50 Years of Turkey Success
By Phil Bloom
Whether or not hunters in Indiana successfully bag a wild turkey, they owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Backs for having the chance to do so.
For more than four decades, Backs guided the DNR’s restoration of the majestic game bird across the Hoosier landscape, helping elevate the pursuit of it from a niche activity to a springtime ritual for nearly 75,000 hunters in 2020.
Backs retired from the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife in March 2022, leaving a legacy that encompasses the expansion of wild turkeys beyond anyone’s imagination, including his own.
“I don’t think anyone involved in this anywhere in the country could, back then in the 1980s, ever honestly say they knew this would happen this way,” Backs said. “There’s no way to say so … I was lucky to be part of it.”
Lucky in part because during his student years at Purdue University, before finding his calling, Backs planned to be a deer biologist.
Managing turkey populations involves finding the right mix of season dates and bag limits for both hunters and birds. Earlier in his career, Backs needed to make decisions about when, where, and how often to release birds brought in from other states.
The results speak for themselves.
Spring season harvest of wild turkeys in Indiana topped 10,000 for the first time in 2002 and has been at that level or higher ever since. The record was set in 2020 with 14,492 turkeys harvested during the 19-day season. Hunter success in Indiana also has been relatively consistent at 20% or higher in 27 of the last 35 spring seasons.
Although native to Indiana, wild turkeys were extirpated (locally extinct) from the state before 1900 due to unregulated subsistence hunting and deforestation. Turkeys suffered a similar fate elsewhere, and by the early 1900s the nationwide number of turkeys was about 30,000.
From that low point, a coalition of partners rescued wild turkeys from possible extinction. The National Wild Turkey Federation estimates the current nationwide population at 6.5 million.
The restoration process in Indiana was a long haul that started in 1956, when the state’s Department of Conservation, the DNR’s predecessor, brought in five wild-trapped turkeys from Arkansas and released them at Crane Naval Depot in Martin County.
That event launched a nearly 50-year run of trapping turkeys in one place and releasing them in another. The tools and the strategies changed over time, and wild turkeys are found today in all 92 of Indiana’s counties.
Throughout his work in the restoration, Backs took a cautious approach. Now, some states that chose to be more aggressive are grappling with whether to reduce bag limits, shorten seasons, eliminate fall hen harvest, or end fall turkey season altogether in the face of decade-long declines in turkey populations.
The Indiana bag limit is a single male turkey in the spring season and a single male or hen in the fall season.
“We’ve only seen a 5% drop in harvest from the peak years,” Backs said. “That gets down to the message of a long-term sustainable harvest level.”
The early stages of restoration followed standard practices of the day.
The belief was that since residual populations of wild turkeys were found in heavily forested areas, that was the required habitat for a recovery. So, early releases focused on heavily forested areas of southern counties like Brown, Clark, Crawford, Harrison, Martin, Monroe, Perry, and Pike.
Two lessons learned during that time served to steer the program in new directions:
- Capture and release of birds from the same brood flock limited genetic diversity and contributed to a slow decline in reproduction.
- A 50-50 mix of forest to agricultural land interspersed with row crops was “pretty close to ideal habitat,” Backs said.
The game-changer for the first lesson was making trade agreements that acquired wild turkeys from Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri and mixing those birds into later releases.
Backs and fellow biologist Carl Eisfelder addressed the habitat concerns by developing criteria to prioritize areas that showed the potential to support self-sustaining populations. They then employed a tactic known as block stocking—releasing an average of 15 birds in multiple locations in a county in a 3:1 ratio of females to males.
After doing one or two releases per year from 1956 to 1979, the DNR ramped up efforts to 11 releases in 1983, 17 in 1987, and 26 in 1988 before slowing down and eventually making the last release in 2004.
Each release brought desired results and the incentive to do more.
“The game was if it happened and it was positive, do it again,” Backs said.
Still, there was a degree of uncertainty on the path to success.
“You never really knew how far this was going to go,” Backs said. “Why was this working well? Why was this not working?
“It was like walking into a room, turning off the light and feeling your way to a door on the other side. You knew the goal was to get to the other side, but you never quite knew what bumps were there, what furniture you’d run into walking across that room.”
As successful as wild turkey restoration has been, wildlife biologists have documented a downward trend in populations in several states, for a variety of reasons.
“Part of it is due to (natural) readjustment,” Backs said.
Some have theorized that having too many predators, farming practices, climate change, or disease are factors.
“My thought is there’s a little bit of all of those, but it’s probably a cumulative effect,” he said.
Some of it also can be written off as a natural adjustment to “an artificially enhanced” population made possible as increasing numbers pushed turkeys from optimal territory into more marginal habitat.
“What some people call a decline could be just getting back into balance,” Backs said. “We had a restoration boom and now we’re having a post-restoration settling down into something more in tune with the environment.”