Recently I was asked the question about how Kentucky’s turkey population was doing.  I could not give them a good answer, so I did some research.  I called the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources and talked to Zak Danks, the Turkey Program Coordinator.  He gave me a lot of information, including a report by Art Lander Jr.; so here is the long answer. 

Lander wrote: “An estimated 10 million wild turkeys were present on the North American continent in the early 1800s, but by the 20th century they had all but disappeared from Kentucky.”  He goes on to say that one of the earliest documented stocking in Kentucky was February 1932, when 46 wild turkeys, trapped in the wild, were stocked in four of Kentucky’s 13 big game refuges. 

“In 1938, the Hillman Land and Iron Company property, some 40,000 acres owned since 1840, came under federal management with the creation of Kentucky’s first national wildlife refuge – Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  The refuge would prove to be important to the success of Kentucky’s wild turkey and white-tail deer restoration programs.

In 1946, Kentucky’s only known population of native wild turkeys was on the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge.  Between 1946 and 1965, 395 wild turkeys were live trapped off the Hillman property, and stocked in more than 15 counties in eastern Kentucky.  Those early attempts at restoration were not successful.

By 1954, the statewide wild turkey population was estimated to be around 850 birds.  Hunting opportunities were very limited, but the first spring turkey season in 35 years was held on April 27-29, 1960.  Research conducted at Land Between the Lakes (LBL) in the early 70’s conclude that our only remaining turkeys were poor reproducers, who often failed to re-nest if initial attempt was disturbed.  The population needed an infusion of “new blood” from other wild turkey flocks, so turkeys were obtained from Missouri by TVA for release in LBL.

 Kentucky’s 1972 spring wild turkey season was held in just 18 counties, and shooting hours ended at noon.

Wildlife trades were important component of the wild turkey restoration efforts in the early years. 

In the late 1970’s turkeys were obtained from private hunting clubs in Mississippi, and Arkansas, in exchange for white-tail deer.  These trades lasted from 1978 to 1981 and supplied around 400 birds.  This was considered the beginning of the wild turkey restoration effort.  At that time the statewide flock was estimated to be 2,380.

In 1982 Missouri provided wild turkeys in exchange for river otters, which purchased from a private source in Louisiana.   In 1985, Iowa started providing turkeys in exchange for otters.  These trades provided several thousand birds over the years.

Kentucky started live-trapping turkeys in 1981, through 1997, 6760 birds were released on 430 sites across the state.  In the late 1980’s the wild turkey flock grew rapidly.  Kentucky hunters experienced good hunting in all 120 counties during the 1990’s.  In 2002, the first ever youth-only was held on the weekend prior to the regular season.  Youth under the age of 16 harvested around 1000 birds.

In the spring of 2010 Kentucky’s estimated wild turkey population was 220,000 birds and had an estimated 90,000 hunters.  At the conclusion of 2010 season (May 9th) hunters had achieved two significant goals, first ever harvest of more than 30,000 birds and for two years in a row a record harvest.” 

I remember when the Tele-check system was implemented in 1999; now you can go online and look at the numbers yourself (a great tool).

Like all species of wildlife, there is an eb and flow of the numbers, but I can say that our turkey population is doing well.  Sorry I didn’t give you the short answer, but you got a great history lesson!

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