Big Birds, Big Problems

In the world of conservation, most of the turkeys wear uniforms

Harley Shaw has worked for, with and among turkeys for close to 30 years as a former Arizona Game and Fish research biologist. In Stalking the Big Bird: A Tale of Turkeys, Biologists, and Bureaucrats, he talks turkey about his recollections of human intervention into nature's realm.

Praised for his first wildlife management book, Soul Among Lions ("He can damn bureaucracy as only one who has been caught up in it can," commented Gray's Sporting Journal), Shaw has taken his second editorial step in a different direction, this time focusing on two kinds of turkeys--the feathered kind that hides behind trees, and the uniformed kind that hides behind desks.

Shaw combines his love of the outdoors and its creatures with insider knowledge about animal-human coexistence problems, blending humor and storytelling skills to illustrate weaknesses in wildlife management. His 160-page paperback describes studies of Merriam's wild turkey as lab experiments gone awry, revealing bureaucratic boondoggles in wildlife management. The author draws on years of fieldwork to shed light on achievements and failures of this aspect of conservation. According to Shaw, effective management of this particular bird--and by extension, other wildlife--is hamstrung by political agendas, social misunderstandings, inappropriate research and above all, human indifference.

The wild turkey is a native of the North American continent and thrived for centuries without human intervention; its remains have been found in Pleistocene deposits dating back hundreds of thousands of years. Although wild turkeys may be less charismatic than the pumas that were the subject of Shaw's earlier book, his focus on the big birds allows him to spotlight another species: the wildlife management professional who seeks to help, but frequently hinders, the bird's well-being and its future.

In our part of the world, wild fowl--specifically the white-feathered Merriam's turkey subspecies--have been gobbling around the forests of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado since the early 1500s. By the early 1900s, however, logging, ranching and development had all contributed to a serious extirpation of the turkey population over much of the range, and restoration programs became necessary.

Some of the early conservation efforts were based on science. Others were based on idealism and good intent. Some succeeded, but many did not. Projects that deviated from original plans are what make up anecdotes in Shaw's dissertation. Take aerial turkey transplantation to remote locations north of the Grand Canyon. No airstrip? No problem. The birds got a quick introduction to their new homes by being pitched out of slow-flying aircraft from a couple thousand feet up, left to glide to their new habitat. The Arizona transplant efforts benefited from the negative experience of eastern biologists who, wanting to minimize trauma, air-dropped their birds at a lower altitude. "Those drops," writes Shaw, "were made from too low an elevation, and the birds failed to react rapidly enough to their sudden freedom. They didn't unfold their wings quickly enough and fell to the earth like small bombs." The survival rate was zero. "Such are the travails of progress," he notes wryly.

Skirting both regulation and convention, turkey researchers tried to enter the high-tech world with clandestine use of radio frequencies and UHF for their studies. The electronic neophytes hoped their low-powered beeps would go unheard by authorities.

"Using airwaves illegally was probably not all that bold," writes Shaw, "but for those of us working in a regulatory agency, violating another agency's rules was a step we did not make without some anxiety. If higher-ups in the department were aware of our transgressions, they did not acknowledge them."

Much of Arizona's restoration efforts went on in nearby mountain ranges--the Chiricahuas, Huachucas, Santa Ritas, Catalinas and Rincons--where birds had been completely wiped out in the 1800s. Success rates have been mixed, with the best bird populations currently found in the Chiricahua Mountains. To divulge more detail about the experiments and experiences would minimize the impact of Shaw's personal accounts, but he lets you know where his heart is: "Any day in the woods looking for wild turkey is a success the moment that day has begun," he writes.

Despite management mistakes of the past, "we have no choice but to intervene in some way," he writes. "Without some effort to mitigate the increasing presence of humans, we will destroy wildlife at an increasing pace. We must worry less about wildlife management and more about maintaining large expanses of habitat--which puts us in direct opposition to economic development forces. And unless the world of big business suddenly undergoes an epiphany and accepts the importance of ecological biodiversity and the wild expanses required to sustain it, no amount of local tinkering is going to help."

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