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Alaskans take advantage of program to reintroduce turkeys to Eastern habitats

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Each year, as the snow flies and Alaska's fast slide from fall to winter begins, hunter Vic Van Ballenberghe's thoughts turn to turkey.

For two decades, as Alaskans have gone about their Halloween trick-or-treating, Van Ballenberghe has been prowling the fields and forests of upper New York in search of gobblers.

Though the hunt comes not long before Thanksgiving and mimics what the Pilgrims did before their celebratory dinner 380 years ago, not far from Van Ballenberghe's hunting ground, none of this has much to do with the holiday.

Van Ballenberghe is simply one of a handful of devoted turkey hunters who have found themselves in Alaska. To pursue his pastime, he must go south every year. He confesses he wouldn't miss it for the world.

Part of this stems from a boyhood passion. Van Ballenberghe got interested in turkeys when biologists began efforts -- at first unsuccessful -- to reintroduce the birds to Eastern habitats, where they had long been extinct. His interest grew as the effort evolved into one of the most successful wildlife recovery programs in the history of North America.

On the other hand, part of Van Ballenberghe's turkey hunting has simply proven a good fit with his professional life. A noted wildlife biologist, now semiretired, Van Ballenberghe has spent most Alaska autumns tied down by his job.

''For the last 22 years,'' he said, ''I've been doing field work in Denali (National Park and Preserve) in September, so I miss the bulk of hunting in Alaska.''

He makes up for that with the annual pilgrimage to New York to pursue turkeys. He's apparently not alone.

Van Ballenberghe has met quite a few other Alaska turkey hunters over the years, including a pair who discussed setting up a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation here.

''You might be surprised at the number,'' he said. ''I wouldn't be surprised if there were 100.''

According to the South Carolina-based Wild Turkey Federation, Van Ballenberghe's guess may be way low. Federation director Rob Keck said the organization currently has 372 Alaska members.

Keck doesn't know how many of those 372 hunt, but he does know this:

''There were 52 successful turkey hunters in Missouri last year that came from Alaska.''

That tidbit emerged, Keck said, when a friend of his in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was studying nonresident hunting there.

And Missouri is just one state where turkeys can be found.

''Every (Canadian) province and (U.S.) state south of Alaska now has turkeys,'' Keck said.

In fact, he thinks there's a possibility turkeys could survive in parts of Alaska -- say at Point McKenzie or around the Delta Barley Project where food supplies are bolstered by farming wastes.

''If a grouse can live there,'' Keck said, ''a turkey can live there. They're pretty adaptable critters.''

Ruffed grouse have long inhabitated the Alaska Interior and now range down into Southcentral, having been transplanted south of the Alaska Range.

What would wild turkeys eat to survive here? Anything they could find. Keck said it's hard to find something turkeys won't eat.

As for possible climate barriers, Keck said the birds have proven themselves capable of enduring the subzero cold of Minnesota and the killer snows of Canada's Great Lakes region. The birds survive in the Sudbury, Ontario, area, despite an average annual snowfall of 21 feet, Keck said.

The wild turkey -- as opposed to its soft and Butterball-ish domestic cousin -- appears to be one tough bird, though Van Ballenberghe notes that they still make excellent table fare.

''They are really good eating,'' he said. ''There is virtually no fat on them. Turkeys are not at all strong (tasting). They retain a mild kind of flavor. They're great.''

So good, it should be noted, Van Ballenberghe's turkeys don't even make it back to Alaska for the holiday feast.

''I eat them back there (in New York) with my brother,'' he said. ''We have an early Thanksgiving.''

Great taste is part of the reason the wild turkey almost disappeared from North America around the turn of the century. The Wild Turkey Federation estimates that by 1920 the American turkey population had dropped from millions to about 30,000.

No one knows the exact number. Even now, Keck said, ''turkeys are hard to census.''

What is known is that by the early part of the century, the turkey was a hard bird to find in North America. The ones that survived held out in the rough terrain in the Adirondack Mountains.

''Two things did them in,'' Keck said, ''subsistence living -- living off the land -- and habitat loss.''

