February 01, 2023
By Doug Howlett
The words are simple and bold: “dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting heritage.” We could also say they’re timeless, as the words that make up the National Wild Turkey Federation’s mission statement have guided the organization from its earliest days and continue to steer it half a century later as leaders and volunteers look toward a challenging, yet exciting, future. To be sure, it’s a future with a lot of promise.
When the organization was founded in 1973, there were an estimated 1.3 million wild turkeys in North America. Many populations had been extirpated from their traditional forested ranges of the 1800s as a growing nation cut timber for farms and killed the birds for food and market. Today, through coordination with state and federal wildlife agency partners, combined with volunteer and corporate support, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) has helped boost the population to more than 7 million birds roaming our nation’s fields and forests. Huntable populations can be found in all 48 contiguous states of the United States, as well as Hawaii and parts of Canada and Mexico.
At the same time, the NWTF’s commitment to hunters has been unwavering. While there have long been plenty of sporting groups that served hunters in various capacities, at the time of the NWTF’s founding there were no national conservation organizations that so boldly pronounced the objective of supporting the growth of hunters and hunting opportunity like the NWTF, which put it in its mission statement. That was revolutionary for its time. Back then, and even now, some organizations soft-sell their support of hunting to walk the tightrope between sportsman and wildlife watcher, hoping to draw funds from both camps.
The NWTF’s early leadership, made up largely of diehard turkey hunters before there were really a whole lot of turkey hunters anywhere, recognized it was going to be likeminded people—those passionate about hearing a gobble on a spring morning and trying to call a bird in close—who would work the hardest to help grow turkey populations. Indeed, it has been these very hunters who have made up the ranks of the organization’s most ardent supporters throughout its history, fueling the state and local fundraising efforts so critical to a national organization.
The NWTF grew from a mere 1,300 members in 1973 and migrated its headquarters from Fredericksburg, Va., to its present-day location in Edgefield, S.C., courtesy of some coordination by the late, longtime South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who hailed from Edgefield. Along with the success of more game departments bolstering their state’s turkey populations, turkey hunting enjoyed a surge in participation and with it came more interest in supporting the one organization dedicated to the sport. The 1990s saw an upswell of new hunters join the turkey hunting ranks.
As deer and waterfowl hunters went afield and began to see turkeys, a “new” hunting opportunity—especially one that could primarily be enjoyed in the spring when other seasons were closed—was too good to resist. For these hunters eager to learn, the NWTF provided the resources, information and network to fast-track their wild turkey education. With a magazine, Turkey Call, dedicated to the sport, an annual national convention that boasted hundreds of exhibitors selling everything from turkey calls to camouflage and offering seminars on how to hunt the birds, and at the time, the first television program dedicated to showcasing the turkey hunting heritage in Turkey Call TV, NWTF fed the minds of legions of new devotees.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
As interest in turkey hunting and the NWTF exploded, an entire industry sprang up around the sport. Early-day turkey hunters were left to roam the woods sporting brown canvas Duxbak coats and pants, using homemade mouth calls or crudely crafted box or slate calls, and shooting No. 4 buckshot or high-brass No. 6s more suitable for squirrels, rabbits and pheasants (don’t get me wrong, they tagged plenty of turkeys so outfitted). The turkey hunters of the 1990s and 2000s, however, were gifted a world of hunting innovation.
Federal Ammunition, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, Winchester and Remington began to develop specialized loads with premium ballistic performance just for turkey hunting. Today the offerings from these and other ammo makers is mind-boggling. In addition to ammunition, innovation in shotgun design—shorter barrels, pistol-grip stocks, camo finishes, tighter chokes, adjustable sights as well as compatibility with mounted optics—saw a host of turkey-specific scatterguns line the racks of gun shops as every spring approached.
The hunter camouflage revolution led by the then-new brands Trebark, Realtree and Mossy Oak also found a ready audience among the growing numbers of turkey hunters, who saw an advantage to better blending in with their surroundings. And of course, almost anyone with an interest in stretching a latex reed over an aluminum frame or crafting a better friction call was opening shop as a call maker.
