Relocation by rocket

Such scenes of spring turkey hunting success all across North America are thanks in part to trap/transfer methods perfected by turkey biologists such as the late Wayne Bailey. Lynn Burkhead

ATLANTA — On Friday's first full day of action at the 2008 National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Convention & Sport Show, there were plenty of sounds to fill one's ears.

With nearly every turkey call maker in America in attendance and competition callers prepping for their various events, the air was filled with yelps, clucks, purrs, and aggressive cutting sequences.

As important as all of those sounds are to today's turkey hunters, a luncheon in a room buried in the Omni Hotel gave a quiet reminder that of all of turkey hunting's various sounds, the most important one is one seldom heard by hunters.

And that is the loud boom of a rocket-propelled net going off as the National Wild Turkey Federation and various wildlife agencies continue the success story of trapping and transferring wild turkeys into suitable habitat across the continent.

Mike Simpson, the recently retired turkey program leader for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, reflected on the technique's significance on Friday after winning the NWTF's first ever "Wayne Bailey Lifetime Achievement Award" along with Fred Evans.

"That has been the cornerstone of it," Simpson said. "Without trap and transfer, it would have never happened.

"Wayne (Bailey) was one of the founding fathers of the technique to catch wild turkeys (with rocket propelled nets) and relocate them.

"Like I said, it's the cornerstone of the whole program."

According to Simpson, today's trap and transfer practice of baiting in wild turkeys, shooting rocket propelled nets over the top of them and then relocating the birds to suitable habitat where they are needed isn't the way that things have always been done.

"That's the way that it is done now," he said. "Originally, they started out using old chicken wire and board traps; several tranquilizing drugs were tried; then old cannon nets; and later, the rocket nets."

Dr. James Earl Kennamer, senior Vice President of Conservation for the NWTF, agreed that Bailey and others like him helped make the modern turkey revival possible in North America through the use of rocket propelled nets.

"Wayne was looking into the future and making it to where we could make mass production by catching these birds and moving them to new habitat from wild populations," Kennamer said.

"A lot of people had tried pen raised turkeys and they didn't work because they didn't know how to survive. You could mass produce, turn them lose, but the predators got 'em and they didn't know what to eat or how to survive.

"But moving the (wild) birds, Wayne played a major, major role in the comeback of the wild turkey."

To show you how successful the trap and transfer method used by the NWTF and various fish and wildlife agencies has been, consider the numbers 20,000 and 30,000.

At first, there doesn't seem to be much separation.

But upon closer examination, the difference is monumental.

That's because in the early 1900s, biologists say that the various wild turkey subspecies in America had all but been eliminated from the landscape with some 30,000 turkeys roaming the entire country.

Contrast that to Feb. 13, 2008: A Tennessee-trapped Eastern wild turkey was released into suitable habitat in east Texas, the 20,000th such bird trapped and transferred across state lines.

(Editor's Note: According to NWTF biologists Joel Pedersen and Mark Hatfield, it is important to keep in mind that the 20,000 figure is merely a portion of the 190,000 or so birds that have been trapped and transferred, the vast majority of those being moved only within the states that the turkeys were actually trapped in.)

"We started that (trapping and transferring turkeys across state lines) in 1987, moving from one state agency to another, one that had plenty of turkeys that could help restock some of these other states," Kennamer said.

The trap and transfer procedure has also worked across international boundaries.

That's because the NWTF has been instrumental in wild turkey restoration efforts in several provinces of Canada.

The organization is also helping the Gould's turkey find a home once again in suitable habitat on a portion of its historic range in Arizona. To accomplish that, Gould's turkeys are being released into the Grand Canyon State after being originally trapped from flocks in Mexico.

No matter what boundaries these birds travel across, be it a county line, a state line, or an international line, the trap and transfer method obviously works.

Consider the Lone Star State of Texas.

"In Texas, for example, they had very few Eastern wild turkeys that they could go trap out of and move them," Kennamer said. "They were moving like 8 to 10 a year."

While some said that trapping and transferring turkeys across state lines would prove to be a violation of the federal Lacey Act, Kennamer said that the NWTF staff and a team of attorneys were able to determine a way in which birds could be legally moved across state lines.

In fact, Kennamer, his wife, and NWTF CEO Rob Keck were able to help play a direct role in some of the first relocation efforts to Texas when Eastern wild turkeys were flown into Tyler, Texas aboard the jet of a prominent Lone Star State businessman.

That, however, was only the start of the Eastern wild turkey's comeback in Texas.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site (hyperlink: www.tpwd.state.tx.us ), more than 7,000 Eastern wild turkeys were systematically restocked into the eastern third of the state over a 10-year period beginning in the mid 1980s.

How successful has the effort been?

This spring, hunters will be able to chase Eastern gobblers from April 1-30 in more than 40 East Texas counties.

Overall, the trap and transfer efforts of the NWTF and wildlife agencies has been amazingly successful all across the North American continent, helping to rebuild wild turkey numbers to the point where today some 7 million or so birds roam the continent on 15 million acres of suitable habitat.

Still, Kennamer believes that there is plenty of work to be done to keep this modern day turkey revival alive and well.

First, he says that the NWTF is moving from aggressively trapping and transferring birds in big numbers to maintaining what has already been accomplished.

That includes tweaking areas where initial stockings were less successful than biologists had hoped for, most often due to the fact that there weren't enough gobblers present to breed hens or various habitat issues that have been and continue to be resolved today.

Second, as mentioned above, there remains an ongoing effort to help the Gould's turkey rebound on the American side of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

While much work remains to be done there, Kennamer says that Arizona is already reaping the benefits of this effort with some limited hunting for the Gould's subspecies.

What's the bottom line to the trapping and transferring of wild turkeys into suitable habitat across North America?

Simply this — without it, you and I might not be spring turkey hunting in our own particular neck of the woods this year.

So when you go into the woods to make the sounds of spring turkey hunting over the next few months, why not pause just a second?

When you do, give thanks for the dedicated work and foresight that wild turkey biologists like the late Wayne Bailey, Dr. James Earl Kennamer, Mike Simpson, and countless others have had down through the years.

That work, after all, is the key to America's turkey hunting revival.

And you can bet your box call on that.