The National Wild Turkey Federation recently gifted a mounted wild turkey to the National Park Service for display at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. With it went a strong expression of appreciation to the park. Considering that turkey hunting is not permitted in the park, and apparently never will be, observers might reasonably wonder why turkey hunters appreciate a national park that makes them leave their guns and gear behind when they visit.
Sport hunting, though permitted in National Preserves and some other units, remains a controversial issue in the National Park System. Many people are downright hostile to the idea of allowing hunting in the national parks, arguing that allowing “blood sport” recreation is fundamentally inconsistent with the Park Service’s mission to preserve and protect wildlife resources. Additional objections are rooted in beliefs that hunting threatens visitor safety, causes mental distress for visitors who object to killing animals “for fun,” takes unfair advantage of habituated animals, and creates other problems the parks don’t need. Those who support hunting in the parks believe that hunters are useful pruners of wildlife populations (including unwanted non-native species) and point out that carefully regulated hunting poses little or no threat to people, wildlife species, or their habitat. There are, indeed, strong arguments on both sides of this issue.
One area of strong agreement is the importance of preserving wildlife habitat. Hunters and preservationist alike know that the first requirement for maintaining diverse, healthy wildlife populations is to make sure that there is enough habitat of the right kind and quality available in the right places. Turkey hunters, for example, are keenly aware that maintaining an abundant supply of good habitat for turkeys is vital to the future of turkeys and the future of their sport. They also understand that preserving good habitat for turkeys is something to be done wherever possible, not just on public and private lands open to hunting. In brief, turkey hunters are delighted when the national parks preserve excellent turkey habitat and have thriving turkey populations.
This contribution to turkey welfare is what the Wild Turkey Federation had in mind when the organization, in behalf of turkey hunters everywhere, donated a mounted wild turkey to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The gorgeous bird – a four-bearded tom – is now on display at the park headquarters.
When presenting the gift to Park Superintendent Mark Woods, NWTF spokesman Sammy Mars explained that “Cumberland Gap is truly a treasure located right in our back yard. Whether visitors, conservationists, history buffs, photographers, hikers, birders or hunters, we should all be thankful for the resources protected in the park.”
Mars also pointed out that, since turkeys roam freely and disperse widely where suitable habitat is abundant, turkey hunters do get to harvest some of the birds that wander out of the park. Maps showing hunting areas in Kentucky can be seen at this site. The park also extends into parts of Virginia and Tennessee. (The “tri-state area” of the park is accessible via a short trail.)
It was not so long ago that turkeys were scarcely to be found in these mountains and highlands. Though turkeys were abundant in the southern Appalachians in Daniel Boone’s time, overhunting, deforestation, and related problems combined to drive turkey numbers to low ebb. By the early 1900s it was rare to see a turkey in the area. Many large tracts of prime turkey habitat had no turkeys at all.
Then, in October 1973, a remarkable thing happened. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources reintroduced turkeys to the 20,508-acre park. This was in keeping with the National Park Service policy of reintroducing native species that have been extirpated through human activities.
Turkeys thrived in the forest and edge habitat (mostly second- and third-growth forest) protected by the park. And as they say, the rest is history. The park now employs scientific management principles, including prescribed burns, to maintain habitat suitable for white-tailed deer, black bears, and dozens of other wildlife species -- including, of course, turkeys. About 14,000 acres of the park is proposed wilderness.
Coincidentally, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, the same year that the turkey reintroduction took place at Cumberland Gap. During the NWTF’s 35-year existence the country’s turkey population has quadrupled (to seven million) and the NTWF membership has increased from 1,300 to more than half a million. A copy of the organization’s latest annual report can be viewed on this site.
Cumberland Gap is beautiful in the fall, and the panoramic, three-state view from the Pinnacle Overlook is especially gorgeous. I hope you get to visit this popular park (995,000 visitors last year). If you do, be sure to stop by the headquarters and see the big gobbler on display there. Better yet, take a hike in the park (which has 70 miles of trails) and explore the backcountry. There's a good chance you’ll see and hear turkeys where they live.