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THE UTAH TURKEY TROT

by Board Member Sharon Emerson

"We've been so busy here in Utah, just trying to put turkeys every place that we think they'll live, that we haven't had the opportunity to really sit down and think about a strategy for managing turkey populations."
Dean Mitchell, UDWR Upland Game Program Coordinator, September 2001.

The Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has introduced the wild turkey to every nook and cranny of Utah despite the fact that its natural, historical range probably extended only into the extreme southeastern corner of the state. It is an example of the state agency responding to the whims of a small group of hunters and ignoring the potential ecological consequences of introducing another non-native species.

The Division of Wildlife Resources has been attempting to transplant turkeys to Utah since 1925. Most recent efforts have concentrated on bringing in the Rio Grande wild turkey. This subspecies is native to the states of the central plains and common in brushy scrub. Rio Grande turkey populations now exist as far north as Box Elder County. very long ago I saw a group in Chalk Creek Canyon, the foothills of the Uintas.

DWR has been busy. In 2003, Utah became the state with the second highest number of turkey transplants in the United States. DWR has failed to implement even the most basic of research projects to study the potential impact of the introduced turkeys on native biological communities. There are two troubling aspects of these actions, one scientific and the other philosophical.

First, from a scientific perspective, the effects of introduced species on native ecosystems have become one of the world's most serious conservation issues. The types of impacts that can occur include changes in native community composition, loss of relative abundance of native species in the ecosystem or in the worst case local extinction. Governments around the world (including the U.S.) have committed considerable resources to address these growing problems at national, regional and local levels.

Ultimately only a small percentage (10-20%) of introduced species turn out to be seriously harmful (Byers et al., 2002). Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to predict beforehand which these might be or under what circumstances they could pose a serious threat to native ecosystems. Detailed comparative studies of paired communities with and without introduced species provide the only useful assessment of the direct and indirect effects of transplants or invasions into native communities. Work that quantitatively measures competition for food, shelter, and nesting sites with native species as well as changes in relative abundance is essential. This is precisely the type of research that DWR has yet to undertake.

Second, from a philosophical point of view, one of the most basic principles of conservation biology is that native biodiversity has intrinsic value and deserves protection (Soule, 1985). The stated mission of the Division of Wildlife Resources is to assure the future of protected Utah wildlife for its intrinsic, scientific, educational and recreational values. Nonetheless, philosophically, DWR is discounting the intrinsic value of Utah's natural ecological communities by adding non-native species.

To date, DWR's management goal for turkeys has been to determine an appropriate level of hunting that will leave sustainable populations of the bird in as many localities as possible throughout the state. DWR is spending its time, energy, and resources altering a wide diversity of native Utah ecosystems to please its turkey hunting constituency instead of respecting the native biological communities of Utah and doing the necessary research to guarantee their continued existence. As always, DWR is stuck on defining "wildlife management" as solely an economic problem.

Additional Reading:
Byers, J., S. Reichard, et al. 2002. Directing research to reduce the impacts of nonindigenous species. Conservation Biology 16: 630-640.
Soule, M. 1985. What is conservation biology? BioScience 35: -734.


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