Game of gobblers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's been almost two weeks since West Virginia's spring turkey season began, and thousands of hunters have already bagged a gobbler or two.
Most of those birds wouldn't have been there had it not been for countless hours' worth of work on the part of the state's wildlife biologists and game managers, who quite literally spread the state's turkey flock statewide by trapping wild turkeys and relocating them to counties where they hadn't been seen for decades.
Jim Pack, the Division of Natural Resources' turkey project leader from 1970 to 2005, presided over what has become known as the state's "trap and transplant" program.
"What we did was very effective, but we were only able to do it because [earlier DNR biologists] had laid the groundwork for it," he said. "In the years between the 1940s and the late 1960s, they had figured out which [management techniques] worked and which ones didn't."
West Virginia's first statewide turkey census, conducted in the mid-1940s, painted a bleak picture. Turkeys, which thrived statewide when the state was settled, were almost gone.
"By the 1940s, the population was down to about 4,500 birds, and those were concentrated in just 16 counties, mostly in the Monongahela National Forest and the Eastern Panhandle," Pack said.
To reintroduce the popular game bird to its original range, wildlife officials at the time tried stocking turkeys hatched and pen-raised at the West Virginia Game Farm in French Creek. The effort failed.
"That was tried several times, from the late 1940s to as late as the early 1960s," Pack said. "I don't remember any of [the stockings] ever being successful."
Biologists figured - correctly, as it turned out - that pen-raised birds simply lacked sufficient survival skills to make it in the wild. One DNR employee, the legendary Wayne Bailey, started trapping wild birds and stocking them in places where game-farm birds hadn't yet been placed.
Bailey trapped the birds by building wire cages and setting out long bait lines that led turkeys into the traps.
In a 2001 interview, Bailey admitted that not all the transplanted turkeys came from West Virginia.
"I often trapped on Allegheny Mountain, along the Virginia-West Virginia border, and I always put the [trap] site on the West Virginia side. But I ran the bait lines way down into Bath County, Va. Virginia was transplanting turkeys and didn't even realize it," he said.
The first trap-and-transplant stocking took place in 1950, in Preston County near the Mason-Dixon Line.
"That was kind of an interesting stocking," Pack recalled. "As it was told to me, the birds crossed the line into Pennsylvania, got started there, and then expanded from there and came back into West Virginia."
The cage traps Bailey used weren't very efficient. They seldom yielded more than four or five birds at a time, which often wasn't enough to start a flock. Pack said those small stockings seldom had a chance to work.
"In some instances, the [hunting] season got opened on them too soon," he recalled. "At other times, not enough birds got put out. It was a learning process. The stocking program got carried up to 1962, but was stopped because it wasn't getting the job done."
It wasn't until biologists began using "cannon nets" - nets that could be flung over entire turkey flocks by explosive charges - that trap-and-transplant became truly viable. Pack said former DNR assistant wildlife chief Jim Ruckel was the official most responsible for resuming the stockings.
"Jim deserves a lot of credit. He said we wouldn't put out five or six birds like we had in the past. We started putting out 30 to 50 birds in every stocking. From the time we restarted the trap-and-transplant program in 1970 until we made our last stocking in 1988, not a single stocking failed."
Though biologists get a lot of credit for the restocking effort, Pack said the true heroes were the DNR's wildlife managers.
"For the most part, they were the ones out there doing the trapping," he said. "They did the grunt work. Turkey trapping is a hard, seven-day-a-week job, and they were the ones out there getting it done."
Pack and his colleagues had a simple formula for making the stockings work.
"Our policy was to put the birds in the most suitable habitat first, and to work our way down the list to the least suitable habitat," he said.
Despite concerns that politicians would dictate where the stockings got made, DNR officials were mostly able to stick to their plan.
"In all those years, we only made one political stocking," Pack said. "Fortunately, it was in a county with suitable habitat, and the birds did just fine."
The last trap-and-transplant stocking, near the Logan-Mingo county line, filled in the final blank in the DNR's map of turkey-populated counties. From the original 16 mountain and Eastern Panhandle counties, biologists had conducted stockings in 32 counties. Pack said the remaining seven counties didn't have to be stocked because nearby populations had expanded into them.
In 1989, just one year after the Logan-Mingo stocking, hunters killed turkeys in all 55 counties for the first time in decades. Pack considers the stockings to be "one of [the DNR's] biggest wildlife successes."
"The stockings greatly speeded up the process of reestablishing turkeys statewide," he said. "Their range would have expanded naturally, but with natural expansion we might not have birds in every county even today."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.