THE CONVERSATION COULD NOT have been more cloak and dagger if it were on the pages of a Hollywood script.
We were in the basement of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the SHOT Show where small companies show their new products.
I noticed some brochures about wild turkey management on this particular gentleman’s table and as soon as he noticed the Texas Fish & Game logo on my shirt, he took a look around and said something that quite frankly shocked me.
“You know there are Gould’s turkeys out in extreme West Texas,” he said.
“Gould’s?” I asked.
“Yes sir, I saw them on a hunt last year. We were literally standing yards away from Mexico, but there were Gould’s out pretty close to El Paso,” he said.
When pressed for more info he had little to say other than he was as blown away by the sighting as anyone. He had been traveling from a lodge in Texas to hunt Gould’s in Mexico.
The Gould’s turkey is hunted in Mexico and is known to have isolated pockets in New Mexico and Arizona, but this was the first I heard of Gould’s in Texas.
If anyone has information, photos or videos of these majestic birds that are part of the Royal Slam of turkeys (Eastern, Osceola or Florida, Rio Grande and Merriam’s, along with Gould’s) please send to [email protected].
I have investigated some studies done in New Mexico and there is a pocket of Gould’s fairly close to Texas, but so far, we have no conclusive proof. Although this Mexican bird’s status is controversial, very few Texas hunters know that there is also a population of Merriam’s turkey in the state.
According to “Texas Turkey Talk,” a treatise on native birds compiled by Ralph Suarez, the Merriam’s turkey, is the least common subspecies of turkey in Texas and is located in a few isolated mountainous areas of West Texas.
“The historic range of the Merriam’s turkey occurs throughout the western coniferous forest mountain regions of the United States including the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Populations exist in the Guadalupe and possibly Franklin Mountains of Texas.”
“The Merriam’s habitat predominately consists of ponderosa pine, but Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, piñon pine, and assorted junipers and oaks may also be found throughout their current range in Texas. Merriam’s inhabit arid, mountainous territory with an average rainfall between 15 and 23 inches, steep terrain, temperature range between 35 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and at elevations ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 feet. At present, viable populations of Merriam’s inhabit the Davis Mountains and Guadalupe Mountains in Texas.”
The Rio Grande turkey is the most abundant species in Texas with estimates showing around 500,000 birds. However, even they face challenges.
Take, for example, a study conducted in Rio Grande turkey country, the Edwards Plateau. There, researchers used chicken eggs to simulate turkey nestings and found that hogs destroyed 28 percent of them.
On the other hand, some researchers, including V.G. Henry debate the hog’s effectiveness at nest predation. They argue that hogs are “haphazard nest predators” and are “not additive to nest predation, but only replaced that which would have occurred by other predators either driven off or preyed upon by feral hogs, especially snakes.”
Research conducted on other ground-nesting animals, including reptiles may shed some light on the potential for hogs to harm turkey nests. In Georgia, for example, 80 percent of sea turtle nests were lost on Ossabow Island from hog predation.
“There is no doubt that feral hogs have a negative impact on their environment,” said Rick Taylor, a retired feral hog specialist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD). “Research certainly suggests that they can and do destroy the nests of turkeys and other ground-nesting birds.”
According to TPWD, the earliest stocking attempts utilized pen-reared turkeys and later the Rio Grande subspecies trapped in the western half of Texas. Both methods failed to create a sustainable turkey population in east Texas.
“Beginning in the late 1970s, TPWD began releasing wild trapped Eastern turkeys from neighboring states. By 2003, more than 7,000 Eastern turkeys had been stocked into east Texas, utilizing a block stocking approach.
“This method called for stockings of 15 to 20 birds per site with 5 to 10 sites scattered across a particular county. While this method was successful in several areas of the state, most of the stocked birds disappeared without creating a sustainable population.”
Intensive efforts saw turkey hunting opened throughout most of the region. However, recent years have seen many counties lose turkey hunting because of declining numbers.
At the same time, feral hog populations have skyrocketed. Is there a connection?
Speaking of eastern turkeys, TPWD is not giving up on them and neither is the National Wild Turkey Federation. In 2015, the Gus Engeling WMA was the initial site of what TPWD described as a “Super Stocking” plan for turkeys.
This plan calls for stockings of 80 turkeys on each site (three in total)—three hens for each gobbler—about 240 birds in total. “It’s the same old story,” said Jason Hardin TPWD Upland Bird Program Leader.
“The birds were essentially wiped out by subsistence and market hunting along with extensive habitat loss in the later parts of the 19th Century,Hardin said, but with the help of the NWTF, we have been able to bring the birds back all across the country.”
The NWTF’s Texas State Chapter is playing a significant role in footing the bill for transferring the birds. Help with the gas bills and plane tickets have been a real boost, Hardin said.
“We couldn’t do what we do without NWTF volunteers and employees. This is all part of NWTF’s new ‘Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt Initiative.’ Hopefully, one of these days we’ll have enough birds so we will not need to rely on other states for our Eastern wild turkey restoration efforts.”
There is a lot more to turkeys in Texas than meets the eye. They are fascinating birds, worthy game animals and the subject of intensive conservation efforts.
—story by CHESTER MOORE