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On April 23, 1983, four DNR wildlife specialists, three of whom also happened to be part-time farmers, waited for the early returns to come in: not votes, but reports from the first harvest of wild turkeys in Wisconsin in almost a hundred years. One farmer watching his hillsides in Harmony Township in the heart of Vernon County's Coulee Country was Beuford Baumgartner. He gazed out his kitchen window to the very spot where the state's turkey recovery program had started on a cold January afternoon seven years before.
Baumgartner hoped for success. Since 1887, landowners, gun clubs and the antecedents of the Department of Natural Resources had spent time, energy and money trying to restore turkeys bred from "partly wild" stock. Each of these efforts flapped, then flopped like a big tom that had eaten one acorn too many.
The 1976 experiment was different. This time, real wild turkeys had been trapped one day in Missouri and stocked in Wisconsin the next. At early planning sessions, a university wildlife professor expressed concern that the Missouri turkeys might not make it through a rough Wisconsin winter, but the birds proved to be hardier and more prolific than anyone would have guessed.
Back in 1974 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agreed to trade 135 ruffed grouse from the Coulee Region for 45 wild Missouri turkeys. The gobblers would be stocked in Vernon County's Bad Axe River watershed. With luck, the offspring from these birds would be trapped and transplanted statewide.
Enter Baumgartner's colleague and fellow farmer, Ron Nicklaus. If anyone could talk farmers into letting DNR swap Wisconsin partridge for wild turkeys that hadn't survived in Wisconsin for a hundred years, it was Ron. His credentials as a DNR wildlife manager were top-shelf: a biologist's biologist who also owned and ran a hill farm.
Every bold new wildlife transplant program needs a bit of luck. Nicklaus's luck was a series of mild, open winters and a pair of assistants who could adapt, improvise and scrounge whatever was needed to get the job done. John Nelson and Charles Burke took to the wild turkey program like tom turkeys terrorizing a jake.
Nelson knew turkeys from his role as a farmer, a wildlife specialist and a champion turkey caller. I was the DNR wildlife manager in four western Wisconsin counties where turkeys were first stocked, and I asked him to share some recollections of that time.
"We were conducting gobbling counts to document survival and note movements of birds," Nelson recalled. "As I stood along the roadside in the cool April air, I heard a sound off in the distance that had not been heard for a long, long time. It was the gobble of a wild turkey. That wild rattle of a call echoing down the Bad Axe gave me a chill. Our program was working.
"Over the next 12 years, a good share of my job responsibilities was tied into those birds and we lived and breathed turkeys," he continued. "Even our house/field station became known as 'Gobbler's Nob.' "
Charles Burke, then a regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, came to the turkey program from graduate school. Like me, he had worked with Fran and Fred Hamerstrom, the famous prairie chicken biologists of Plainfield. Burke brought energy and creativity to the turkey project. He even talked my wildlife technician out of his cozy, warm office and into a trapping blind all winter!
When Charles left DNR, I inherited his turkey evangelist's duties: teaching hunter education clinics, and spreading the gospel about turkey hunter safety and the importance of maintaining good landowner relations.
I asked Burke to recall some highlights from those early days of the turkey program.
"Our daily and seasonal tasks ranged from trapping, tagging and transplanting turkeys to scripting a series of hunter safety videos to writing a manual to educate prospective turkey hunters," Burke said. "That manual is still in use."
"We had some funny moments," he remembered. "Once, when we were trapping, our rocket-charged capture nets weren't working. Turkeys are too wary to let us get close enough to throw a net over them. Places where turkeys gather are baited and once the birds are feeding, capture nets fired by small rockets are shot in an arc over their heads to trap the birds as they try to fly away. After some discussion, we decided to modify the rocket loads and set up a test. Come morning, we had the problem solved, except for one rocket that we must have overcharged. It broke free from the net and for all I know, it's still in orbit!
"Another time, we were trapping during an unusually mild, open winter and the birds just wouldn't come in to eat," Burke said. It was dry, acorns were abundant and the pressure was on to catch and transplant birds. I was in the office in the late afternoon when a call came in from our trappers. They had been in a blind since before daylight, about 30 turkeys had come in – but the rocket blast caused a small wildfire. I asked if they had caught the birds. After a long pause the tech said, 'Well, yes, kinda! We had them, but then the grass started burning. Then part of the net caught fire. As the net melted, the turkeys flew off!' I could only imagine the trappers' frustration, seeing five acres of grass burning as a flock of turkeys flew off into the sunset," Burke concluded.
In those early days, almost every hunter and farmer was keen on the turkey program. Sure, we had some crop damage, some hunter crowding, some less-than-acceptable hunter behavior, some wrangling about licenses and stamps and the like. But today the turkey program is still on track, providing quality hunting and watching.
Ron Nicklaus looked back on how management strategies formed as it became clear turkey populations were growing and could sustain a hunt. "We planned well," Nicklaus said. " I remember going to Madison before our first turkey hunting season in 1983 and having a long conversation with then-Wildlife Director John Keener to convince him landowner preference was absolutely essential to a successful hunt. At the end of that meeting, John concurred with my position – and so did the Conservation Congress, when attendees at the spring hearings overwhelmingly approved a turkey hunt."
Ron Nicklaus praised the turkey program for its "bottom-up" organization. "The needs and desires of landowners and sportsmen were sought and considered from the outset, and their opinions shaped our course of action. We built relations with a key group of Vernon County farmers who liked and trusted the 'DNR turkey boys' and became involved in the effort. It was the first wildlife program we developed where we truly recognized how important landowners were to the success of the program, and it was the first program that gave landowners hunting preference. The vision and hard work of those local conservationists made the turkey program happen. Woe unto any poacher who thought about illegally shooting a wild Missouri turkey on a Bad Axe watershed farm!" Ron said.
On a bright October day a few years ago, I drove through Coulee Country to the Baumgartner farm where the first wild Missouri turkeys were stocked so long ago. Beuford passed away in 1999, but the place still looks the same. I walked right to the spot where the first hens and toms thundered out of their shipping boxes into a snow-covered valley. Once again, I silently thanked my colleagues and rural neighbors for bringing a wonderful game bird back to Wisconsin.
Ray Kyro is a former DNR wildlife manager living in Onalaska, Wis.