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West Virginia's Successful Turkey Trap and Transfer Program

The single greatest success story in wildlife management in West Virginia has been the spectacular return of the wild turkey.  A major contributor to this success was a program that involved trapping turkeys in areas of relative abundance and releasing them in areas with no turkeys to start new populations.  This trap and transfer program evolved largely through an orderly progression of knowledge after the stocking of game farm turkeys was tried, and failed.

Years ago, West Virginians saw the wild turkey disappear from most of our state.  Concern grew with increasing restrictions placed on hunting, but the wild turkey still disappeared in most of our central, western, and southern counties.  Restocking efforts were made by concerned sportsmen and the West Virginia Conservation Commission by raising birds in captivity and releasing them into the wild.   Over 5,000 of these game farm turkeys were known to be released without one single successful stocking.

Beginning in 1950, biologists changed direction and for the first time live-trapped birds were taken in the wild and transplanted into unoccupied range.  The first stocking was made in Preston County on Coopers Rock State Forest.  From 1950-63, 213 turkeys were stocked at 19 areas in the state.  Following the initial wild turkey releases, biologists evaluated the merits of these early stockings.  Several releases were successful; however, population growth was slow, and rapid expansion was not evident.  Mistakes were made by implementing fall hunting which had a detrimental effect on population growth.

Fortunately, scientific research and experience improved over the years following the early releases.  Inefficient cage-type wire traps were initially used, but technology resulted in development of mortar-thrown nets, and then rocket propelled nets.   Knowledge on wild turkey population dynamics, behavior, and habitat requirements increased.  Armed with this knowledge, the trap and transfer program was reactivated with stocking of wild trapped birds into Wirt, Ritchie, and Wyoming counties in 1970.  Biologists developed a state-wide wild turkey management plan and determined that there was a large amount of excellent habitat in the state.  They found 21 counties with good to excellent wild turkey habitat, and based on this potential, they estimated that additional stockings would conservatively double the bird's range in West Virginia.

Population studies pointed out the problem of illegal hunting and accompanying changes associated with human habitation.  Wildlife biologists attempted to over-come some of the limitations.  They released 30 to 50 or more birds at a site as compared to the dozen or so birds used earlier.  In addition, research revealed that turkeys were very social creatures and that larger groups of birds wander less and are less subject to predation.  They hoped that the large stocking would offset the effects of illegal hunting and predation, and assure rapid population expansion by meeting the reproductive and social needs of the bird.

Biologists evaluated areas throughout the state by systematic habitat evaluation procedures which were designed to rate potential  stocking sites.  When a biologist looked at an area, he examined habitat intensively on a 9-square-mile area.  An additional 15 square miles were also evaluated extensively to provide some idea on the prospects of population expansion from the 9-square-mile nucleus.  The planning and habitat examination procedures were time-consuming, but they were important because they resulted in the best wild turkey habitat being stocked first.  With this approach wild turkey population growth was much more rapid than a hit-or-miss system.

After the planning and habitat examination procedures came the difficult task of trapping turkeys.  Wildlife managers of the Wildlife Resources Division deserve most of the credit for this job.  Even with modern "tools," it was necessary to watch trap sites from pre-daylight hours until turkeys arrived.  Turkeys do not maintain an 8-hour schedule, 5 days a week. In other words, long hours were devoted to capturing the elusive bird.  Sometimes it meant waiting a week or more at a trap site including weekends and holidays.  Traveling all hours of the day and night was required to move birds to their new home as rapidly as possible.

Was all the above worth the effort?  We think so and the facts support our conclusion.  The wild turkey trap and transfer program has resulted in the moving of 2,251 turkeys to 32 counties of West Virginia.  Turkey populations expanded from 62 stockings in these 32 counties to an additional 7 counties.  Therefore, the program is responsible for restoring turkeys to 39 counties.  It is even more spectacular when one considers that the program has resulted in restoring turkeys to 16,000 square miles of range, or 66 percent of the total area of the state.

West Virginia's wild turkey population is now estimated to range between 130,000-175,000, and of this total, 90,000-140,000 occur in counties restocked with wild-trapped birds. Since initiation of the trap and transfer program, our wild turkey population has shown more than a 25-fold increase in numbers.

Credit for the transplant program must be shared by all West Virginians.  Sportsmen funded the program and supported it enthusiastically over the years.  Conservation officers in the Law Enforcement Division enforced laws and regulations to protect our turkeys.  Landowners and sportsmen protected birds stocked into new range.  Conservation organizations such as the West Virginia Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation provided funds to help the Wildlife Division purchase equipment and supplies and conducted education seminars.  The West Virginia Chapter initiated a $200 reward program for information leading to the arrest of persons illegally killing turkeys.  Thousands of dollars have been given to informants, and the reward system has discouraged illegal harvesting of wild turkeys.

West Virginians are proud of their wildlife heritage, and we can be proud of our efforts to restore the wild turkey to every county of our state.  A number of years ago, one of our wildlife biologists was writing about the wild turkey trap and transfer program and said that "in a few years mountaineers can say, we established the wild turkey in all of West Virginia." Well, we did it!

--By James C. Pack


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