OKLAHOMA'S GAME BIRD Wild turkeys were once rare in Oklahoma, but are now everywhere
Growing up in Le Flore County in the ‘60s, Jack Waymire never saw a wild turkey until state wildlife officials brought a couple of dozen of the wild birds and released them on his parents' property.
“Nobody I knew of had seen a turkey,” Waymire said.
It was the early days of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's effort to restore wild turkeys to the state. The birds thrived in Oklahoma before statehood, but as more people arrived, more birds vanished. Wild turkeys were almost hunted to extinction.
The situation was so dire, that a decade after statehood a law was passed to protect the wild turkeys. For the next half-century and more, a wild turkey sighting was a rare thing in the state.
That's why when the wild turkeys — which had been trapped in Missouri and Arkansas and transplanted to Oklahoma — were released at Waymire's childhood home, it was a big deal.
“They were actually roosting in our barn for a few weeks,” Waymire said. “We watched them for five years. They reproduced and expanded. In about five years, we were seeing big populations, winter flocks of 300 plus birds. The program worked well.”
State wildlife officials then began netting the wild turkeys on Waymire's land and taking them to other areas of southeast Oklahoma to establish populations.
The Wildlife Department had turkey farms where they raised birds and released them into the wild, but that didn't work. It takes a wild bird to survive in the wild.
Out west, the agency's restoration efforts began with just a small flock of 18 Rio Grande wild turkeys that were trapped and transplanted from the Texas Panhandle.
“By the mid-70s, the whole state had turkeys,” said Waymire, who became a wildlife biologist.
In June, the senior wildlife biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation will retire after 27 years with the agency.
Most of his time has been spent managing the Pushmataha Wildlife Management Area, a popular turkey hunting destination.
Part of Waymire's duties has been to track the turkey harvest across the state. He has been the agency's turkey guru on the Eastern species of wild turkeys, which make their home in eastern Oklahoma.
His early exposure to wild turkey restoration efforts in the state played a role in his career choice.
“I breathed hunting and fishing so I always wanted to do that, but yeah, that had a big part of it, watching the biologists and what they did working with turkey and deer restoration, as well,” he said.
Deer and turkeys are the state's two biggest wildlife restoration success stories. Wild turkeys can now be found in every county in Oklahoma. Populations reached record highs from 2002 to 2004 before the extreme drought took its toll.
The Eastern population was knocked back significantly because of drought and floods over several years. There is now a shortened turkey hunting season in southeast Oklahoma with stricter bag limits as a result.
Turkey season in eight counties of southeast Oklahoma opens April 23 with youth hunting days on April 21 and 22. The hunting season is presently open everywhere else and ends statewide May 6.
The present population of Eastern wild turkeys in Oklahoma is still far better than it was 50 years ago. In 1990, the state Legislature proclaimed the wild turkey as Oklahoma's game bird, quite a comeback for a native species that almost disappeared.
Other states have experienced similar restoration success with the help of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Oklahoma has more than 40 NWTF chapters, and a meeting to establish a new chapter in Oklahoma City is scheduled Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Wildlife Department's education center on Lake Arcadia.
When the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, there were about 1.3 million wild turkeys in North America.
After decades of work, that number hit a historic high of almost 7 million turkeys, but has now declined to about 6 million due to declining habitat, said T.J. Goodpasture, regional director of NWTF in Oklahoma.
"They are just losing their places to live," he said.
Waymire, 66, will no longer have to worry about turkeys and where they live when his career ends in June. But he says he still will.
“I turkey hunt, so I will worry about it,” he said.