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Turkey Talk: How Utah Saved Its Wild Bird Population

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Wild turkeys are plentiful now, but that wasn't the case for early Mormon pioneers around the turn of the century. Near-extinction came about because the game bird was hunted and eaten as a major food source for migrating Americans and European settlers.

Jason Robinson, a game coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says they have no evidence from journals or relics that point to turkey flocks roaming anywhere in Utah when settlers arrived in the mid-1800s.

However, there is strong indication that their absence was temporary, and that indigenous people relied on them. 

“They were basically here when the Native Americans were here in Utah,” he says. “There were some turkey bones that have been found in sites.”

But their population waned in the late 1800s around the United States, likely due ot over-hunting and loss of habitat.  Turkey numbers hit an all-time low in the 1930s, prompting concerns that they would become extinct. 

Conservation groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation and state wildlife agencies spearheaded research to determine where they could be transplanted and released successfully – slowly resuscitating their population.

Robinson says Utah’s own conservation efforts began in earnest in the 1920s and lasted through the early 1980s. Over the last 30 years, he says, state officials have been heavily involved in managing the game bird, resulting in a healthy, thriving population of wild turkeys.

Although hunting is now strictly regulated, conservation efforts came with some false starts.

“We tried to introduce eastern subspecies of turkeys here in Utah.  And they just weren’t adapted for the dry sagebrush and forested habitats we have here in Utah,” says Roberts. “So as we learned more about the birds we figured out the right subspecies that would do well here.”

An ideal habitat 

It’s estimated some 25,000 turkeys flourish in Utah thanks to its ideal terrain.  Turkeys like to roost in large, mature trees such as cottonwood and need a water source like mountain streams or ponds. And, Robinson says, a good food source is crucial. 

“One of the primary foods for them are acorns from Gambel’s oak," he says. "They also like pine nuts from different pine trees we have here. They also eat grubs and that kind of thing so they like a mixture from forested habitat.”

There is just one species of turkey — the wild turkey — found in the U.S.

Two subspecies live in Utah, Merriam and Rio Grande, different from the main species in coloring and feather pattern. The game bird that struts in the Rocky Mountain region is distinct, with white-tipped rump and tail feathers that are lighter than the chestnut and rust colors found on turkeys elsewhere.

Now is a good time to see flocks. Robinson recommends open fields and stream sides, and, as snow piles up in the mountains, lower-elevation, south-facing slopes and canyon bottoms.

Robinson touts the success of the wildlife conservation program.

“Through concerted efforts … we were able to bring the species from the brink of extinction back to being a plentiful species that’s pretty common now, he says. 

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