Where Americans weren't killing every bird they could find for food, timber companies were cutting every tree for lumber. It was a double-whammy on the birds -- cutting down the forests made it easier for the hunters to find the remaining birds.

''You had a bad combination of the ax and the gun,'' Keck said.

If not for the birth of the modern conservation movement in the early 1900s, the turkey probably would have followed the passenger pigeon into extinction.

Instead, early restrictions on hunting enabled the turkey to cling to its footholds in the Adirondacks until the 1950s, when American scientists began talking about the reintroduction of various native species of fish and wildlife that had been hit hard by human expansion.

Early efforts to reintroduce turkeys from domestic or semi-domestic stock largely failed. Van Ballenberghe remembers those from when he was a kid in New York. Farm-raised turkeys couldn't cut it in the wild, biologists soon discovered. And wild turkeys were extremely hard to catch.

Then came a technological breakthrough that brought success.

''It really started with the advent of the cannon net,'' Keck said.

The cannon net, a device developed to catch ducks and geese by shooting a large net out over a flock, turned out to be just what the wild turkey effort needed. Biologists began catching wild birds and spreading them over the continent.

By the time the Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, there were already an estimated 1.3 million wild turkeys in the country.

Today, an estimated 5.6 million wild turkeys roam the continent, with approximately 2.6 million turkey hunters in pursuit.

''Turkey hunting has become . . . the fastest-growing form of hunting,'' according to the federation's Web site.

The organization itself boasts 390,000 members from 50 states and 11 foreign countries. Since 1985, those members have spent more than $144 million on reintroducing turkeys or restoring turkey habitat.

Both the numbers and range of the turkey in North America today are likely greater than in any time since the birds first appeared on the continent about 4,000 years ago. Historically, Keck said, only 39 states have records of turkeys, although oral histories of North American Indians indicate the birds may have been more widespread.

Indian hunters were killing and eating turkeys for more than 3,500 years before whites arrived on the continent. The wily birds could hold their own against primitive traps, spears, bows and arrows. Only when the gun and ax showed up did turkey numbers slide.

Today the decimation is almost ancient history. What Van Ballenberghe sees in New York state probably isn't much different from what the first turkey hunters saw.

''In years like this,'' he said, ''when they're using the fields and pastures, you can see 60 to 80 turkeys in a day. There was one field that I saw 46 turkeys in at one time. That's a lot of birds.''

Traditionally, most turkey hunting is done in the spring when the toms (male turkeys) are on the prowl. Hunters camouflage themselves, get out their turkey calls and try to gobble-gobble sexually preoccupied males into shotgun range. Keck compares the excitement to that of calling bull moose in their fall rut.

''The gobble of the turkey is pretty powerful,'' he said.

That, and the fact that ''there's not much else to hunt in the spring'' are probably two of the primary reasons the sport of turkey hunting has continued to grow even as other forms of hunting have faded, Keck said.

Van Ballenberghe does not deny the thrill of calling turkeys in the spring, but he enjoys the challenge of a fall hunt even more. There are two ways of doing it.

One is to find a big flock, charge into its midst, scatter the turkeys and wait in ambush as the flock tries to regroup.

''I don't do that,'' he said.

''I stalk them. You can do it in the woods. You can do it in the fields. You can do it at the edge of the fields.''

Van Ballenberghe considers this one of hunting's ultimate challenges.

''A flock can have 20 to 30 birds,'' he said. ''You've got 50 to 60 eyes looking around.''

Just getting close to a flock is difficult. Then the hunter has to bring one down. Because of the 15- to 20-pound size of a big wild turkey, it is considered perfectly sporting to shoot them on the ground with a shotgun, but Van Ballenberghe has occasionally taken them on the wing.

''They'll flush like a grouse,'' he said. ''I saw a group of 12 gobblers just this year, and I flushed them,'' Van Ballenberghe said. ''Here's a bird that can weigh 20 pounds, and they can rocket straight up.

''It's impressive. They're just a great, great bird.''

Not to mention a far cry from their idiot cousins who will adorn Thanksgiving tables around the country this week. After centuries of domestication, those birds don't have the wits left to survival in the wild.

The wild turkey, on the other hand, has shown that given just a little break from the predation of man, it can not only survive but thrive.

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