Wildlife Species Guide
The return of the wild turkey to Nebraska, other states that historically
had turkey populations and to states outside the turkey's historic range is
one of the great success stories of wildlife management. Wild turkeys now are
found in every state but Alaska, and they occupy more square miles of habitat than
any other North American gamebird.
In 1804, Lewis and Clark reported seeing wild turkeys along the Missouri River
in present Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and South Dakota. The eastern wild turkey,
(Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), one of the six recognized subspecies, is native
to Nebraska. Its historical range included the entire eastern half of the United
States. It is possible that the Rio Grande, (M. g. intermedia) also was native,
since its range included the south-central Plains at least as far north as Kansas.
The other surviving subspecies are (M. g. osceola) of southern Florida,
Merriam's (M. g. merriami) of the mountain regions of Arizona, Colorado
and New Mexico, and Gould's (M. g. mexicana) of northwestern Mexico and
southern Arizona and New Mexico.
A sixth subspecies, M. g. gallopavo, is thought to be extinct, although that
subspecies from southern Mexico is considered the source of domestic turkeys.
It is thought to have been the subspecies carried from southern Mexico to Spain
by Spanish explorers by 1520. Thus the domestic turkeys brought by the colonists
to North America in about 1607 originated from stock that had arrived in Spain,
Europe and England from the Americas less than 100 years earlier.
The decline of the wild turkey began almost immediately after the arrival of
colonists on the eastern seaboard. Uncontrolled year-round hunting and habitat
destruction quickly reduced populations. Plymouth Colony enacted the first
conservation law in 1626,limiting the cutting and sale of timber.
Wild turkeys were extirpated from 18 of the 39 states of the bird's ancestral
range, and by the beginning of the 20th century populations reached their
lowest levels nationwide. The wild turkey was extirpated from Nebraska by about 1915.
The first attempts by individuals, groups and state wildlife agencies to restore
wild turkeys in the United States failed. Releases of more than 330,000 pen-raised
turkeys on about 800 sites resulted in 760 failures. The pen-raised approach cost
millions of dollars and, by one estimate, delayed the restoration of the wild
turkey by almost two decades.
The modern history of wild turkeys in Nebraska began in 1959 with the release
in the Pine Ridge of 28 Merriam's turkeys trapped in South Dakota and Wyoming.
Although Merriam's are not native to Nebraska, the release succeeded, and the
Pine Ridge population grew to about 3,000 birds in only four nesting seasons.
Buoyed by that success, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologists released
518 live-trapped Rio Grande turkeys into riparian-woodland habitat in central
and south-central Nebraska in 1961 and 1962. The Rio Grande release program had
limited success, but Merriam's introductions continued to meet and exceed expectations.
Releases in the Pine Ridge succeeded in part because habitat conditions there
resemble those in the Merriam's historical range and because that subspecies is
adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, including extremes of weather,
temperature and habitat.
The 1959 release took place in February and March at two sites. Three juvenile
toms and 17 hens were released on Cottonwood Creek northwest of Crawford, and
three toms and five hens were released on Deadhorse Creek southwest of Chadron.
The birds wintered near the release sites but dispersed as the spring breeding
and nesting season approached.
In their first nesting season, the 28 adult birds remained within five miles
of the release sites and wintered broods in the same area. On Cottonwood Creek,
where only juvenile toms were released, the flock increased from 20 to 91 in
the first breeding season.
By the fourth year, turkeys had moved into Wyoming and South Dakota, and nesting
birds and summer broods were reported in about 80 percent of the suitable habitat.
In the fall of 1962, biologists estimated the Pine Ridge population had reached at
least 3,000 birds. In the mid-1960s, the Pine Ridge turkey range apparently reached
its carrying capacity, and the population of Merriam's turkeys in northwestern
Nebraska reached a plateau.
A turkey trapping and transplanting program started in the winter of 1961 began
the colonization of other pine-forested regions of Nebraska, with birds from the
Cottonwood Creek flock serving as parent stock. By 1963, turkeys had been released
in all areas of the state with natural stands of ponderosa pine. Releases along
the Niobrara River succeeded, but those in the Wildcat Hills and Cheyenne escarpments
south of the Pine Ridge were less successful.
Turkeys released along the eastern Niobrara River moved into areas dominated by
hardwoods, and biologists began to consider deciduous habitat for additional
releases. From 1963 to 1970, 19 additional sites were stocked. Increases occurred
in most areas, regardless of the habitat type, and peak numbers were reached within
three breeding seasons.
During that period, Merriam's turkeys along the lower Niobrara River and its feeder
streams apparently crossed with game-farm stock, resulting in a comparatively
successful establishment of hybrid birds. Previous stocking programs using birds
reared on game farms had failed, but the hybrid birds were successful in the hardwood
forest and cropland habitat of the lower Niobrara River and its drainages.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hybrid birds from the eastern Niobrara region
were released at scattered sites from Boyd County in northeastern Nebraska to
Richardson County in the southeast, along the central Platte and Loup River
drainages and at several sites along the Elkhorn River.
Nebraska's wild turkey range now includes most major river drainages and the
Pine Ridge. Highest population densities occur in the Pine Ridge and the
Niobrara River valley and in parts of the Republican River drainage. Turkeys
also have adapted to many small, isolated woodlands, shelterbelts and thinly
wooded stream courses.
Nebraska ranks about 48th in the nation in woodland acreage, but about 19th
in the harvest of wild turkeys. Since the first wild turkey season in 1962,
about 286,000 permit holders have taken more than 124,000 birds. The 1995
statewide harvest for the spring and fall shotgun and archery seasons was
about 8,000 birds.
The future of Nebraska's wild turkeys appears stable, even worthy of
cautious optimism. Habitat destruction and changing land-use patterns in
prime turkey habitat could have significant effects, but the remarkable
bird's ability to adapt and thrive should help the wild turkey meet the
challenges of a new century.