Chester Moore is known as The Wildlife Journalist® for his cutting-edge articles, videos, lectures, television appearances and radio broadcasts involving wildlife around the world. He has won more than 100 awards for writing, photography, radio and his conservation efforts. He was named a "Hero of Conservation" by Field & Stream magazine and won the Mossy Oak Outdoors Legacy award for his work with children and wildlife in the conservation field in 2017.
Seeing a feral hog in thick snow was surreal to me.
I had seen thousands in swamps, cactus thickets and rocky canyons in Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida but seeing one bust out from behind a tree on a snow-covered hill in Michigan was wild.
This was back in 2001, just 20 years after the first feral hogs were spotted in Michigan. Now they are in virtually every county in the state.
The feral hog issue is definitely most pronounced in the South but hogs are becoming increasingly common in the North.
A decade ago I did an interview with a radio station in New Jersey because they had just opened a hog hunting season and the host wanted advice of dealing with these invasive exotics.
If states on the northern tier of their range in America do not take action then hogs will gain a permanent foothold above the Mason-Dixon line.
Some states have taken an unusual stance on dealing with hogs. They have made hunting them illegal.
It seems counterintuitive to eliminate a potential method of removing many hogs from the landscape.
The reasoning in states like New York, Minnesota and Kansas is the spread of feral hogs has had much to do with ranches that put them behind high fences for hunting. Hogs of course escape and the population outside fences spreads.
I have no doubt this has contributed greatly to the spread of hogs in my native Texas and have written on this in Texas Fish & Game.
It’s a bizarre idea to prohibit a hunter who is out to seek deer for example from killing one when at the end of the day state officials will have to kill hogs to stop their spread.
Perhaps simply banning importing them or transporting live pigs would be better.
It will be interesting to see how management of hogs changes as they multiply.
Will states that ban hunting them see success in their fight against this foreign invader? Or will they have to change their tactics?
Auburn, NY—Mention New York to virtually anyone who lives outside of the Northeast and it conjures images of skyscrapers, traffic jams and urban sprawl.
New York is of course not just a city but a state and much of that state contains beautiful forests, farmlands and mountain ranges, greatly contrasting the Big Apple.
The state is home to around 180,000 eastern wild turkeys and that is why I found myself hunkered down in a blind for the opening of the spring season.
The hunt was a success and I bagged a nice bird but the real mission of the trip was to capture a good photo of an eastern gobbler to help complete my quest to capture photos of the “Grand Slam” (Rio Grande, eastern, Merriam’s and Oceola) in 2019.
The aim is to raise awareness to turkey conservation triumphs and concerns.
It is my belief after much study that if we get turkey conservation right-especially in relation to their habitat America’s forest will be dramatically healthier and all wildlife in their range will benefit.
They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine and in my opinion the cornerstone species for forest conservation in the United States.
That is why I was so excited to get this photo of the big gobbler I took when it appeared in the field.
Me and my friend and NY resident/expert turkey caller/outdoor writer Lou Marullo hunted a farm near Cato, NY in an area with a good mixture of corn, beans and other crops and forests.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) after reaching their peak around 2001 (250,000 birds), wild turkey populations declined gradually over the next decade. This was followed by a more severe decline since 2009.
The decline in turkey numbers may be more pronounced in some areas. Reasons for this include cold wet spring weather, tough winters, and changes in habitat quantity and quality. In areas where open habitats such as agricultural fields, hayfields, old fields, thickets, and young forests have been lost due to development and vegetative succession, there are fewer turkeys. In areas with a larger proportion of “big woods” turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitats, and agriculture.
According to DEC officials, predation may also be a factor due to the fact changes in habitat give predators like coyotes easier opportunities to get birds.
New York turkey hunting regulations are adjusted to reflect population trends and hunter harvest is figured into management strategies and is considered to have minimal impact on long-term turkey populations.
Turkeys were hunted at their population rise and peak in the late 90s to early 2000s and are hunted and managed now.
At the end of the day habitat is the ultimate key and during this Turkey Revolution my eyes have been greatly opened to the scope of issues facing turkey habitat.
In New York forests are continually being removed for farming and housing developments. And while turkeys can live with small sets of woods and big cropland, they need a good mixture of crops, mature forests and intermediate woodlands.
Developments do them no good.
A key to turkey conservation is getting landowners to see value in the birds. Two of the tracts I visited and hunted on were kept as forests specifically for the purpose of hunting. Land in this state that is not seen as a value for hunting or otherwise for wildlife is eventually plowed or developed.
It’s that simple.
The eastern turkey is a truly amazing, wary creature and were what founding father Benjamin Franklin famously wanted to use as America’s icon.
They were the dinner for the first Thanksgiving and are a species we should monitor more to see where the health of forests in their range is going.
Groups l ike the National Wild Turkey Federation and state fish and wildlife departments do a great job but they are limited. They need everyone to support efforts for turkeys.
There is no concern of major decline in the near future but looking down the road it’s hard to imagine turkey habitat in states like New York not declining as human populations surge.
We need to make sure available habitat is maximized and managed properly.
Few are interested in a variety of threatened, endangered and declining animals in the eastern turkey’s range but due to the fact turkey hunters are passionate, these birds have a huge fan base who cares about their habitat.
And they spend millions of dollars on conservation.
Turkeys are important for the wild lands of America and I was honored and privileged to capture the second species in my Turkey Revolution question.
The shrill sound of gobbling echoed through a deep tract of national forest in the Pineywoods of East Texas.
As my friend and guide on this hunt Derek York worked his box call at least five gobblers sounded off in the distance.
“This is awesome!” he said.
The eastern wild turkey was essentially eliminated from East Texas by the 1980s.
A combination of poaching, habitat degradation and more poaching left these great forests barren of its most vocal and regal game bird.
Restoration efforts that began in the 1980s helped boost numbers but they never quite got to where they need to be.
A recent new theory of taking excess birds from other states and releasing them into highly managed corridors larger numbers than before is seeing some success.
Limited hunting access is available in spring and I was getting to see the results of the hard work by members of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and others.
We never bagged a bird that day but I did see a hen running full blast across a hill. A few seconds later a coyote came down the same path and was undoubtedly hunting for an early Thanksgiving dinner.
Derek hit his call and the young predator came down the hill toward us but it did what all coyotes do.
It moved into a downwind position, smelled us and retreated quickly.
On the hike out I noticed a sign that noted there was a red-cockaded woodpecker colony on site. This endangered species needs the type of open, savannah-like forest that wild turkeys do. What is good for the turkey is good for red-cockaded woodpeckers.
A few feet away from the sign I saw turkey tracks.
It has been my contention that if we get turkey habitat and conservation efforts right the entire forest will benefit.
The public has had a hard time getting behind a tiny woodpecker species few have seen. But there are many turkey hunters who spent millions of dollars and exert huge effort conserving their chosen quarry.
I believe the public will latch on to the turkey conservation message if it is presented properly.
People think wild turkeys are fascinating and if we let them know good turkey habitat helps even the most endangered of wildlife maybe they will support things that help them like controlled burning and increased anti-poaching education.
Gobble Gobble Gobble
I can’t get that out of my head along with the desire to go back into those woods and get a glimpse of a majestic eastern gobbler and take in all of the sights, sounds and smells of some of Texas’ most pristine habitat.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 brought protected status to dozens of then-dwindling North American animals.
Among the first listings were the red wolf, black-footed ferret and ivory-billed woodpecker.
Had the ESA been established in 1900, the American bison would have been listed along with the wild turkey and pronghorn. All of those are game animals now hunted across multiple states with thriving populations.
“It is unprecedented to have so many species come back in such a big way and it has everything to do with the value put on those species and their habitat by hunter-conservationists like our founder Teddy Roosevelt,” said Keith Balfourd with the Boone & Crockett Club.
Since 1900 bison bounced back from 1,000 to 300,000 and wild turkeys went from 30,000 to nearly seven million.
Pronghorns which fell below 20,000 animals now number more than a million.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Whitetail would not have been listed as “endangered” but their population stood at only 500,000 throughout the continent. Now it’s 15,000,000.
