Like the Vermont 50she As wild turkey season begins, both the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife and the NWTF are celebrating a shared 50 years of wild turkey conservation.
When hunting turkeys in New England today, it’s hard to imagine a landscape that was once devoid of wild turkeys. But it is true; the wild turkey was completely extirpated from the region, mainly due to rapid deforestation for agriculture in the mid-19th century. At the peak of deforestation in the six states, from about 1830 to 1880, it is estimated that up to 80% of the landscape was cleared. With significant deforestation and unregulated hunting, it’s no wonder that wild turkeys disappeared. However, like many regions, New England’s wild turkey restoration was an incredible success, and it now boasts some of the best turkey and game habitat in the country.
As the NWTF celebrates 50 years of mission delivery, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is celebrating its 50thhe year of hunting the wild turkey. Coincident anniversaries shed light on how far the wild turkey has come, both across the country and in Vermont, in just 50 years. It also underscores the productive partnership that the NWTF and the department have forged over the decades to ensure that wild turkeys continue to thrive while also introducing new hunters to the spring season and conservation.
Vermont was no different than the rest of New England: Wild turkeys were originally found in the southern two-thirds of Vermont, until the mid-19th century, when Vermont’s forested area was reduced to an estimated 25%, ultimately eliminating wild turkey. from the landscape.
In 1968, Vermont’s wild turkey restoration program began when the VFWD determined that forests across the state had recovered enough to support wild turkeys again. But without turkeys, the department had to start from scratch.
John Hall, a VFWD information specialist at the time, helped release the first translocated birds from southwestern New York in 1969. Fifty-four years later, Hall still works for the department in a part-time position and reflects wistfully. in his journal entries chronicling work with Bill Drake, VFWD’s first wild turkey biologist, and early translocation efforts in the state.
“Feb. 28 Jan 1969, Bill met me at West Pawlet [southwestern Vermont] with two gobblers that I had shot with cannon the day before, so those were the first two birds we released that afternoon around 2 o’clock,” he said. “And then on March 4th, I went back there and I met Bill, and we hatched five turkeys in the same spot.”
Drake continued translocation efforts from 1969 to 1970, with a total of 31 wild turkeys released throughout southwestern Vermont.
“Those birds did extremely well,” Hall said. “They reproduced faster and more successfully than we imagined.”
With its own thriving population to work with, the VFWD began relocating birds from the newly established population to all suitable habitats throughout the state.
“We continued to move the birds east and north for several years until the birds became established throughout the state, which is actually farther north than they were thought to have occupied. [pre-European settlement]Hall said. “They far exceeded our imaginations in their ability to reproduce and survive Vermont winters.”
Just four years after those first two gobblers were released, the VFWD opened its first turkey season in 1973. The department assigned 579 permits for three Southwest management zones. 23 hunters managed to catch a bird during the 12-day season. Harvested gobblers were healthy and averaged 18.8 pounds, with the heaviest weighing 24 pounds. The Vermont turkey population continued to expand across the state for decades and is now estimated at 45,000 birds. Turkey hunting is permitted statewide from May 1 to May 31.
And while wild turkey restoration efforts were proving incredibly successful in Vermont in the early 1970s, many states across the country were still in their early phase of wild turkey restoration. About a month before the first Vermont turkey season in 1973, about 500 miles from where those first two gobblers were released, Tom Rodgers founded the NWTF in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as a dual-mission conservation and research educational organization. to conserve wild turkey. and preserve North America’s hunting heritage. The NWTF would become the lead organization in bolstering efforts by state agencies to restore their wild turkey populations, ultimately leading to huntable wild turkeys in 49 states and wild turkeys exceeding their pre-European range.
Today, NWTF and VFWD continue their five-decade turkey conservation legacies through a partnership that works to improve turkey habitat, increase access to public hunting, and introduce Vermonters to turkey hunting. .
“We have an incredible partnership with VFWD that emphasizes the NWTF’s mission of conserving wild turkeys and preserving North America’s hunting heritage,” said Matt DiBona, NWTF New England district biologist. “We have completed many conservation projects at the VFWD WMA and Green Mountain National Forest that have improved hundreds of acres of wild turkey habitat.”
In addition to conservation projects, including tree planting, forest clearing, riparian restoration work and forest management, the NWTF and VFWD jointly host numerous outreach events each year, such as cookery seminars of wild animals and seminars to learn how to hunt.
“There is a great synergy between our passionate volunteers and our partnership with the department that allows the NWTF to have a strong presence in Vermont,” DiBona said. “This shows that we can make big things happen even in a small state.”
To think that this great work that is happening today is the extension of 31 birds that were transferred from New York more than 50 years ago.
Similarly, what began as an idea in the mind of a passionate turkey hunter 50 years ago in Virginia has led to conserving more than 22 million acres of wildlife habitat, allocating $8.5 million to critical wild turkey research. and recruiting more than 1.5 million new hunters. and opening up countless acres of public access to hunting.
It underlines what can come from humble beginnings. Whether you’re a small New England state or a national organization, all you need is an idea followed by action. And as we celebrate 50 years of turkey hunting in Vermont and 50 years of the NWTF, if we continue with the same determination as early Vermont conservationists and Rodgers 50 years ago, we will celebrate our coincidental centennial another 50 years from now.