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."