Wild turkeys numbered in the millions nationwide when the first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock and provided a readily available source of food for the table and the market. Like much of our native wildlife, turkey populations were unable to withstand unregulated hunting pressures during European settlement. A combination of year around indiscriminate hunting of all ages and sexes, and clearing of forested habitats to create agricultural lands all led to the extirpation of wild turkey flocks from their historical range north of the Ohio River and from most areas in the South and East. By 1920, approximately 250,000 eastern wild turkeys remained in the United States, occupying just 12% of their former range. Only 8 states still had a turkey hunting season, most in the mountainous terrain of the southeastern United States. Turkeys were virtually extirpated from Iowa by 1900; the last verified sighting was made in Lucas County in 1910.
In the early 20th century, trends which lead to the demise of turkey flocks began to be reversed. Most states formed conservation agencies (counterparts to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources) and gave protection to vanishing wildlife. At the same time, unproductive farmlands were abandoned as industrial jobs in growing cities became more attractive. Purchase of state and national forests, reduction in cattle grazing on public forest lands, and wildlife management were factors which led to the development of new turkey habitats in regions where no turkeys existed to populate them.
Most states began turkey restoration programs in the 1920’s, first using pen-raised turkeys to produce large numbers of young birds which were released in the wild. These efforts were universally unsuccessful because pen-raised birds had lost their wary instincts which allowed truly wild turkeys to survive in their natural environment. In spite of expenditures of millions of dollars over several decades, no free-ranging turkey populations were produced. Pen-raised turkeys also carry domestic poultry diseases which can be transmitted to a variety of wild birds.
With the development of the rocket net trap in the 1950’s, the history of the wild turkey underwent a dramatic reversal. For the first time, large numbers of wild turkeys became available for transplanting to unoccupied habitats and turkey populations began the long road back from near extinction. By the early 1980’s, wild turkey numbers increased to 1.8 million birds in 47 states. Today, there are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys in all the states except Alaska, with over 3 million turkey hunters in the United States.
In Iowa, an aggressive restoration program using wild trapped turkeys from Missouri and Shimek State Forest (Lee County) and Stephens State Forest (Lucas County), resulted in transplanting 3,523 Eastern wild turkeys to 86 different counties at 260 sites between 1965 and 2001. Turkeys from southern Iowa were originally introduced from Missouri in the mid 1960’s. This restoration program was paid for by the Iowa sportsman through revenues from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and an excise tax on the sale of arms and ammunition. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) also aided Iowa in the restoration efforts.
Eastern turkeys adapted so well to habitat conditions in Iowa that by 1980 the DNR decided to start trading turkeys for other extirpated wildlife. From 1980-2001, 7,501 Iowa turkeys have been traded for 356 prairie chickens, 596 ruffed grouse, over 180 river otters, over 80 sharp-tailed grouse, and over 3.2 million dollars to purchase Iowa habitat with 11 states and 1 Canadian province.