Elk were down to 40,000 and now there are more than a million.
Contrast that with the ivory-billed woodpecker which is functionally extinct and the red wolf that exists only through a very small captive-bred introduced population in North Carolina and in various zoos and wildlife centers.
Some ESA-listed animals like the bald eagle have had huge success stories but the rise of game populations managed for hunting rarely gets mentioned in the corporate wildlife media.
One of the first actions of dedicated hunter Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club was to push for the creation of Yellowstone National Park as it was one of the last intact ecosystems with abundant game.
“Roosevelt and the early proponents of Yellowstone faced many obstacles including mining, timber and railroad interests. But they prevailed and Yellowstone’s preservation made it possible to restore dwindling species to other areas,” Balfour said.
Elk from Yellowstone were transplanted to areas where they had been eliminated and so were bison.
As newly created game laws created protection for these animals their numbers began to multiply where they had been stocked. This quickly became the template for wildlife restoration in America.
The key reason for the wild turkey’s monumental increase was bringing excess birds from areas of abundance and releasing into zones with no birds. This practice continues today and has also been a cornerstone for the restoration of everything from bighorn sheep to gray wolves.
What Roosevelt, the early members of the Boone & Crockett Club and other early conservationists tapped into was that wildlife needed areas of sanctuary. And once you establish this, excess animals can be taken from there to areas of need.
To some it might seem ironic.
Hunters pushed for huge areas to be shut down to hunting and then helped create licensing systems that ensured hunting as restricted and managed by the government. On top of that they added licenses and excise taxes on sporting goods to fund conservation projects.
But these hunters knew without making sacrifices the animals they pursued would have been gone forever.
They were visionaries and the pioneering work they did gave hope that wildlife could continue to thrive in the face of growing human population and industrialization. It is not a perfect system but it works better than anything else on the planet thus far.
Many have had a hand in wildlife conservation in North America but few have had the impact of early hunter-conservationists like Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club.
Their legacy lives on-in the woods, on the mountains and across the fruited plain.
A 16-year-old girl wearing a retro Metallica shirt could not believe her eyes.
“I’ve never seen a turkey. He’s so big,” she said.
The young lady was referring to a hefty golden-breasted gobbler we had displayed at Eco-Fest at Shangri-La Botanical Gardens in Orange, TX. The tall, docile bird was strutting his stuff and drawing a crowd.
She was not the only one that was shocked to see a turkey.
Hundreds came by to see it and every one of them left hearing that wild turkeys are the epitome of a wildlife conservation success story.
They also learned East Texas is seeing a return of eastern turkeys due to the efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the hunter-founded National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).
Our Wild Wishes® program grants wildlife encounters to children with a terminal illness or loss of a parent or sibling. We are mentoring many of them to be conservation ambassadors.
Eleven-year-old Jaxon sat in with the big gobbler and told passers-by about wild turkeys and had lots of fun making turkey calls to incite gobbles.
And if that didn’t get them the baby turkeys did.
We brought two newly hatch bronze-breasted poults and they absolutely blew away everyone who saw them.
“Their wild cousins will be born shortly out in the woods, deserts, swamps and mountains of America. If we want wild turkeys to thrive then we need to make their habitat healthy and do our best to restore them in areas where they are missing,” I told one gentleman.
I’m not saying he shed a tear when I let him pet one of the poults but he was definitely moved.
The wildlife conservation community needs to bring more people in if we want to secure the future for not only wild turkeys but hundreds of other species and their vanishing habitat.
And that will require moving the hearts of the public.
Legendary wildlife host and zoo director “Jungle” Jack Hannah once told me that you must move the heart before you change the mind when it comes to wildlife. He said this while telling kids from our Wild Wishes® program about the value of zoological facilities to conservation and giving props to excise taxes on sporting goods funding everything from game wardens to land acquisitions.
In my opinion, hunting-based conservation groups have done great work in the field but have missed in moving the heart.
I want to conserve turkeys because I grew up in a family that hunted for its food and dreamed of the day I would one day see wild turkeys in the field.
As a youngster there were virtually none in the Pineywoods where I grew up due to poaching, lack of natural fire and habitat loss. Now, groups like the NWTF are helping bring them back.
