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Omaha Magazine

The Phoenix-Like Resurrection of Turkeys in Nebraska

Feb 14, 2019 08:44AM ● By Jared Kennedy

If you’ve ever gone turkey hunting in Nebraska, or seen one out and about, you should know that every turkey you have encountered in Nebraska is a miracle. The state’s tumultuous history of wild turkeys encompasses massive population declines, failed repopulation efforts, and what retired game warden Dick Turpin calls a “Cinderella Story” reintroduction that led to Nebraska nearly topping the list of best places to hunt turkey in America.

Turkey hunting in Nebraska was nonexistent from about 1915 to 1961. Around the end of that time period, Turpin says Nebraska Game & Parks made a trade with the state of Wyoming to introduce wild turkeys back into Nebraska. Prairie chickens for turkeys, that was the deal, and the turkey population in Nebraska has—shall we say—soared with the eagles ever since.

The decline of the turkey population in Nebraska is thought to be caused by over-harvesting by pioneers moving into and passing through the state. Food could be scarce for these settlers, and turkeys offered plenty for the table. The Nebraska Game & Parks Department reports that wild turkeys in Nebraska were all but wiped out by 1915.

“In ’58, we turned turkeys loose up in the Pine Ridge area. By 1961 or 1962, we had a season up there already because the turkeys did so well,” Turpin says. “These were the Merriam turkeys…the Merriam breed are really sought after and they are considered the Cadillac of turkeys.”

Turpin says Nebraska Game & Parks recognized the success of the turkey population and could see it was onto something. With the Pine Ridge flocks breeding turkeys so well, the biology department of Game & Parks decided to scout other locations to which they could move turkeys so the population could continue to grow. Halsey National Forest was chosen as the second location, but according to Turpin the turkey population was growing beyond having just two areas of containment.

“We started trapping and transplanting them around the state because we were getting complaints from farmers saying they were getting turkeys in their feed bunks when they were trying to feed their steers and stuff,” Turpin says.

Angry farmers aside, people were clamoring to get these turkeys in their locale; so much so that they were willing to take their local turkey population into their own hands.

“Game & Parks was slow getting birds released in the Niobrara area, so a group of outdoorsmen and land owners bought a bunch of Eastern turkeys [a different breed] and turned them loose themselves up in the Niobrara River country,” Turpin says. “Well, then we had a problem because our biologists didn’t want to introduce the Merriams there when the Eastern turkeys were there.”

The people in the Niobrara River area continued to press Nebraska Game & Parks to bring Merriam turkeys—the department finally relented and combined Eastern and Merriam turkey populations in that area.

Rio Grande Turkey release in snow-covered field in south-central Nebraska in the 1960s.

“It was probably, this is no kidding, the best thing to ever happen to the state of Nebraska as far as wild turkeys are concerned,” Turpin says. “The Merriams and the Eastern birds began crossing, and all the sudden we had a hybrid population that just went wild; I mean there was a turkey under every leaf.”

According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, four Nebraska counties make the list of top-20 counties for turkey hunting in the United States. Dawes, Sheridan, Holt, and Sioux counties place 7th, 16th, 17th, and 20th, respectively, for counties with the most turkeys. The turkey federation also corroborates Turpin’s point that the Eastern/Merriam hybrid makes up most of the wild turkey population in Nebraska.

The Nebraska Game & Parks website reports that the Nebraska hybrid bird can weigh more than 25 pounds, which is at least six pounds heavier than either the Eastern or Merriam varieties. Turpin says the hybrid bird has another big advantage over the other breeds in the state: they’re willing to mobilize.

“The Rio Grande turkeys didn’t travel at all, and the Merriams didn’t go far either,” Turpin says. “But the hybrids, you turn them loose and the next morning they will be 20 miles south. They will seek out the best habitat they can for what they need.”

Turkeys in Nebraska went from a large native population journaled by Lewis and Clark, to over-harvesting that drove the bird to the brink of extinction in Nebraska. Now the Cornhusker State is one of the most populous turkey states in the U.S. The existence of turkeys here has been a fickle thing, but Turpin says if hunters continue to purchase tags, and thus put money into conservation, this Cinderella tale doesn’t have to see midnight—it would be a shame to fowl up such a good thing.

Turpin retired from Nebraska Game & Parks as Chief of Law Enforcement in 1999 after serving as a conservation officer and the administrator of the Hunter Education Program. He served 40 years for the state agency, and he continues to be active in local and national organizations dedicated to hunting and conservation. He is a public speaker, hunting instructor, and creator of Dick Turpin Turkey Calls (handcrafted box turkey calls that Turpin creates himself).

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This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Dick Turpin at his cabin.

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