Less Traveled 2012

Ernie Wiggins



Behind the scenes at the National Wild Turkey Federation

Posted 7/18/2011 4:25:00 PM

Since 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation, a non-profit organization headquartered in Edgefield but with thousands of chapters in the United States and Canada, has been coordinating efforts to protect and conserve the wild turkey.

Through private and public partnerships, the NWTF has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours to conserve nearly 20 million acres of habitat for the wild turkey. Nearly 40 years of labor has resulted in the population of the once threatened birds increasing nearly seven-fold.

The NWTF’s success story is on display for visitors to the Wild Turkey Center, which includes a 100-acre outdoor education center and the Winchester Museum, where the history of the North American wild turkey is told through traditional and interactive displays and exhibits. And that story begins long before the first Thanksgiving.

Exhibits explain the difference between subspecies of wild turkeys, how habitats have changed and turkey populations shifted and declined, and describe efforts to restore them. In one exhibit, an animated American Indian figure tells visitors of Native American hunting practices and the respect early inhabitants of North America held for wildlife. In another, youngsters and oldsters alike can take aim in the museum’s Laser Shot exhibit. About 11,000 visitors toured the museum last year.

But NWTF’s work extends beyond the walls of the Winchester Museum. On the other side of those elaborate displays, literally, the federation is producing syndicated television programs, raising funds to provide conservation education to private landowners and introducing young people to shooting safety and hunting culture, among many other things.

John Brown Jr. is executive producer of NWTF’s television shows, Turkey Call, a hunting heritage program, and a habitat improvement show called Get in the Game. Both programs are aired on the Pursuit cable channel. For Turkey Call, NWTF’s three in-house producers travel to locations during North America’s wild turkey hunting season (March, April and May) to tape programs that are aired beginning in June.

“Spring is the time of the year that (wild turkeys) are mating,” Brown said. “The gobbler displays and hens are answering. Quite honestly, in my 18 years of doing this, for me the wild turkeys in the spring – from a videographers standpoint – show so much beauty.”

Producers tape in fall and winter, too, but about two-thirds of Turkey Call’s programs are shot in the spring, Brown said.

For the more educational habitat improvement show, Brown uses NWTF biologists to tell viewers how to improve their own hunting practices and the land they own. An extension of these education efforts is the NWTF’s outreach videos targeted at young people, women and disabled hunters. The DVDs show members of the targeted groups involved in hunting and other outdoor activities.

“The DVDs highlight these outreach programs and what they do,” Brown said. “And local chapters show the DVDs to sponsors so that they can see what the event will look like and (it) helps raise funds.”

Raising funds for large conservation projects is Mark Hatfield’s job. Although he’s a biologist with the wild turkey federation, Hatfield said his main interest is threatened species.

“I try to find additional funds to supplement the work of state chapters, taking their dollar and turning them into three or four dollars,” he said. Those funds come from both public and private sources, but most often the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (the non-profit arm of the U.S. Forest Service).

Hatfield, who has been with NWTF for seven years, said funding agencies currently have a special interest in restoring long-leaf pine habitats because about 30 threatened and endangered species – including the red-cockaded woodpecker, which was once abundant in Southeast – are dependent on those forests for survival. Many private landowners who grow pines converted to loblolly pines because they mature quicker and so produce earlier returns on investments, he said.

But the loblolly pine is not as beneficial to threatened wildlife, Hatfield said, and the NWTF has taken on the challenge of working with long-leaf pine projects because wild turkeys, though no longer endangered, use the trees for nesting and foraging (raising young and feeding.) The more long-leaf pine habitats the more wild turkeys, he said.

“It probably takes twice as long to grow long-leaf,” he said. “But, in the end, you have bigger trees, so the trade off value is about the same. That’s part of the educational process. But, if (landowners) don’t have high value in wildlife, it would be a hard sell.”

Private landowners tend to be more receptive to conservation messages from the NWTF because the organization is non-profit and not a government agency, he said.

In South Carolina, the message has been heard, he said.

“Turkeys are doing well in South Carolina,” he said. “The population is stable with 12,000 to 15,000 bird harvested each years. We’ve worked really hard to increase the quality of habitats.”

NWTF’s watchwords are conserve, hunt and share. And sharing its enthusiasm for hunting culture and conservation is one of the organization’s goals. The message is carried through its member publication, Turkey Country. Another publication targeted at young people is being revamped.

A youth-oriented program initiated last year with funding from the founders of MidwayUSA, a shooting supply company, is introducing young people across the United States to hunting.

“We’re hoping to reach 150,000 young people by the end of the program,” Harling said. “Shooting is really a great gateway to hunting. And anyone can do it because you don’t have to be strong or fast.”
If you’re going:

The Winchester Museum in Edgefield is open Monday - Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on national holidays. The Outdoor Education Center's pavilion and trails are open to the public. Admission is $5 for adults; $2 for children. Both include Laser Shot coins.

To schedule a group tour of the Wild Turkey Center and Winchester Museum, call the National Wild Turkey Federation at (800) THE-NWTF or (803) 637-7626 and ask for Sam McDuffie. He also can be reached via email at smcduffie@nwtf.net. Group tours on weekends also may be scheduled.

Click here for a list of museum activities.