The story spans more than a century but concluded only a couple of decades ago. In the end, a once vital but decimated species was returned to Fulton County.
For generations the fate of the wild turkey looked grim all across Ohio, until state officials stepped in to reverse the loss. Now a local proliferation continues, protected by strict hunting laws.
“With all of our regulations we certainly err on the side of population of the species,” said Mark Wiley, a wildlife biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. “We see stability in the wild turkey population.”
That wasn’t the case around 1911, during a period when wild turkeys vanished in Ohio amid rampant deforestation for agricultural purposes and arguably unregulated hunting of the birds.
“There was a pretty dramatic landscape change at that time. That’s sort of a low point for forest cover in Ohio,” Wiley said. “We would also suspect there was probably a lot of poaching at that time.”
It wasn’t until the 1950s that a concern to restore wild turkey populations to the state surfaced, but an earnest effort proved disastrous. Captive birds resembling eastern wild turkeys were substituted, but modern biologists suggest that their domesticated behavior in the wild proved to be their downfall.
In 1956, state officials imported just 153 genuine wild turkeys from southern states as far as Florida and Texas to seed Ohio’s forested Vinton County. They were turned loose in that location under the belief the turkeys couldn’t survive outside of dense forest cover.
The birds proved that theory wrong when state officials chanced their later distribution in more agricultural areas around Ohio. From the 1990s through 2008, numbers of the thriving wild turkeys were captured in the initial release area and scattered throughout the state.
“We realized they were a much more adaptable species than we give them credit for,” Wiley said.
Fulton County was one of the last counties to receive them – 21 in 1994 and 22 in 2001. Wiley said the area wasn’t considered ideal for the wild turkeys.
Strict hunting regulations aid their continued expansion. The statewide bag limit for an estimated 65,000 spring turkey hunters annually is two bearded birds each. The timing of the season, which begins on the Monday closest to April 21, is based on the nesting chronology of wild turkeys. Wiley said that allows for a minimal impact on laying hens.
“Turkey hunting is highly-regulated and science-based,” he said. It was opened to the entire state in 2000.
More than 100 birds have been harvested in Fulton County each spring since 2014. This year’s total was 116.
Only about 11,000 Ohio hunters seek wild turkeys in the fall, and are allowed only one each.
Josh Zientek, a state wildlife officer assigned to Fulton County, said the local wild turkey population is thriving. Concentrations can be found in the regions of Swancreek, Dover, and Chesterfield townships and between Archbold and Fayette, along the Tiffin River corridor.
He said their successful transplant to the county surprised him, since the birds prefer large tracts of timber and forested land.
“They’re definitely doing very well in Fulton County,” he said. “If you would have told me 30 years ago there would be turkeys (here) today I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Still, the cool, wet springs experienced locally the last couple of years can affect the turkey’s reproductive process. “Reproduction is very weather-dependent,” Zientek said. “The past season was not stellar by any means.”
Cold, snowy winters, however, are a challenge the turkeys are up to. “They flock up in the winter. They’re able to survive,” Zientek said.
Wiley said the drive to repopulate the state with wild turkeys was probably due to both a desire to reestablish the birds and a specific interest in them as a game species. He said their flourishing numbers in Fulton County are a testament to their hardiness.
“They’re sort of a standout in northwest Ohio,” he said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.