I first encountered a wild turkey on a day lease in Llano in the Texas Hill Country and since then have had deep reverence for America’s greatest game bird.
Many people left Eco-Fest thinking turkeys were amazing too and were armed with more information about the positive aspects of turkey conservation.
We need to reach a broader audience with a pro-conservation message in ways that people have never considered.
Bringing a big gobbler and some poults to a community event did that and having kids trained up to talk turkey (in Jaxon’s case literally) made people think.
Me and my wife Lisa have dedicated our life to helping hurting children and training them to be wildlife conservationists. We believe these kids are not the next generation of conservationists.
They are the NOW generation.
We have just begun this Turkey Revolution and will unveil many more projects spearheaded by these wonderful young people for not only turkeys but many species.
There is nothing like staring into the eyes of a predator.
Even a glare from captive predators like a leopard at a zoo can send chills down your spine-and in my case in a good way.
I dig that kind of thing.
A few months back I locked eyes with a wild black canid that had been seen in Orange County, TX numerous times. People were calling it the “black coyote”.
Driving down a rural road near my home I saw the creature cross the road and literally stop a couple of feet away from the white line so I did what virtually no one else would do.
I hopped out for a closer look.
Trying to open my camera bag I kept my eye on the beautiful animal that was only 10 feet away. And just as the bag opened, the coyote looked me dead in the eyes and ran off.
So much for getting a photo.
Despite the frustation I was thrilled at the opportunity to see such a magnificent animal and in recent weeks have been getting emails, texts and social media shares of unusual-looking coyotes and other suspect-looking canids.
With the recent red wolf gene rediscovery on the Texas Coast, anything that looks wolf-like in particular makes coyotes even more interesting.
Below are a couple of photos of unique-looking coyotes or perhaps non-coyote canids (hybrids of some sort).
If you have seen unusual coyotes or perhaps a non-coyote canid email me at email@example.com. I would love to check them out and share with readers.
Cruising down the back roads of Kerr County, TX is an interesting experience.
The majority of wildlife spotted is exotic and much of it ranging beyond the confines of high fenced hunting ranches. Axis deer, blackbuck antelope and aoudad are more are prevalent than even native whitetail.
I was looking for wild turkeys, the Rio Grand variety in particular as I am on a quest to get the Grand Slam (Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Oceola subspecies) by camera this year.
It started off super slow two weeks ago with a trip to the area surrounding Palmetto State Park near Luling, TX.
I saw a lone turkey at about 200 yards but we could not get it to come any closer despite calling.
My rule for this project is the pictures must be magazine quality. In other words up close and full of detail.
Just as the sun began to peek out of an early morning haze I spotted three turkeys on a hill. Fellow wildlife photographer Gerald Burleigh stopped the truck and my friend and fellow turkey fanatic Josh Slone jumped out and started calling.
I ran down below the bird’s line of sight, walked up to a bush and shot a few pics.
Then down the fence line came a loud gobble.
I spun around to see two large gobblers trying to figure out how to get over the fence to get to the hens that had just flown over.
Apparently these guys were so love struck (after all it is breeding season) they forgot they can you know…fly.
This worked to my advantage as they paced up and down and I slid down about 30 yards and waited.
The birds eventually made the move and moved into range and I took dozens of shots before their pursuit of the hens continued.
It was so exciting to get these birds after so much hard work.
Getting the Rio Grande photo above took the following effort.
*Two Trips from Orange, TX to Hill Country
*28 hours total driving
*$450 in hotels and gas
*16 hours searching in the field
Since the quest began I have studied historical maps of turkey range and found there should be Rio Grande in good numbers much closer to home. The drive should be cut from six hours to about three but urban sprawl and degraded habitat on top of poaching many years ago have isolated them more than people think.
Texas has around 500,000 birds with the vast majority being Rios with a few hundred Merriam’s in the Trans Pecos and about 7,000 easterns in the Pineywoods.
Turkeys are not nearly as adaptable as whitetails.
