Restoration Effort Underway for Valley Gobblers

Turkey season opens March 31 and runs thru May 13 in South Texas; the only problem is that there just aren't many gobblers in the state's southernmost county. The sole population of wild turkeys in Cameron County is a small flock near Arroyo City. However, avid turkey hunter Ed Marshall, who is president of the newly formed las huellas chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is working to restore gobblers to the area.

"We started our chapter last year and had the largest banquet in the state and raised $24,000 at our first banquet," Marshall said. "All the money is going toward bringing turkeys down here for our restoration project."

While there are plenty of gobblers strutting in the ranch country of Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr counties it will take several years for wild turkeys to regain a foothold along the lower Rio Grande. "We are going to stock the whole river corridor from Boca Chica all the way to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We have looked at 10 different properties where we want to put these turkeys."

Starting early next year in January and February, the local chapter in cooperation with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department plans to initially capture some 250 wild Rio Grande turkeys for relocation. "We already have the turkeys lined up with the guys that are going to donate them. They will come from around San Angelo and Abilene with others from around Kerrville. They will all be native Rio Grandes."

There are three subspecies of turkeys native to Texas. The Rio Grande turkey is the most numerous and is found throughout South, Central and North Texas. The eastern turkey is limited to a 57 county region in East Texas comprising an area that typically receives bountiful rainfall of 35 to 65 inches annually. The Merriam's inhabit the high arid territory in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains.

All three species are similar in appearance, with the eastern being slightly darker and larger than the Rio Grande. A mature Rio Grande gobbler averages 16-18 pounds while easterns average 19 to 21 pounds. The Merriam's is even larger with some toms weighing more than 26 pounds. Whitish tail tips and a white patch on the rump distinguishes the Merriam's from other Texas turkeys.

Excessive hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped out America's wild turkey population by the early 1900's, but hunting restrictions and aggressive restoration efforts have been successful nation wide, Texas boasts the country's largest turkey population with more than three and a half million birds.

The turkeys slated for the Valley will be released on private properties that have sufficient habitat for them to survive. "Turkeys are among the most successful animals to restore," Marshall said. "They are not like quail, or pheasant or chuckars. The reason is after just eight days a turkey poult can roost. They can't fly up to the top of a tree but they can get up and off the ground and away from predators. If they can make it eight days then they can pretty much make in the wild. The most important thing is for them to have a safe roosting site"

In the ranch country north of Raymondville where turkeys are abundant, many roost in towering oaks. However, on ranches where tall oaks are not available turkeys make do with big mesquites or other large trees.

"You don't have to have a lot of acreage to support turkeys. You have to have acreage where turkeys will have refuge, roosting and water. Habitat near grain fields is perfect. They love grasshoppers and crickets. Anything that crawls on the ground turkeys will eat it."

Marshall is from Missouri and has been working in the Valley for nearly 20 years as a wildlife inspector for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. His optimism about restoring wild turkeys to Cameron County where shrinking native wildlands long ago gave way to agriculture and now development is not unfounded. He has seen turkeys recover dramatically in his homeland.

"Growing up in Missouri in Mississippi County where my dad farms on the Illinois and Missouri side it was just like the Rio Grande Valley. Farming practices had wiped out all the native habitat in the past 100 years. I did not have any turkeys growing up. You had to drive 30 miles to see a turkey. They were all poached out, wiped out and cut off."

Marshall said things began to change in the 1960's when an individual decided to begin restocking. "An old man named McMichael started buying, raising and releasing turkeys back in the 60's when I was a kid. My next door neighbor was the game warden, and he and the old man started releasing 20 here and 20 there. This was back in 67, 68 and on into the early 70's. All of a sudden back in the late 70's and early 80's turkeys started popping up everywhere."

"So I have been around where there were not any turkeys, and I know it can work here. I am going back in two weeks where there weren't any turkeys where I grew up, and now it is a great place to turkey hunt. You can take a ride in the evening and see 50, 60, 100 turkeys out in the cornfields."

While the initial wild turkey restoration effort is set for Cameron County, Marshall and his group is ready to assist other Valley landowners. "We will be happy to work with anyone in Hidalgo, Starr or Willacy if they are interested in bringing in turkeys."

Marshall, who does all his hunting with a bow, is a great example of a sportsman who wants to give something back. "Life is what we leave behind and bringing these turkeys back to the Valley, we are going to have them for us to see, but it is more important for our kids and grandkids.

The local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation will hold its second annual banquet April 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Brownsville at the Wild Horse Saloon. "We are going to have it every year in April because that is when turkey season starts, and if a guy wants to bid on a Y0 wild turkey hunt or a King Ranch turkey hunt they can bid on it and go the next weekend."

In addition to the chance to bid on a variety of hunts, there will be guns, wildlife paintings, various artwork and many hunting related items available. "Plus, Ed Mathers, the best cook around is doing all the barbequing. Everyone is invited, and we still have a few tickets left."

If you would like more information about wild turkey restocking efforts or the upcoming banquet Ed Marshall can be reached at 504-2035.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore