Hope Springs Eternal in the Turkey Woods

I have a enormous sense of affection for wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). I cringe every time I hear someone say that wild turkeys are ugly, unintelligent, or otherwise unworthy of our admiration. More than likely, if someone thinks a wild turkey is ugly, that person has probably never been up close to one. The colour of their feathers is almost impossible to pinpoint and when examined up close on a sunny day, has a shimmer that is hard to overstate. I’ll concede, their head looks like something that might have been drawn by someone with a complete disdain for colouring inside the lines (then again, so are many of the most celebrated art masterpieces); however, wild turkeys are big, beautiful birds whose ability to gobble a spring predawn forest to life is unparalleled.

Source: CWTF

Source: CWTF

In Ontario, we also have a lot to be thankful for with regard to the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), and they deserve our respect. Wild turkeys were extirpated from Ontario by 1909, as a result of unregulated hunting and changing land organization, in particular habitat loss due to the clearing of land for agricultural expansion.  In 1984, efforts began to reintroduce wild turkeys to Ontario, and in 1987, trap and transfer programs expanded the range of birds to additional areas of the province. From an estimated 4, 400 birds initially released throughout Ontario, the 2007 estimated population of wild turkeys stood at more than 70, 000. Thanks to hunting and conservation organizations like the OFAH and CWTF, the population is now believed to be even higher and the status of wild turkeys in Ontario is stable and healthy. The first regulated wild turkey hunt in Ontario took place in 1987, and there has since been an expansion to new management units, an additional season implemented, and an increase in limits.

I absolutely love turkey hunting. Wild turkeys were the first species I hunted, and I live in what I think is one of the most beautiful areas of Ontario (the Kawartha Lakes region), so to a certain extent, I credit them with bringing me into the world of hunting. The spring turkey hunt holds just as much excitement for me as the opening day of the deer hunt. I suppose part of this is because my experience hunting turkeys has been defined by a collage of wonderful juxtapositions. I’ve actively hunted these birds for 5 spring seasons; I’ve yet to be successful. As days grow longer in the spring, we get increasingly more time to hunt; this of course also means the alarm is set earlier each day. As the days warm, there are few things in life better than spending an afternoon basking in the sun under a tree; then, the mosquitos can be unbearable by mid-season and make sitting still next to impossible. The sound of toms (male turkeys) gobbling just before the sun comes up is both haunting and adrenaline-inducing; the sight or sound of them flying down from the roost in the opposite direction from you can be agonizing.

Wild turkeys are somewhat of a perfect combination of the characteristics that define other hunts: you can hunt them with gun or bow; you call them, and they call back; they require patience and discipline; you hunt them while they are fired right up and focused on breeding; they have a fascinating natural and cultural history; they have their own set of sensory advantages over us, adding a big challenge to their pursuit. Yet, unlike virtually any other big game species, you might as well give up all hope of any kind of spot and stalk strategy to hunt them. This means that a very familiar situation for a turkey hunter is hearing a bird screaming at you just out of sight – over a hill, across a fence row, behind some trees – and being completely unable to pursue the source of the call.

In other words, wild turkey hunting is both wildly addictive and intensely frustrating. It’s probably the combination of these that makes this species such a perfect representation of what hunting means to me, what keeps me coming back for more, and will have me out in the turkey woods every spring.

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Genetically Pure Bison in North America

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Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the history of bison (Bison bison) in North America. More specifically, people have probably heard about the almost complete eradication of the species from the continent due to a complete lack of management.

Perhaps fewer people are familiar with the bison as a success story, the one that is ongoing and will hopefully have a happier ending.

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Copyright: This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K5680-1 .

The bison is colloquially known in North America as buffalo. Many people will know them as the animal that was shot by the thousands for its hide by European settlers, and as an important part of Indigenous cultures in North America. There is no genetic difference between what people refer to as buffalo and the scientific classification of the species as bison.

To make a long story short, North America had an estimated historical bison population of perhaps more than 30 million, ranging across the continent, east to west, north to south. By the closing of the 19th century, the bison population had been reduced to about 1,000 individuals and its range had been greatly restricted due to human population and agricultural expansion.

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Current estimated range of the bison in North America. Source: http://www.defenders.org

Thanks to the dedication and efforts of hunting and conservation organizations to reintroduce the bison to parts of its historical range and ensure its continued protection, we now once again have a stable, though still greatly reduced, population of about 500,000 individuals in North America. In fact, I’m proud to know that Canada initiated regulated hunting for bison as early as 1894, and established Buffalo National Park in 1909 to protect a population of bison. While this is great, the bison’s current range is still historically restricted and they live in fairly isolated pockets, many of which are privately owned (only about 4% of bison are considered wild).

A large, symbolic, nostalgic, and fascinating animal, scientific studies and careful ongoing management of bison is important for the health and continued recovery of the species on a continental scale. Some interesting new research out of Utah State University, led by Dr. Dustin Ranglack, has identified a herd of bison that are “genetically pure”.

The grazing lands of free ranging bison often overlap those of domestic cattle. In addition to some deliberate attempts to cross breed wild bison and domestic cattle, these interactions have created a situation where most bison in North America have at least a degree of what is referred to as genetic introgression from domestic cattle. However, the Henry Mountains in Utah are apparently home to a herd that is genetically pure bison. The herd is also free from brucellosis, an infectious disease that is a concern in domestic livestock. This is an exciting discovery for the future of bison conservation, because according to Dr. Ranglack, this herd could represent “a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”

Ongoing wildlife research is critical for informed and effective management. This is an exciting piece of research that is an integral part of the successful model of wildlife management we have in North America. It’s important not just for species like bison, but for all North American wildlife and habitat, that we continue to advocate for dedicated funding for wildlife research and conservation efforts. If we want to continue to enjoy truly wild life on this continent, whether for viewing or hunting purposes, we need to see the bigger picture.

Luckily, the Canadian and American governments caught a glimpse of that bigger picture just in time when it came to the bison…but it was almost too late. We need to ensure we look ahead, are open minded, thoughtful, and learn from our past – both the mistakes and the successes. I’m proud of the management model we have on this continent, and I support the individuals and organizations responsible for making the decisions that ensure I can continue interacting with wildlife.