Getting what so far is the best turkey photo I have ever taken gave me an even greater respect for those conservation-minded turkey hunters who pursue the Grand Slam and wanting to learn much more about these regal birds.
Step one was hard considering I am doing this in my “spare” time and totally on my coin to raise awareness to turkey conservation and the health of America’s forests.
But I have a feeling finding Rios will be a walk in the park compared to some of the other varieties.
I plan on pushing hard for eastern in the coming two weeks. I’ve already had two days searching for them in the national forests of Texas with no success.
I might have a line on some birds in Louisiana and as I researched that state’s turkey population I found there is a story that needs to be told.
After all people will only conserve what they care for and understand.
And that’s what this Turkey Revolution is all about-unveiling the story of America’s greatest game bird so their future and that of America’s forest is secure.
And with wildlife, understanding is only the beginning. People must find a way to appreciate wild animals enough to care whether or not they exist.
Throughout decades of research, time spent in the field from Canada to California to seemingly every corner of my home state of Texas, I have come to a conclusion.
No creature in North America is linked more to healthy forests than the wild turkey. And no creature has the potential to captivate people in all corners of the nation than these great birds.
Whether they are the striking Rio Grandes in the Texas Hill Country, Eastern turkeys in the big woods of the Northeast, Oceloas in Florida’s swamps, Merriam’s in mountain forests of the West or Gould’s in the high deserts, turkeys desperately need healthy habitat.
All animals do of course but some have done a much better of adapting to mans’ meddling of forest management, invasive exotics and urban sprawl.
And while there are urban centers where turkeys have adjusted, for the most part unlike whitetail deer and coyotes, turkeys need primo habitat to thrive.
If we can make the woods better for turkeys, it will be better for deer and the threatened Louisiana pine snake and the gopher tortoise and a host of other native wildlife desperately needing healthy ecosystems.
The National Wild Turkey Federation and various state fish and game departments have done an incredible job of turkey restoration and enhancement but they need the public’s help.
I have begun a quest to capture quality photographs of Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Oceola in 2019.
Hunters call this quest the Grand Slam and while I will be taking a hunt or two this year, this quest is to document with a camera these great birds and to log everything discovered along the way.
I live a stone’s throw from Louisiana and a friend recently sent photos of eastern turkeys near their home.
This inspired me to look more at Louisiana’s turkey population.
As of now it sits at 60,000 but that is down from a historic high of as many as 1,000,000 birds.
Digging into these types of stories is what this is all about it. I’m calling it the Turkey Revolution and it will encompass years of research, reaching out to the public via many media platforms and searching out stories in the field.
If you have an interesting observation on wild turkeys, perhaps see a rare color phase bird or have anything related to them to share email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin famously opined that the wild turkey would make a better representative of America than the bald eagle.
After all eagles are scavengers he said!
While I can’t see an image of the gobbling turkey intimidating America’s enemies, I can see the story of these great birds move the hearts of the public toward wanting healthier forests and more abundant wildlife of all types.
Putting a gobbler on a flag might have been a terrible way to cap the Revolutionary War but for a Turkey Revolution that might actually be pretty cool.
Seeing raccoons, opossums and even coyotes in the city is commonplace throughout the American South. But a much larger creature has entered the concrete jungle and its suburban outposts-the feral hog.
Graham, TX isn’t a big city but it has a Wal-Mart, a few hotels and is lined with neighborhoods.
And when Marci Huckobey was headed out to get gas Jan. 17 she did not expect to see an entire sounder of large wild hogs rooting up the manicured city roadside illuminated by the light of the gas station.
But as you can see that is what she encountered.
These are some large hogs in the video above and they are unafraid of the passing vehicle.
Back in 2016 I began writing on what I predicted would be an invasion of hogs into cities in the South and that the very biggest hogs would exist in urban greenbelts and in suburban areas due to a lack of hunting pressure to grow to maximum size and plenty of food and cover.
“Very seldom do we ever run into hogs like this, that are so massive and so big,” said Melbourne wildlife trapper James Dean.
About two weeks ago, Dean received a call reporting “a very large boar hog” that was tearing up sod around a playground, near a school bus stop. A nearby resident also sent him a nighttime photo of the great beast rooting behind a tree.
