Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Return of the Turkeys

Hundreds of eastern wild turkeys are being transferred to East Texas

By Steve Lightfoot

More than 200 eastern wild turkeys from other states are packing their bags and moving to Texas this year, with the help of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In the first wave, more than two dozen eastern wild turkeys from Tennessee and Missouri were introduced at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in February, with more scheduled for release at that site and two others as part of a “super stocking” initiative to restore this majestic bird on its historical range in East Texas.

The birds were captured and transported to a TPWD facility in Tyler, where they were inspected, tagged with metal ID leg bracelets and fitted with GPS tracking devices. The transplanted turkeys then traveled to the Gus Engeling WMA for release into the wild.

The “super stocking” plan calls for stockings of 80 turkeys on each of three sites — three hens for each gobbler — about 240 birds in total.

Gus Engeling turkey

Eastern wild turkeys were inspected and tagged before being released at TPWD’s Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in East Texas.

“It’s the same old story,” says Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey biologist. “The birds were essentially wiped out by subsistence and market hunting along with extensive habitat loss in the later parts of the 19th century, but with the help of the NWTF, we have been able to bring the birds back all across the country.”

Although more than 50 counties in East Texas were stocked during the 1980s and 1990s, only 28 counties are open for turkey hunting today.

“We had to start looking at why we were not as successful in keeping the eastern wild turkey population flourishing as other states in its historical range,” Hardin says.

The NWTF’s Texas State Chapter is playing a significant role in footing the bill for transferring the birds, helping with gas bills and plane tickets as a part of the group’s new Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt Initiative.

“We couldn’t do what we do without NWTF volunteers and employees,” Hardin says. “Hopefully, one of these days we’ll have enough birds so we won’t need to rely on other states for our eastern wild turkey restoration efforts.”

Alabama, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia are providing wild, trapped eastern turkeys for the Texas project. The states are compensated $500 for each turkey they provide, with money coming from TPWD’s Upland Game Bird Stamp program.

Researchers will use the GPS transmitters to track movements of the birds, effectively “ground-truthing” the models biologists have created to identify preferred turkey habitat needs throughout the year. This data will help in assessing future stocking sites.

“This restoration effort in Texas is unique,” says NWTF’s Tom Hughes. “It’s an area where we helped with trap and transfer work in places years ago. Maybe there was a change in the habitat, less prescribed fire than was needed, too much rain or not enough. Whatever the reason, we are going back to the area, and TPWD is really committed to getting it right this time.”

Hughes says it’s an unusual circumstance in Texas, since most wild turkey populations did well following earlier trap and transfer efforts.

“This one did too, for a while,” Hughes says. “But, from our standpoint, we are still committed to making sure turkeys have the best chance they can for survival. We are still practicing what we preach and have been since 1973.”

You can watch a video of the release on TPWD’s YouTube channel.

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