Elk NetworkHunters Played Role in First Thanksgiving Turkey Meal, Restored Populations Since

General | November 26, 2019

It happened in the fall of 1621. Pilgrims, including 50 who were on the Mayflower, gathered with 90 Native Americans at Plymouth (in modern-day Massachusetts) to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Among other things, hunters went into the woods and killed wild turkey, deer and waterfowl. That harvest celebration later evolved into what we now call Thanksgiving.

Wild turkeys remained a food staple in the Thirteen Colonies for decades but were eventually extirpated from the Massachusetts area due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. The last known bird disappeared in 1851.

In 1900, an estimated 100,000 wild turkeys are all that remained across North America. Today, there are more than seven million. What happened? How did a wildlife species on the verge of extinction bounce back? One word: hunting!

President Theodore Roosevelt witnessed the reduction of wildlife first-hand. An avid hunter, he and others took action. Together, they pushed for detailed hunting regulations and established conservation groups to protect habitat. They also dramatically expanded national forests. Those efforts formed the foundation for the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, a series of principles that spell out fish and wildlife belong to all Americans, and they need to be managed so their populations will be forever sustained.

In 1937, lawmakers passed the Pittman-Robertson Act that placed an excise tax on all guns, ammunition and archery equipment. Since then, those funds generated more than $12.5 billion for land and wildlife conservation.

So what about the turkeys? Thanks to funding generated by hunting, biologists trapped 37 turkeys in New York in 1970 and released them back into Massachusetts. Transplants continued for the next 26 years and today the wild turkey population in Massachusetts alone is somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000.

Hunter-generated funding also helped reestablish elk (1,000,000+), whitetail deer (32,000,000+), ducks (44,000,000+), pronghorn (1,100,000+) and many other wildlife species populations.

Now that’s something to be thankful for.

(Photo source: Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife)