million when the European settlers arrived to 200,000 at its lowest in the 1930s.
“Obviously the species was in trouble,” says Tom Hughes, assistant vice president for NWTF conservation programs. “Their numbers had declined to a point where they were either completely gone from a number of states, or very rare.”
A glimmer of hope came, ironically, during the Great Depression, when many Americans lost their farms and left to seek work elsewhere. “That period actually turned out to be good for turkeys because it meant that what had been heavily farmed as land was slowly reverting back to forests, and that the rural population, which often depended on wild turkeys and other wild game for an addition to the family nutrition, were suddenly not there,” says Hughes. New hunting restrictions helped too, but even that wasn’t enough.
Experts in the fledgling science of wildlife biology began looking for solutions, gathering eggs from the nests, raising the poults in rearing facilities, and returning them to their homes.
“And none of that worked,” says Hughes. “It was money wasted … because what we came to realize was that, for a wild turkey to survive in the wild, it had to grow up with a wild hen that taught it what to look for and what to stay away from. So we found out that you can’t raise wild turkeys in pens.”
What did work was moving the birds to other forested areas. “The rub there was trying to catch ‘em,” says Hughes. The breakthrough came in 1951, when Herman “Duff” Holbrook, a turkey biologist working in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest, came up with the idea to use cannon nets, which were known to successfully snare geese and other waterfowl. And, says Hughes, “We were off to the races with restoration.” ...