On a map, Holmes County looks like a turkey hunter’s paradise. This rural county in Northwest Florida has fewer than 20,000 human inhabitants. It’s split down the middle by the wild Choctawhatchee River, and criss-crossed with innumerable spring-fed creeks. Amid pine forests, cypress swamps, sandhills and farms are thousands of acres of public and private hunting lands. The largest city—if you can call it that—is tiny Bonifay, home to the “Biggest All Night Gospel Sing in the World,” held each year in July.
Some would say Holmes County is more Alabama than Florida, which to a hunter would seem a good thing.
Until recently, there was one thing missing from this picture: The wild turkey, Meleagis gallopavo, the very emblem of wildlife conservation in North America.
Thanks to management efforts dating back to the 1950s, two subspecies of wild turkey, the eastern and Osceola, have thrived in Florida since the 1970s. The only major exceptions have been Florida’s urban areas, which was expected, and that little county tucked away on the Florida-Alabama border, which was not.
It was at a meeting of the old Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC) in November of 1997 that Florida game managers became aware of the Holmes County situation.
At the time, I was serving as a commissioner. Our formal agenda for the meeting indicated there would be a delegation of citizens from Holmes County, who wanted to address the disappearance of turkey from their county, and to request assistance from the GFC.
During this period I was also the Florida State Chapter President for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). The alleged absence of wild turkey in one of Florida’s counties aroused my attention.
The other GFC commissioners, as well as the wildlife management staff, were of the same impression: that the entire state had healthy populations of wild turkey. In fact, turkeys were being hunted during both the fall and spring seasons in all 67 of Florida’s counties. The news from Holmes County was a shock.
Roy Harris, a long-time property owner in Holmes County, passionately presented the evidence—or lack thereof. Knowledgeable residents had made no sightings of wild turkeys or sign for the past several years. It was their contention that the birds had vanished from this part of the state.
Commissioners agreed to take up the case.
Larry Perrin, the GFC biologist in charge of wild turkey research, was directed to begin an investigation. The results were to be formally presented to the commission in March of 1998.
Through affiliation with the Turkey Federation, I’d had many occasions to observe the results of Perrin’s labors over the years. He was thorough and committed, conducting many programs relating to research and the enhancement of Florida’s wild turkey population and habitat. With his experience and track record, commissioners had no doubt he would turn over every stone before he came to a conclusion.
We also knew that veteran wildlife officer Larry Morris had been patrolling Holmes County for years. Familiar with the local habitat and turkey population figures, Morris would be a valued asset in conducting the investigation. With these two experienced men working together, the final report would be factual.
Over the years, wild turkeys have been restocked by the GFC in Florida’s unpopulated areas, starting with an aggressive program soon after World War II came to a close.
This, incidentally, was around the same time that the GFC (now Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC) was formally established.
It was also a dark time for wild turkey populations. Most of the native birds in the continental United States had been wiped out by commercial hunters. Across the country, fewer than 30,000 birds were thought to remain by the time of the Great Depression, according to the NWTF. Florida was one of the rare exceptions. A few rough swamps within the state provided suitable habitat where some sizable flocks managed to thrive. Amidst isolated areas of impenetrable wilderness, Florida turkeys found protection from the year-round illegal hunting. These birds were identified as a unique subspecies; today they carry the name of the heroic and never-defeated Seminole War Chief Osceola, who also made good use of the swamps.
Over the years, these small, secluded flocks provided hundreds of mature gobblers and hens that were trapped and transported not only throughout Florida, but also to many other states with brood stocks of wild turkey. This helped to reestablish flocks of wild turkey to much of the nation.
Interestingly, on many occasions back in those days, the GFC would swap a wild turkey for two or an even greater number of whitetail deer. At that time, the Florida deer population was way down and needed a lot of help.
Much of Florida’s early wild turkey research was carried out under the direction of GFC wildlife biologist Dr. Lovett Williams. Williams and his assistants developed ground-breaking methods for safely trapping and relocating wild turkeys, often at great distances. Though hardy in the wild, turkeys are among the most delicate game species to trap and relocate.
Many important turkey research programs were initiated by Florida’s GFC wildlife biologists, and much of the early data regarding the complex life cycle of the wild turkey was researched here in Florida. Volumes of scientific data were collected over the years and the fruit of this research is still being referenced by game managers.
Florida is blessed with
two distinct subspecies of wild turkey. The Osceola ( M. gallopavo osceola) is thought to live south of a line traversing the state from St. Augustine west to the mouth of the Suwannee River. Wild turkey residing in the state north and west of this imaginary line are considered to be of the eastern subspecies ( M. gallopavo silvestris).
