Take a drive along a backroad.
Hike in the woods, or walk through a field.
Chances are good you’ll see a wild turkey, but that’s only a recent development.
It’s not been too long ago that they were nearly all gone from West Virginia.
Less than a century ago, they were all but exterminated.
A perfect storm thinned the flocks, including destruction of natural habitat.
Unregulated hunting was a primary factor, and helped drive down numbers.
It became clear something had to be done.
Some of the earliest corrective attempts were mostly trial and error.
Raising turkeys in a kind of “game farm” setting didn’t work.
Captive breeding wasn’t the answer.
They died upon being released into their natural environment.
But state wildlife professionals didn’t give up.
Especially wildlife biologist Wayne Bailey, who is credited with the idea of trapping wild turkeys to be transplanted into other areas.
Turns out his relocation plan for moving native flocks around the state worked.
Coopers Rock State Forest and Bluestone Wildlife Management Area were two of the earliest release sites.
It wasn’t a quick solution, but it did work.
This trap-and-release program began in 1950 and wrapped up in 1989.
Now the vanishing turkey problem has been turned around.
Every one of the state’s 55 counties now boasts a healthy turkey population.
Officials consider it one of the greatest wildlife success stories in the state’s history, said wild game bird biologist Mike Peters for the state Division of Natural Resources.
“The scenario that West Virginia faced when it lost almost all of its turkeys was also happening in most of the eastern part of the country.
There was massive timbering and that really cut down the woodland habitat. Combined with the unregulated hunting just about all of the population was wiped out.”
“And in most West Virginia counties there were no turkeys at all by the early 1900s,” he said.
In 1920 wildlife biologists estimated only about 1,000 turkeys remained in the state.
Other game species were similarly impacted, including the white-tail deer.
Efforts to grow populations have succeeded, and deer are now taken for granted.
State residents can now enjoy seeing turkeys again.
Hunters also take advantage of the annual spring and fall gobbler seasons.
“We base our state population on our spring gobbler season, and so our turkey population last year before that season’s harvest was about 115,000 birds.
It’s not exact. But it’s a good estimate, and definitely shows how far we’ve come since those earlier days.”