It was at this time that companies like Lynch Calls and Perfection Turkey Calls (two of the earliest mass-production call makers) enjoyed an expanding customer base, and brands like Lohman, Primos, Knight & Hale, Hunter Specialties, MAD Calls, Quaker Boy and many others were born and became household names. Many of these companies continue to flourish even as the market has become increasingly crowded by countless custom offerings.
Guns, ammo, camo and calls were just the essentials of the hunt. Decoys, seats, seat cushions, turkey vests, turkey packs, boots, blinds, call carriers, ratchet cutters and a plethora of other products designed to make a turkey hunter’s day afield more successful have come and gone. The truly useful ones still find favor among the camo-clad masses, and new product development hasn’t stopped.
Through it all, the NWTF was often consulted or its name and endorsement sought to help move product. Conversely, these companies quickly became some of the most ardent supporters of the organization, donating product and offering financial support to help fundraising efforts. Many of these efforts continue today.
50 AND FORWARD
It was on a very un-springlike morning that the NWTF’s Pete Muller and I waded across a shallow creek in the dark and started working our way to a powerline where he had heard some birds while scouting the day before. Pete is the communications director for the organization, but he’s built more like a lumberjack and seemed to have the fitness of one. We had walked a steady 300 yards and every step of it had been uphill.
“I thought Ohio was flat,” I gasped between deep breaths of air. “No one told me about this part.”
It was my first time hunting the Buckeye State, and we were in the southeast near Beaver, where Appalachia apparently spills well across the borders. We were hunting with NWTF supporter and call maker Bob Fulcher, who had worked out arrangements for us to stay in the lodging at Whitetails Only Outfitting. It was the perfect base of operations; since the place was “whitetails only,” we had the camp in late April to ourselves. I relished in some of the most turkey-looking country I’ve ever hunted, huge ridges of oak framed by creek bottoms and dotted with grassy pastures for gobblers to strut and bug.
The mid-spring cold spell that hit the area about the same time my rented Hyundai showed up made the turkey hunting tough. Well, not for everyone. JJ Reich, who works for Federal and was touting the company’s 100 years of innovation, was there to let us put some of the ammo maker’s newest turkey loads to work. Instead, he showed us how well they worked as he drew first, and what would be the only, blood of the hunt with a nice gobbler on the first morning.
That said, we had a couple of close calls in our three days hunting, the birds always seeming to spot us first or go silent. Sign was everywhere. We spooked a pair of longbeards from a pasture. We worked a couple of gobblers our direction before confirming they were jakes. The locals we ran into all had stories of turkeys heard from their homes. Some even offered to let us hunt their properties.
But there’s always a silver lining to a slow hunt, and that is often more time to visit with the people sharing camp. For me, a former NWTF employee who served as managing editor and then editor of Turkey Call magazine from 1998 to 2004, and Pete, representing the new guard, it was a chance to share stories. I also learned more about how the organization has changed since I left Edgefield almost 19 years ago.
Although the NWTF has obviously evolved, its core values have remained the same. Consider the bold goals NWTF leadership has set for 2023 to commemorate the historic milestone: achieve 250,000 adult members (membership currently is 185,000-plus); raise half a million dollars for wild turkey research; positively impact 1 million acres of natural lands; dedicate $1 million to education and outreach programs; raise $5 million to modernize IT infrastructure and invest in people; and raise $5 million toward building a $50 million endowment. That’s a lot for a year, but as Muller points out, it’s not all measured in dollars.
The National Turkey Hunting Safety Task Force was first convened in 1991 to complement hunter safety efforts already underway and tailor them to the unique hunting challenges and practices of turkey hunting. The NWTF brought together state agencies, as well as hunter safety leaders from other organizations such as the International Hunters Education Association and the National Rifle Association to share ideas and come up with recommendations. Many of the safety practices established by that task force are still followed today, and without question, the efforts have made turkey hunting safer. The task force has met three times since its initial gathering and will do so again in 2023.