As mentioned, when Florida was being restocked with wild turkeys, game managers tapped brood stock from Central and South Florida. As a result, descendant birds ranging from one end of the state to the other probably have at least a trace of Osceola blood. This is one of the reasons why it can be hard to differentiate between the two subspecies in Florida. Moreover, it could be viably argued that Osceola traits are present in states that received Osceola wild turkeys for restocking purposes back in the 1960s, those genes having passed down through the generations, regardless of which subspecies now presides in a particular region.
Larry Perrin’s formal report to the GFC, in the spring of 1998, confirmed the claims of Holmes County residents: There was no evidence of wild turkeys in this otherwise suitable county. At the time he did not have the answers as to why there were no birds, but he felt an explanation would come with time and more research.
Perrin recommended that all hunting of wild turkey in Holmes County be ceased immediately. He further recommended a restocking program, along with research into the survival and reproductive success of relocated birds.
The commission unanimously concurred and as of that day closed the taking of wild turkey in Holmes County for a period of at least five years. They also instructed the executive director to expedite restocking and research, and to contact the NWTF for financial assistance and voluntary manpower.
Perrin got the project off the ground quickly, hiring James Martin as assistant, a highly respected resident of Holmes County.
At the same time, Roy Harris got together with a group and formed a new Holmes County NWTF chapter. Their goal was to raise funds for the project, and help educate citizens about turkey restoration.
Twenty-nine bait station sites were established and maintained for the initial survey. These sites were on both private and public lands in all sectors of the county, and were selected because all of them had a historical presence of wild turkey. The sites had the right kind of native habitat conducive to sustain wild turkey. It was at eight of the very best sites that Larry decided to release the first birds.
The next obstacle was finding property owners, relatively close to Holmes County, who had large flocks of wild turkey and were willing to share a few.
Through the assistance of Tallahassee NWTF members, some landowners came forward and gladly donated birds for the project. Eglin Air Force Base was also willing to donate wild turkey from the resident flock.
The next step was to trap and move mature birds to the release sites.
It had been many years since wild turkeys had been trapped in Florida, so Perrin’s team had to locate the special cannon nets, and check them to be sure they could still do the job without injuring birds.
Again, members of the Tallahassee NWTF chapter helped out with the time-consuming trapping and relocation. A total of 88 wild turkeys were safely trapped and released in the 1998-99 phase of the program and an additional 33 more released in the 1999-2000 final phase.
Birds to be released were marked with highly visible tags, and several were fitted with radio-tracking devices funded by NWTF.
The riskiest part of the operation was transporting the birds. Wild turkeys are very excitable, and workers had to take special precautions to calm them down. They did this by quickly getting the birds into specially designed transport boxes developed by the NWTF. These boxes are big enough to keep a bird comfortable for several hours and at the same time not so big that a bird might injure itself trying to escape.
Turkeys were rushed to the chosen sites and released into the wilds of Holmes County with as little delay as possible. It was a day of jubilation; everyone watched the birds leave their boxes and fly to the surrounding woods.
The work had only just begun. The turkeys would have to be closely monitored for the next five years. Larry Perrin and James Martin needed precise records of survival and reproductive success.
Today, that work has been completed, thanks largely to the tireless help of local citizens. As of 2006, wild turkeys in Holmes County are doing very well. Some of the tagged birds have traveled as far as 10 miles from their original release site.
With a successful restocking program, there will be a short three-day hunting season during spring of 2006. Frankly, it was no easy task convincing Holmes County residents to agree on having this season. Some of them have become very protective of their turkeys.
Wildlife officer Larry Morris has spent hundreds of hours patrolling for turkey poachers and has made several major arrests. The Holmes County judge, with his tough sentencing of these violators, has sent a strong message to would-be turkey poachers.
The Holmes County turkey restoration is a classic example of how a well-needed conservation project can be carried out. All it took was the cooperation of the GFC (now FWC), concerned citizens and NWTF volunteers and financial assistance. Working closely, this was an effective triad.
However, there is still a mystery lingering up near the state line, in the woods and wetlands north of Interst
ate 10. Even with all the tireless research Larry carried out, an explanation as to why the wild turkey disappeared in the first place was never found.
Perrin said that, “Perhaps no one single factor was the culprit but it could have been several detrimental problems that all came together at the same time and brought on the catastrophic results.”
It could have been predators, over-hunting, inclement weather, severe loss of critical habitat, disease, parasites and as Larry indicates, other factors yet to be discovered.
While not any one of these individual problems could have wiped out the population, a combination occurring at just the right—or wrong—time might well have been the cause.
What we do know is that it is no mystery as to how the wild turkey made its comeback in Holmes County.
The solution to that mystery is one we all should be proud of.