Turkeys in the northwest: conservation success or nuisance?
SPOKANE, Wash. — Fifty-five years ago, Jack Adkins was frustrated. A biologist for Washington’s Department of Game, Adkins was trying to catch turkeys in Stevens County using a 90-by-40-foot net propelled by “three projectiles (shot) from a small cannon.”
It wasn’t working.
“We’ve had all sorts of problems,” Adkins told The Spokesman-Review in January 1964. “But the main one is the wariness of the birds.”
Adkins knew these turkeys well. Just four years before, he and other biologists released 17 of the large birds into the wild after obtaining them from Wyoming. They’d reproduced, and in 1964 it was estimated there were between 250 and 300 in the hills and fields along the Columbia River near Rice, Washington. That success prompted Adkins to try and catch a few and transport them to the Blue Mountains.
But the winged foreigners eluded him, and he retreated in defeat. (He would return a month later and succeed, according to a subsequent Spokesman-Review story.)
Imagine how surprised Adkins would be if he were to drive through Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood today, decades later, only to have to stop and wait for a haughty flock to cross the road – turkeys that, in all likelihood, are the distant descendants of the wary birds he tried to net all those years ago.
After all, how did a species that didn’t exist in the Inland Northwest less than a lifetime ago, and that was on the verge of extinction throughout the continent, become so ubiquitous?
Up until about 100 years ago, being a wild animal in the United States was a tough gig. Rapacious logging, commercial hunting and agricultural development pushed deer, elk, bears, wolves, passenger pigeons and more to the brink of extinction – and, in some cases, beyond.
For turkeys, historic accounts of commercial hunting list “single-day harvests numbering in the hundreds of birds, according to a history prepared by the National Wild Turkey Federation. The birds also lost habitat as forests were cleared for farmland, development and industry.
By 1920, turkeys were gone from 18 of the 39 states they’d originally lived in. At their lowest, turkey numbers were generously estimated at 200,000, just 2% of the pre-European population. Throughout the continent their numbers had declined by 90%, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.
But attitudes were changing and the turkeys’ fortunes, alongside that of deer, elk and other wildlife, were on an upswing.
The history of turkeys in Washington is well represented visually by looking at the files from The Spokesman-Review‘s archive.
The manila envelope labelled “TURKEY, THE Thru 1968” is thin and holds just a smattering of yellowing clippings. The packet labeled 1969-1979 is a little larger, containing a handful of references to the big birds.
And then it explodes. The 1980s onward packet is thick, its seams worn from the pressure of the clippings contained within.
The earliest references are to turkey research at Washington State University. Turkey farming used to be a big business in Washington, after all, and WSU led the nation in the turkey sciences.
But wild turkeys didn’t exist, and had never existed, in Washington or the Inland Northwest.
Until the 1960s.
Like elsewhere in the nation, the first successful Washington reintroduction was in 1960. That’s when 17 Merriam’s wild turkeys from Wyoming were released near Rice. Four years later, their numbers had exploded.
Across the state line a similar story unfolded. In 1961, the first turkeys were released into the Salmon River Breaks of southern Idaho. By 1966, they had come to the Panhandle near St. Maries.
Jack McNeel released the 15 or so birds, brought from Lewiston, on a cold February day north of St. Maries. One at a time, the big birds sprang from their cages and flew out over the middle of the lake, landed, surveyed the snowy landscape and flew back to the safety of the tress.
Except for the last bird, said McNeel, a 31-year veteran of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. When it landed in the middle of the lake, an eagle struck.
“This eagle flew out from the trees, made a couple circles and came down and just clobbered that turkey. Sent him rolling,” McNeel said in an interview earlier this month. “The eagle circled and landed right in front of that turkey. . They were about the same size. Eyeball-to-eyeball. Anyways, (the eagle) took off and flew back into the trees. That turkey ran all the way to the nearest bush that he could get into. I wished I had a movie of that.”
Near-misses aside, turkey reintroduction in Idaho was well on its way.
The first hunting season in Washington was a one-and-a-half day hunt in September 1965. Two years later, Idaho followed suit with a limited hunt. And while the population was still small, landowners were starting to complain. In 1966, just six years after the first introduction, northeastern Washington hunters requested a longer hunting season in hopes of driving the birds from their farms.
But turkeys weren’t yet widespread. It would take the formation of a nonprofit dedicated solely to turkeys to truly jump start the reintroduction and send a once rare ground-loving bird crashing into the lives of city-dwellers.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is, as you’d expect, all about turkeys.
Formed in 1973, it was the spark that ignited turkey relocation efforts. Like other organizations – the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for instance – the NWTF helps cash-strapped state wildlife agencies get projects done, while advancing its own goals.
“In Stevens County, we were working with logging companies as far as going in and planting stuff on their skid trails,” said Joey McCanna, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional conflict specialist. “And it was all grant money from the National Wild Turkey Federation.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, McCanna was involved in a number of turkey trappings and relocations. NWTF money allowed the Department of Fish and Wildlife to improve habitat, for turkeys and other animals.
“At that time, we had management in Olympia that was big into turkeys,” he said.
The NWTF still wields power when it comes to state management decisions, often protesting expanded hunting seasons or other actions they deem anti-turkey. A former WDFW biologist who oversaw much of the turkey relocation work in the `90s and 2000s is now a regional director for NWTF.
By the mid-2000s, when McCanna stopped working with turkeys, the population had bloomed.
“I was born and raised in Chewelah and graduated from Chewelah in ’89,” he said. “If you saw a turkey it was a rarity.”
Those turkeys expanded and soon were in Spokane after naturally migrating from Stevens, Pend Oreille and Kootenai counties.
Now, turkeys are in every state except Alaska, with a population of more than 6 million. In 2018, Washington hunters killed 7,332 of the birds. Between 1984 and 2004 the number of turkey hunters jumped from 689 to more than 15,000. Exactly how many turkeys live in the state isn’t known. Three species of turkey – Merriam’s, Eastern and Rio Grandes – make Washington a turkey-hunting paradise.
The ecological impact this non-native species has on the region’s native fauna and flora isn’t clear. According to the state’s 2005-2010 turkey management plan there have “been many wild turkey studies” showing that wild turkeys don’t have “negative population-level impacts on plants, animals or other birds.”
However, in California, another state where turkeys were introduced, the birds’ ecological impacts have been criticized. But those impacts haven’t been studied in a comprehensive way, according to a 2016 Scientific American article.
McCanna said he hasn’t seen any studies examining the impact of turkeys in Washington or anywhere else. Anecdotally, hunters blame turkeys for a decreased grouse population, although that hasn’t been proven.
“I don’t think we know,” McCanna said. “We’re just not sure.”
Managers are sure of one thing though: Turkeys are one of the most complained-about animals. WDFW’s regional office receives more than 100 calls in the winter, most of them from Spokane’s South Hill, McCanna said.
“Some people love to see the turkeys,” he said. “Some people don’t.”