As pioneers pushed west and cut and cleared virgin forests, the turkey's habitat changed and wild turkey numbers dwindled. In the late 1700s, turkeys were harvested without restraint and marketed for human consumption. (some historical reports mention that hens sold for 6 cents apiece while big gobblers brought a quarter at game markets). Wild turkeys were so plentiful; in fact, people looked down on turkey as food suitable for the lower classes. Men of means, however, encouraged turkey breeding to insure that turkey feathers-dyed to decorate their wives' hats, dresses and coats-remained in plentiful supply. By the mid 1800s the Civil War brought a shortage of food and the big bird had been eliminated from nearly half of its original range.
In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained. But around 1920, things began to change for the better. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Also, some farsighted leaders began enacting more and more conservation laws, like the Federal Aid in Restoration Act to manage the nation's wildlife populations, including the wild turkey. Early restoration techniques many state agencies believed to be promising, did not work, such as: artificial propagation of game-farm or pen-raised turkeys. Pen-raised turkeys were not properly imprinted on (recognition and attachment) wild hens and did not have the experience and survival skills necessary to live and reproduce in the wild. Released pen-raised birds spread disease to the true wild flocks. Stocking of pen-raised turkeys only served to feed predators and hinder population expansion. Pennsylvania stopped trying to stock pen-raised turkeys in 1981.
As trapping techniques advanced, turkey numbers began to incline. The development of a rapidly propelled cannon net, originally designed for capturing waterfowl, was a major factor in relocating large numbers of wild turkeys for restoration. Thousands of wild turkeys were captured or moved with this technique or variations of it; in addition, drop nets and immobilizing drugs were used.
During the last 60 years, state and federal wildlife agencies, which are funded largely by hunters' dollars, have spent millions on habitat-improvement and turkey trap-and-transplant projects. By 1959 the total turkey population approached one-half million. In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), a nonprofit conservation and educational organization, was founded to conserve the wild turkeys and to regulate people's hunting habits. Since its inception NWTF has contributed more than $82 million on restoring the turkey throughout its original range, and also introducing it into may other regions. In 1994, almost all of the forested eastern United States and much of the forested West had been restocked, with an estimated total turkey population approaching 4 million. Today, some 4.5 million big birds roam 49 states (all except Alaska). Even though loss of habitat and other environmental factors remain causes for concern, wild turkey populations should stay healthy and growing into the future.