Locating giant wild boars in city limits is one of three investigations I have been conducting since I took a hiatus from posting here Oct. 2018.
I’m back and you will begin see more stories on this issue and others that are being ignored by the corporate wildlife media.
The red wolf (Canis rufus) has been rediscovered along the Texas Gulf Coast or at least its essence has proven to survive long-thought extinction.
A collaborative effort of Princeton, Trent University, University of Georgia and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium researchers among others makes this claim in a just published study preprint (not yet peer reviewed) at biorxiv.org.
Rediscovering species once thought to be extinct or on the edge of extinction is rare. Red wolves have been extinct along the Gulf Coast region since 1980, with their last populations found in coastal Louisiana and Texas. We report the rediscovery of red wolf ghost alleles in a canid population on Galveston Island, Texas.
Biology Online Dictionary defines an allele as “one member of a pair (or any of the series) of genes occupying a specific spot on a chromosome that controls the same trait.”
An example would be eye color or head shape.
A “ghost allele” is essentially a genetic variant that has disappeared from a population through reduction or some other factor and then rediscovered elsewhere.
In this case it was found in two road-killed wild candid specimens from Galveston Island, TX near the last known stronghold of the red wolf.
Among the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act, the red wolf was declared extinct after decades of relentless predator control and habitat destruction led to strained populations and hybridization with coyotes.
Some 14 of hundreds of canids caught by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials were considered to be true representatives of the species and became the genesis of a successful nation-wide captive-breeding program and limited wild restoration effort that exists in North Carolina today.
The study authors note surviving ancestral traits from the shared common ancestor of coyotes and red wolves could have drifted to a high frequency in the captive breeding red wolf population and in a small portion of Gulf Coast coyotes; or wild coyotes in the Gulf Coast region are a reservoir of red wolf ghost alleles that have persisted into the 21st century.
Through interbreeding with coyotes, endangered and extinct red wolf genetic variation has persisted and could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry. This unprecedented discovery opens new avenues for contemporary red wolf conservation and management, where ghost alleles could be re-introduced into the current captive and experimental populations
Noted red wolf researcher and former USFWS biologist Dr. Ron Nowak said the study supports long-standing morphological evidence and visual observations that animals at least partly red wolf have continued to exist along the Texas coast, in other parts of eastern Texas and in Louisiana from the 1970s to the present day.
“This new information should help to stimulate further relevant study that should ascertain the status of red wolf genetic material across larger areas, determine the mechanisms that have enabled survival of such material and develop appropriate management programs,” he said.
Red wolf recovery has been controversial due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is its protection under the Endangered Species Act which spooks some private landowners.
A few scientists have even questioned whether Canis rufus exists at all by hypothesizing it is a fertile gray wolf/coyote hybrid, not a separate species.
Other interests are concerned about recovery impact on deer populations and livestock and the corporate wildlife media have all but ignored the red wolf’s story.
It has never resonated with the public at large like its larger cousin the gray wolf’s comeback in the Yellowstone region, though the red wolf has long been much more at risk.
But the aforementioned essence of the red wolf has survived despite the obstacles and may even be thriving, not only on Galveston Island but in a broader area.
Thousands of hunters, hikers, fishermen and landowners have reported seeing wolves in the Texas-Louisiana region since 1980. They have often been told they saw a coyote or a feral dog, not a wolf.
This study shows that if it looks like a wolf and howls like a wolf that it might not necessarily be fully wolf or fully coyote as we currently understand them.
What people are seeing in Texas and Louisiana however could be wild canids with genetics that could be the key to this misunderstood specie’s survival.
Chester Moore, Jr.
Listen to a podcast on this discovery at The Wildlife Journalist® by clicking below.
(To subscribe to this blog enter your email address in the box on the top right of this page. To contact Chester Moore e-mail email@example.com.)
*Study Authors (ElizabethHeppenheimer, Kristin E.Brzeski, RonWooten, WillWaddell, Linda Y.Rutledge, Michael J.Chamberlain, Daniel R.Stahler, Joseph W.Hinton, Bridgett M.vonHoldt)