The History of Wild Turkey Conservation in North America


Turkey season is upon us if you haven’t been able to tell with all the social media posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts being released on the subject. I mean sure, there are still fall turkey seasons in some states, but for a lot of us we rely on the spring season. Many hunters seem to notice a relative decline in turkey population numbers as well as other upland bird populations. I try to list some of the drivers impacting pheasants in parts of the Midwest, but am certain that there are other important variables that do seem to have an impact.

For those who do not understand the significance of turkey hunting, please note that turkey hunting is the second most popular game species behind white tail deer here in North America. Despite the popularity of turkey hunting across the United States, many hunters are aware of or can remember days when there were little to no turkey to be found. Turkey as a species is one of the many examples of phenomenal conservation efforts, which lead to a revival of the species on public and private lands across the United States.

While it can be argued that turkey hunting may not be what it used to be over the course of the past few decades, I do think it is important to take a step back and reevaluate what all is going on differently as to create the lack luster results we are seeing today. Often times there is a correlation with some type of land management issues causing a trickledown effect.

As I develop personally as a hunter, I find it more important to emphasize the efforts of conservation in the recent past as to understand how valuable the opportunity and natural resource is. It is easy to take things for granted when you didn’t put any of the work into bringing the wild turkeys back from near extinction. It should go without saying that although the numbers are better than they were 100 years ago, there is still a possibility for the species to take a hit if appropriate measures are not taken. This is why I hope to share with you my overall summary/take on the conservation of turkeys in the past, present, and future. I plan to discuss the historical significance of wild turkey in the United States, discuss why turkeys declined in the past, the first conservation efforts, modern conservation issues, and modern conservation efforts.

1. Historical Significance

First, I would like to point out that prior to European colonialism it was reported that there was an abundance of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) ranging across the Eastern portion of the United States as well as central Midwest where there are other forms of subspecies. Many Native American cultures utilized the turkey for its meat, feathers, bones, and more. There was definitely some degree of cultural significance depending on the tribe. There is some research being done to see if Native American groups within the Southeastern portion of what is now the United States were potentially able to domesticate turkey. Researchers believe there is some evidence based on the bone density of turkeys found at a site as well as the discovery that there was a higher portion of male turkeys in a site than female, which is not common in wild turkey populations.

The idea behind this theory is that certain native groups relied on turkeys so much for tools, food, clothing, etc. that it was beneficial to domesticate them and feed them corn. It is important to note that not all tribes did this. There is some interesting information on the subject if you are interested and learning about Native domestication of turkey. I personally had no clue about this until researching for this blog article.

After the arrival of early European settlers, it is noted that there was a noticeable decline in turkey populations for a variety of reasons I will mention in the next bullet point. Jeff Mitton of the University of Colorado Boulder wrote a great piece titled, “We nearly ate turkeys to extinction a second time”, which writes on the impact that colonialism had on turkey when he writes, “By the early 1930s they had been eradicated from 18 states and were found only in areas that were essentially inaccessible to hunters. Their population size had been reduced to only 2 percent of their original population size — from 10 million to 200,000. Wild turkeys were on the brink of extinction”. Mitton describes the grim picture of turkeys in the United States in the early 20th century. It is hard to fathom the idea of there being an abundance of turkey to nearly none at all within 200-300 years.

2. Why Turkeys Declined

While there is some easy assumption as to why turkey populations took a hit, it is often more complex than what it appears at first glance. While it is correct that hunting for subsistence and the market had a negative impact on the populations, but the destruction of habitat seems to have done as much or more damage for the species via deforestation and the conversion of wild spaces to domestic landscapes. The general idea/reason behind why settlers decimated the wild game populations was the misbelief that they could not go extinct. This was to say how rich the populations were here. This is a tale as old as time as we all know that humans are not great at observing change overtime if it happens at a slow/gradual rate. There are many examples of this, but in regards to turkey there were no designated hunting seasons, bag limits, or tags/funding for conservation.

3. The First Conservation Efforts

The first noted attempt to help revive the once great wild turkey populations occurred in the 1940’s after the United States had survived the many hardships from the 20s-late 30s and now had the time and resources to devote towards conservation. One of the first attempts at increasing turkey populations was capturing wild turkey and raising them in captivity as to increase offspring survival with the belief that they could raise and release the turkey into areas from which they once lived. Over time this effort was abandoned due to low levels of success. Many argue that the turkey from captivity had no knowledge on how to survive in the wild, leading to issues regarding predation and starvation.

By the 60s-70s there had been a change in how turkeys were to be managed and conserved. This involved trapping wild turkey from various populations and moving them to areas where they had been hunted in the past. To add on to the effort, conservationist also implemented stricter hunting regulations/bag limits, which seemed to have helped the new populations thrive. This method was used up until populations were able to sustain themselves.  

4. Modern Issues

Although it may sound like conservation efforts in the past worked and can be written off as a success, it should be noted that modern populations of turkey are not what they were even a few decades ago. One thing that strikes me as interesting in regards to the conservation efforts in the 60s and 70s was that the main efforts were focused on only bringing birds back to old areas, there was no talk of restoring habitat or creating reserves/refuges.

The landscape from which the initial conservation efforts are made is starkly different than the landscape we see today. More native spaces have been pushed out of landscapes and replaced for either monetary crops/lumber, or made into pasture, homes, or businesses. Add in considerable changes of agriculture practices and the increased use of herbicide/fungicide and pesticides. There have even been some new viruses which impact domestic poultry that can cross over to wild turkey. The lack of cover doesn’t help turkey as it makes their nests, chicks, and themselves more vulnerable to predation from other wildlife and humans.

No one is certain to how to really address the issues turkey are facing today even though researchers are observing a decline in turkey populations. Many researchers are uncertain on how to help reverse the trend as no one is really certain as to what the main issue is that is causing the decline.

5. Modern Conservation Efforts

So you may be wondering what things are being done to help prevent the loss of turkey from our landscape? And for that I can tell you that researchers are indeed trying new solutions. In my state it was only until recently that you could hunt turkeys in the spring and fall and were able to shoot hens in the fall. The state has since then removed the fall season and limit hunters to one tag during the regular shotgun season.

Many others are starting to advocate for proper habitat and food source allocation for turkey. Prescribed burning (a great tool for proper land management) has been shown to help clear out thick underbrush and help promote native warm/cold season grasses (which turkey prefer). I have seen turkey hang out on recently burned land first hand. Some even promote the creation of food plots for turkey that promote biodiversity and reduce the exposure to man-made chemicals which can have a negative impact on fecundity (reproduction success). These methods work great, especially if paired with proper predator management as to help reduce nest predation.


Wild turkeys are one of the most appreciated wild game species that we have here in the states. The story of great highs and lows of the population are a great example of the impacts that proper conservation measures can have on a struggling species. We are now faced with a similar, but different obstacle and we must decide how we wish to save the turkey again. I personally would like to be able to hunt turkey my entire life and be able to take my potential kids and grandkids hunting in the future.

It would be a shame to lose our ability to hunt the species or even lose the species in general. I hope this week’s article has done a good job at describing the importance of proper hunting regulation and proper management. It is time to be willing to adapt and sacrifice, time, energy, and potential hunting opportunity for the turkey of tomorrow.

Work Cited

Mitton, Jeff. “We Nearly Ate Turkeys to Extinction a Second Time.” Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine, University of Colorado Boulder, 4 Dec. 2018,,on%20the%20brink%20of%20extinction.

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