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How the Great Depression Helped Spare Wild Turkeys From Extinction

November 22, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

By the time Thanksgiving became an official U.S. holiday in 1863, wild turkeys had nearly disappeared. But Depression-era shifts in land use helped the animals rebound.

Before European settlers arrived in North America, there were millions of wild turkeys spread across what are now 39 U.S. states. But by the 1930s, wild turkeys had disappeared from at least 20 states and their total population had dropped to 30,000.

Over the next few decades, a series of reforms, conservation efforts and demographic changes helped bring wild turkeys back from the brink of extinction—making them one of the United States’ biggest wildlife success stories.

Wild turkey populations started declining in the 17th century as Euorpean colonists hunted them and displaced their habitats. By the time President , says the decline of cotton farms in particular may have helped wild turkeys rebound in states like Texas.

Thomas’ father, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1990, recalls that there was nothing but raccoons, opossums and other small game to hunt growing up in Mart, Texas during the 1930s. But when Thomas traveled back to the area with his father around the 1960s, his father “was absolutely astounded” to see how wild turkey had flourished.

“When he grew up there, all the land was planted in cotton,” Thomas says. “Cotton is terrible wildlife habitat—nothing can eat it, it doesn’t provide good escape cover—and he was quite sure that’s the reason that species like deer and turkeys weren’t there during the 1930s. When we went back, cotton was gone.”

These changes in the 1930s provided good habitats for wild turkeys. However, their numbers didn’t really start to rebound until the 1950s, because until then, conservationists couldn’t figure out a good way to relocate wild turkeys to these habitats.

“The conservation movement started bringing various species back around the turn of the century,” says Jim Sterba, author of Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds. “But wild turkeys were [one of] the last species that got brought back because they couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Finally, in the 1950s, conservationists realized they could safely relocate wild turkeys with rocket or cannon nets. These are nets that shoot out and trap animals. Because of relocation efforts, there are now millions of wild turkeys across dozens of states.

A wild turkey spotted along the highway in 1975, believed …read more