“The task force will be convening again to examine the issues turkey hunters face today as well as the different ways people are turkey hunting,” Muller says. “Practices evolve over time so it’s important to stay up on trends and keep abreast of the latest scientific findings. As long as the NWTF and the industry can look at things from a scientific angle, we can refocus safe practices to meet the needs of today’s hunter and keep them safe without hurting hunter success or turkey populations, either.”
ALWAYS MORE TO DO
As this issue went to press, the NWTF was eagerly putting together the final details of this year’s national convention in Nashville in February. Naturally, it promises to be one of the biggest celebrations in the organization’s history. But one thing that remains true is good work is always rewarded with more work. Turkey conservation is no different. There is always more that needs to be done.
One of the organization’s earliest goals was to work with game agencies to help restore wild turkey populations to all suitable habitat. While it’s clearly debatable whether every square mile of suitable habitat has turkeys, the common perception among many sportsmen seeing huntable populations in 49 states is “mission accomplished.” Now what?
I’ve heard some hunters express that the organization no longer has a mission. But as NWTF Co-CEO Jason Burckhalter notes, nothing could be further from the truth.
“In many areas there are plenty of birds, but in some pockets, there is still a need to understand why birds aren’t doing as well as they should or find out what is hindering better population growth and health,” says Burckhalter. “Turkey populations, like any species, are dynamic and always changing so there’s still plenty of need to fund additional wild turkey research to determine how to improve populations in those areas where they may not be doing as well as others.”
That was a big reason why last summer the NWTF announced it was putting $360,000 in funding toward seven new research projects in six states designed to address the needs of healthier wild turkey populations. Throughout its 50-year history, the NWTF has dedicated more than $8 million to wild turkey research.
Meanwhile, there’s also no shortage of issues facing hunters, that other part of the organization’s mission. In fact, helping hunters led to the creation of the organization’s boldest initiative to date. Faced with maturing or unhealthy forests, shrinking hunter numbers and what some believe to be the top issue facing hunters today, access to hunting land, the NWTF launched the “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.” initiative. The organization announced it in August 2012 with a goal of conserving or enhancing 4 million acres of critical wildlife habitat; recruiting or retaining 1.5 million new or lapsed hunters; and opening access to 500,000 acres for hunting and outdoor recreation.
How’d the NWTF do in meeting its 10-year goal? In expected fashion, the group overshot it. By the end of a decade, the NWTF had: conserved or enhanced 5,216,914 acres of wildlife habitat; recruited or retained 1,534,819 new or lapsed hunters, a number that included Families Afield participation, another NWTF program focused on creating outdoor opportunities for everyone; and opened 700,041 acres of land for hunting and recreational access.
“For any organization dealing with changing populations and evolving landscapes, there’s a danger in saying the work is done,” Burckhalter says. “The work for the wild turkey and supporting our nation’s rich hunting heritage is never done.”
Muller echoes this view.
“This work is definitely never done,” he says. “It’s important to not overlook the hunting component of this argument. People will debate whether hunter numbers are shrinking or not because at the same time hunter numbers seem to be dropping, it’s getting harder for people to find a good place to hunt. That’s a real problem for many hunters or would-be hunters regardless of how many make up part of the total population.
“With ‘Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.’ we opened more than 700,000 acres for outdoor recreation,” he continues. “That has a real impact.”
At the same time, Muller stresses that as a greater percentage of our country’s population does not hunt, it’s important to craft programs that expose these people to hunting in a positive light, so they at least understand the issues and why hunting is important. Without that, the sporting community stands to lose at the ballot box.
With the changing landscape of turkey hunting, and hunting in general, where is the NWTF headed in the next 50 years? Burckhalter is quick to answer.
“The core mission has not changed and will not change. Healthy wild turkey populations and supporting and promoting hunting remains the key part of our mission. We recognize that hunters are the backbone of our organization,” he stresses. “But our messaging has and should expand to highlight some of the additional aspects of conservation that provide benefits for all wildlife and for anyone who cares about clean water, healthier forests and just appreciates a healthier environment. Our work achieves all these benefits, and who can argue with that?”