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Turkey Season Opens, Thanks to Turkey Restoration Project

Today is the first day of a quintessential Granite State tradition: turkey hunting season.

Every year around 20,000 New Englanders sign up to hunt turkeys in New Hampshire, which is a surprising fact when you consider that for much of the last 100 years there were no turkeys in New Hampshire.

Of course not everyone is a big fan of hunting. The trophy photos, the taxidermy… for some it’s all a bit too much.

But the truth is if it weren’t for hunters, wildlife lovers might not have as much wildlife to love.

According to Glenn Normandeau, the executive director of Fish and Game,  "There is a direct link between conservation and hunting and fishing licenses."

His department regulates and promotes hunting in New Hampshire, and manages projects that restore habitats for threatened species.

When it comes to efforts like that "probably the poster child are turkeys," says Normandeau, "As everyone is pretty well aware of in New Hampshire, we have an abundance of turkeys."

But that wasn’t always the case.

Re-Writing the Book on Turkeys

If it weren't for Biologist Ted Walski -- the god-father of Turkey restoration in New Hampshire -- there might not be any turkey in the Granite State.

"We pretty much got to re-write the book on wild turkeys in New England," says Walski, "because the last one in New Hampshire was reported in the Town of Weare in 1854."

Walski says in the 1800s subsistence farmers cleared most of the state’s forested turkey habitat and hunting was totally uncontrolled. It was a one-two punch for the birds. 

But by 1976, the year Walski reintroduced 26 wild turkeys, brought from upstate New York, the forests were back. As the birds multiplied he took a few here and there and transplanted them to other spots around the state.

And that was about all it took.

Now Fish and Game estimates there are almost 40,000 turkeys in New Hampshire. And Walski says they are living much farther North than they did back before the Civil War. Walski thinks the reason for that sits right out side our windows.

"A factor I hadn’t counted on was the bird-feeders. When I was younger very few people had bird-feeders." Walski muses, "Now people are living on every back-road in every northern town, almost everybody has bird feeders. Turkeys when the snow gets deep they don’t stay out in the deep woods and starve."

Some Hunters are Conservationists, Too

Fish and Game helped the birds out by reaching out to land-owners and suggesting they plant species that keep turkeys alive in the winter: bittersweet, autumn olive, and crab apples. (Please note that non-native bittersweet and autumn olive are invasive plant species, and are no longer legal in NH. For Alternatives to these plants, check out the UNH Cooperative Extensions website)

Lou Gagnon is a hunter who has been doing just that.

As he shows me around his property he points out the improvements he has made to make the area more appealing to wildlife.

"I’ve got all that mowed and I seeded all that with clover and I’ve got crab-apple trees," Gagnon says scarcely able to conceal his excitement as he talks about the birds, "Turkeys will eat clover and some fruits that are produced, but the important thing for the field is bringing up the polts -- baby turkeys are called polts -- they need high protein and what they’ll do is the hens will bring these birds into here and they eat insects."

Gagnon's property somewhere in Central New Hampshire. He’d rather not announce where because he doesn’t want to give away a good spot. As he takes me out to his blind, we spot a turkey a about a hundred yards away by a stone wall.

Gagnon works hard to make his sixty acres of fields and forests extra inviting for wild-life. A cynic might argue that Gagnon only wants wildlife around so that he can have good hunting right out the back door, and that’s partially true: Gagnon does have a “man-cave” festooned with stuffed birds, fish and animal skins.

But he does a lot of work on his land for only one turkey a year, and he – like many hunters – practices his own kind of ethic when hunting.

"I don’t find it ethical myself to shoot much beyond 30-35 yards," he explains to me as we tromp through the woods, "because I feel that anything further than that is you’ve got a good chance of wounding the bird and you don’t want to do that. You can buy a turkey in the store for less than ten bucks so what’s the point."

New Hampshire’s 32nd Turkey season got under way today, and Lou Gagnon reports that while he heard turkeys in the woods, he didn’t bag one yet.