Time for Turkeys
By Ford Walpole
Eastern wild turkey gobblers.
Image courtesy of SC DNR
The eastern wild turkey is a popular game species hunted in the South Carolina woods during the spring. Though the wild turkey is a native resident, turkey hunting was not always a viable pastime. Charles Ruth, certified wildlife biologist and big game program coordinator with S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), explains: “In most parts of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, wild turkey populations had declined dramatically by the early 1900s. Habitat loss associated with land-use patterns and overexploitation were the primary causes of the reduction in wild turkey numbers.”
South Carolina’s flora and fauna are intertwined with the creative vision of McClellanville author and artist William P. (Billy) Baldwin III. His father was a wildlife biologist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The elder Baldwin lived for two years on Bulls Island, where he worked with a plethora of species: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, loggerhead turtles, voles, raccoons, ducks, shore birds “and all that was in front of him.”
Baldwin, Jr. trapped turkeys on Bulls Island to be released around the state, which was, Billy says, a “project he claimed he inherited, but “to my knowledge, he was the first to actually do something with turkeys.” In the years after World War II, Baldwin later recognized a kindred spirit in the legendary wildlife biologist Duff Holbrook of the U.S. Forest Service. At Wambaw Plantation, Holbrook fenced in large areas that allowed turkeys to flourish without interference from feral hogs. “Duff always spoke kindly of my father’s work, and he could call in turkeys close enough to grab them with his hand!” Billy marvels.
Early methods of capturing wild turkeys involved trapping, but Holbrook’s cannon nets proved far more effective. Billy tells us, “They caught turkeys inside that little refuge at Wambaw and transferred them all over South Carolina, and even into other states. My father used to say, ‘If you saw a turkey in S.C. after the 1950s, Duff Holbrook put it there!’”
Though turkeys had disappeared from much of the state, they endured in the Francis Marion National Forest because “the area had remained much more unaffected from a habitat standpoint,” DNR’s Charles Ruth says. He goes on to note that during the initial restoration effort of the 1950s, all birds came from the Francis Marion National Forest. During the modern restoration effort from 1975 to 2004, “birds came from numerous sources, including the Francis Marion National Forest. Many of these restocked birds came from the Piedmont turkey populations, which were a direct result of the restocking activity in the 1950s. Through the efforts of this restoration program, wild turkeys are now present in all 46 counties in South Carolina.”
Jestin Clark, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), works in the Francis Marion National Forest. He discusses the federal approach to wildlife management: “We practice what I would call holistic management. As a whole, we manage forest for high-quality ecosystems rather than a specific species. We try to manage timber and burn on an appropriate time frame. Pine forests are fire-adapted; with the absence of fire, you have a significant decrease in the quality of habitat.”
With turkeys in mind, Clark and his USFS team plant crops such as chufa, a favorite of wild turkeys. Unfortunately, this turkey delicacy is likewise a favorite of feral hogs, so they work in areas of the forest free of “a high pig density.” The USFS collaborates with DNR on farming “wildlife openings of approximately one half of an acre in size. We like to plant a direct food source with seeds,” Clark continues. “Any time you create openings in the forest with sunlight, you tend to get more bugs,” an additional food source for wild turkeys.
Jestin Clark, who also hunts turkeys in the national forest, is especially proud of the recently established Tibwin Youth Hunt, a cooperative endeavor among the USFS, DNR and the Lowcountry Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). “This event helps with education and outreach. It introduces people to the forest; it is amazing just how many folks are unaware they have this resource at their back door. Between the Francis Marion National Forest and the National Wildlife Refuge and DNR properties, you have hundreds of thousands of acres of public land within a 30-minute drive of Charleston.”
Successful Tibwin Youth Day Hunt in the Francis Marion National Forest.
Image courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Not only do USFS and DNR partner to plant wildlife food plots and organize youth and draw hunts, the overall management of the Francis Marion National Forest reflects a collaborative effort. Will Carlisle, a wildlife biologist with DNR, works with Charleston and Berkeley Counties. He explains that “the vast majority of the Francis Marion is enrolled in the SCDNR Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Program; the forest is divided into five WMAs: Santee, Hellhole, Wambaw, Northampton and Waterhorn.”
Carlisle discusses recent changes to turkey hunting regulations. “Turkey tags were reduced from five to three a few years ago, and a small turkey tag fee was created to fund the cost of monitoring, research, management and enforcement efforts. Most hunters seem to support these changes, as they realize that the future of turkey conservation relies heavily on their financial support and willingness to make adjustments with the regulations from time to time as we learn more from research. New this year is the requirement to check in harvested turkeys via the online SC Game Check system or calling 833-4SC-GAME.”
Hunting the wild turkey ignites an unrivaled passion among sportsmen. Carlisle reflects on the source of such enthusiasm: “More so than some outdoor pursuits, turkey hunting is active, as hunters often move across the landscape, calling and listening as they try to get close to a bird. Hearing the gobbler as he gets closer creates a suspense that turkey hunters become addicted to.”
Turkey numbers are down from a decades-long peak that began in the mid-1990s, but according to wildlife biologists, the current turkey population of the Francis Marion National Forest appears to be stable. Although turkey numbers are in decline in some areas in the state and indeed across the Southeast, Carlisle notes that turkey populations are likewise stable throughout Charleston and Berkeley Counties. He says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the future about turkey populations and the sport of turkey hunting going forward. “Habitat loss, changes in land use, predator populations, weather variables and other factors will continue to force turkeys and turkey hunters to adapt.”
As we prepare for the upcoming turkey season, we should remember the tireless, and often thankless conservation efforts of our past and present wildlife biologists. For additional information, check out the USDA Forest Service website page “Tibwin Deer and Turkey Hunts” and SCDNR website page “Wildlife — Wild Turkeys.”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.