As you gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving, give special thanks for the turkey, for it is a direct descendant of a true Native American, the Wild Turkey—a conservation success story.
According to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, “historical accounts from early European settlers suggest that Wild Turkeys existed in what would now be considered 39 continental states. Wild Turkeys thrived in forested habitat across the Eastern United States and were closely tied to Native American culture as a game bird. During the 17th century, early American settlers took advantage of thriving Wild Turkey populations as a staple food source for those in the New World.”
Wild Turkeys remained a staple for the next 200 years, but as their habitat dwindled due to “…deforestation from intensive land-use practices” and their numbers declined due to “unsustainable hunting,” by the beginning of the 20th century, this once pervasive species was on the verge of eradication. A reference article about Wild Turkeys in Wikipedia states: “Game managers estimate that the entire population of Wild Turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, it was almost totally extirpated from Canada and becoming localized in pockets in the United States.”
Fortunately for the Wild Turkey (and us), this story has a happy ending thanks to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. The Pittman-Robertson Act created an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition which provides funds to each state for wildlife restoration projects. Many species have been saved thanks to the Pittman-Robertson Act, including Wild Turkey, White-tailed Deer, and Wood Duck.
Funds from Pittman-Robertson coupled with state hunting license fees allowed wildlife researchers and game officials to protect and en-courage the breeding of native Wild Turkey populations. In addition, turkeys were trapped and relocated, including into areas in western states where the species was not native.
Once Wild Turkey numbers began to bounce back and steadily increase, hunting was again “legalized in 49 U.S. states (excluding Alaska),” according to Wikipedia. “In 1973, the total U.S. population was estimated to be 1.3 million, and current estimates place the entire Wild Turkey population at seven million individuals.”
This year, as you’re giving thanks for family, friends, and the abundance of food you’re about to eat, including the turkey, remember to also give thanks to all those who helped make sure we still have Wild Turkeys roaming our country. The recovery of the Wild Turkey is truly a conservation success story!
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