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Wild Turkeys in New Hampshire | Return of the Native

Wild Turkeys in New Hampshire | Return of the Native
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By the late 1960s, there hadn’t been a wild turkey in New Hampshire for more than a century. A wildlife biologist named Ted Walski set out to change things.

In the mid-1960s, the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department published a chart for hunters summing up conditions for various game species. The ratings ranged from “Excellent” (snowshoe hare in the north) to “Fair” (pheasant) to “Extinct” (passenger pigeon). Next to “Turkey” appeared a single word: “None.” As in other states across the Northeast, the North American wild turkey—a native species that had once numbered in the millions—had been absent from the New Hampshire landscape for more than a century. After decades of forest clearing and unregulated hunting, the last turkey sighting in the state was in the town of Weare, in 1854.

The landscape at the time of the report, though, was changing. Biologists had recently begun trapping wild birds and relocating them to a handful of former territories along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, and were seeing success. In 1969, New Hampshire took a shot. It swapped 31 fishers for a flock of turkeys from West Virginia and re­located them to Pawtuckaway State Park in the southeastern part of the state. But the transplanted birds suffered high predation and back-to-back extreme winters—winters that also knocked the whitetail-deer population to an all-time low—and the flock disappeared.

In January 1975, a young Fish & Game biologist named Ted Walski tried again, this time with funding from the federal Wildlife Restoration Program. Suspecting that the West Virginia strain of turkeys lacked the hardiness to survive New Hampshire’s climate, Walski looked to the Alle­gheny Mountains of western New York, the last holdout of native wild turkeys in the Northeast.

Worried that Pawtuckaway’s mostly wooded habitat had contributed to the earlier failure, Walski picked the Connecticut River Valley town of Walpole for his original release site. The town had plenty of mixed forestland and reliable food sources beyond the turkeys’ preferred diet of seeds and nuts, including concentrations of crabapple trees, rose hips, and sharp-thorned barberry bushes. And, crucially, the town counted 13 active dairy farms. The corn kernels left behind on the farms’ manure-covered fields, Walski thought, would provide an important crop that could help the flocks get through a hard winter, when their primary food supplies would be buried under snow. With a colleague from Fish & Game, he released 25 Alle­gheny Mountains turkeys near Blake’s Farm, at the Sawyer Farm, and at the Graves family farm in Walpole—and began monitoring them.

At New Hampshire’s latitude, mature female turkeys will lay a clutch of a dozen eggs in late April or May. In a typical year, six or seven chicks will survive from those dozen. As the Walpole flocks grew, Walski returned again and again to capture birds and move them to farms in 15 other areas of the state. Those were the days before Fish & Game had set up regional offices, and Walski spent more than one night sleeping in barns, to be up with the turkeys come daylight.

He learned everything he could about Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, the largest and most abundant of the five subspecies of North American wild turkey. On a frigid April Fool’s Day in 1978, Walski sat shivering in a blind near Aldrich Brook on the Walpole/Westmoreland line, waiting for a flock of turkeys to come into range of a new contraption: a 40-by-40-foot net made of two-inch nylon mesh, rolled up and camouflaged by leaves and hay, ready to launch with three rockets. The turkeys came onto the bait, and Walski deton­ated the launcher.

“There was this big explosion, and the damned net traveled only two or three feet,” he recalled, years later. “The drag weights had frozen to the ground!” After that, he learned to put plastic sheeting beneath the weights on frigid days, and got pretty good at firing the “rocket net” over an unsuspecting group of birds a hundred feet distant.

He continued trapping and moving turkeys, and the flocks continued to multiply. By the spring of 1980, the population in the Connecticut River Valley had grown into the high hundreds, and Walski could justify a short, lottery-only hunting season to help manage the growth. He went on the road and spoke at libraries, at Rotary breakfasts, at Lions Club meetings—wherever there were people who could be educated. Some 700 permits were issued that inaugural season, and hunters took 31 male “toms.”

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