With Texas Parks and Wildlife Department once again putting wild turkeys on the ground in East Texas, the National Wild Turkey Federation has gone from being an after-thought wildlife conservation organization to a significant partner.
To help support its nationwide conservation projects, the Smith County chapter will hold its fourth Hunting Heritage Banquet beginning at 6 p.m. Friday at the Tyler Rose Garden Center.
Certainly not as well known as conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited or the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, NWTF in recent years has found a niche in helping protect the future of upland game bird species beyond the wild turkey. They are also involved in projects that benefit quail, pheasant and grouse as well, all birds that typically have overlapping needs with turkey.
"It is all about habitat restoration and preservation for future generations. If we don't do it, who will?," said AJ Cook, the Smith County chapter president.
Through its Save the Habitat Save The Hunt initiative, NWTF is focused on working with private landowners and state agencies to improve more than 4 million acres of existing upland habitat in the United States and to open access to 500,000 new acres to hunting.
In recent year NWTF has joined with organizations such as DU, Quail Unlimited, Pheasants Unlimited and others for large research projects in a number of states including Texas.
On a smaller scale the organization works with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to provide private landowners advice on habitat enhancement.
Of course turkeys are still NWTF core focus. During the 1990s the organization helped facilitate the trap and transport of Eastern wild turkeys into East Texas counties. It is providing the same role now as TPWD has embarked on its super stocking of turkeys in the Pineywoods and Post Oak regions. The department has released 240 birds on three sites this winter.
"(NWTF) helps with the transport of birds by air through the national organization and by ground through the state chapter," said Jason Hardin, TPWD's turkey program leader. "They also serve as the banker for the states providing the birds. Once the states decide how they will allocate the replacement dollars they send a request for the funding to NWTF."
Although hunting in the counties where the birds are being released is closed, Cook said those releases are generating excitement.
"People are sending me pictures of turkeys that have just been released in Rusk and Anderson counties. They are already spreading out. My father-in-law saw some two miles down the road and across the highway from the release site. That is exciting," Cook said.
He added that in the future he hopes a 10,000-acre block that completely within Smith County or includes a part of the county can be put into a cooperative so the turkeys can be released near Tyler again.
"It is about the future generations. I want to leave this world better than my grandfather and father left it for me," Cook said.
The TPWD/NWTF partnership goes deeper than just the releases. The two are working together to improve habitat where Eastern turkeys have been released in the past and where they could go in the future.
Since 2007 TPWD underwrites two NWTF cooperative biologist positions in the state that have resulted in more than $4.5 million worth of habitat work on public and private land.
TPWD has also awarded the organization $1.4 million in Game Bird Stamp Funds in an effort to bring back native grasses that benefit wild turkeys, quail, grassland birds and other wildlife on both public and private land.
Tickets to the banquet start at $55 for an individual and $80 for a couple. Both include an NWTF membership and the meal. Sponsorships start at $300 for an individual sponsorship with two tickets up to $1050 for a Platinum Gun Sponsorship that includes 10 tickets and a gun with up to a $400 value.
For information on tickets or become an NWTF volunteer, contact Cook at 903-539-1505.