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Caney Mountain: Instrumental in Bringing Turkeys Back

75 years ago, turkeys were nearly gone from Missouri. But a decision by the Conservation Department in the late 30s involving a beautiful spot in the Ozarks marked a turnaround for the birds. KSMU's Michele Skalicky has more...

I’m in what could be considered one of the most beautiful areas in Missouri—the Caney Mountain Conservation Area in Ozark County. It was here 50 years ago that wild turkeys made their comeback in the state. It’s hard to imagine a time when seeing a wild turkey was a rarity in Missouri. It’s common now to see several while taking a drive down country roads. But Bernice Morrison remembers.The 92-year-old was 23 when the Missouri Department of Conservation made a purchase that would change the fate of the wild turkey in the state.Morrison says by the 1930s, there were very few turkeys left in Missouri…

"I think they were poached out mostly. There wasn't no regulations that I remember of at that time. If there was, it wasn't being enforced 'cause they didn't have a conservation agent down there."

It’s estimated that, by the 1930s, there werefewer than 2500 turkeys still in existence here.Early efforts to bring the turkey back included stocking game farm birds, but turkey numbers stayed low. In 1940, the Conservation Department had an opportunity to purchase more than 5500 acres in Ozark County. When Starker Leopold, project leader of the state’s turkey restoration effort visited the land at Caney Mountain, he fell in love with it and thought it perfect to use as a refuge.Bernice Morrison knew the land well. He was born in a log cabin there in 1917, and had lived in the area all of his life at that point.So, he and his father, W.J. Morrison, started working with Leopold to bring the wild turkey back. They helped fence the entire area—a major effort in the intense summer heat that took more than 4 months. They helped put in ponds and planted food plots…all in an effort to see that the 15 or 20 turkeys that were left on the refuge would thrive and reproduce. Morrison says, once the area was protected, turkey numbers began increasing rather quickly…

"I was surprised as quick as they rebounded."

The Conservation Department closed the state to turkey hunting in 1940. In 1960, turkey numbers had increased to the point that hunting was allowed to resume.But it wasn’t without a lot of effort. Morrison left Missouri for Kansas in 1943, but returned to his home state in 1956 and started working for the Conservation Department as refuge patrolman at Caney Mountain…a job that had been held by his father before he passed away in 1942.As part of his job and as part of the effort to bring turkeys back, Morrison trapped turkeys using a cannon net. He remembers finding spots where turkeys had been scratching and then baiting an area big enough for the net…

"And when they got to where you thought they was ready to trap, we set up a cannon net, you know, and cover them all up with leaves and everything...set our blind up behind there, maybe 30 or 40 steps behind, away from there, and then when the turkeys would get on there, try to get them all with their heads all down at one time. Once they got their heads down all of them at once, that's when you shot the net over."

He says the most he caught at one time was 34…

"You can't imagine how they flopped and jumped around and got tangled up in that net."

Once the turkeys were caught, they were transported all over the state. Today, turkeys are an important part of the state’s economy. According to Larry Reiken, wildlife supervisor for the Ozark Region, there are about 600,000 of the birds in Missouri today and about 60,000 are taken each year by hunters. He says that benefits the entire state…

"It is important to the state not only economically but just the amount of enjoyment it provides. You can see through Bernice's expression, when there wasn't any gobbling activity on the ridges of Caney Mountain, the place didn't seem the same, and then just to watch his expression to see what has come from his efforts as far as this wonderful turkey population and the fact that we can harvest over 50,000 gobblers in the spring, it's just tremendous to be part of."

Bernice Morrison is proud of his role in bring turkeys back in Missouri. As he looks back on his 92 years, he feels a sense of accomplishment…

"Well, I like to feel like I've had a small part in bringing deer and turkey both back, of course not all of it myself but everybody else that protected them--that's farmers and everybody that helped protect them had a hand in bringing them back you know."

He continues to turkey hunt—he went hunting as late as last year. And he says he never tires of it…

"It's pretty exciting to see that old gobbler, you know, gobbling and struttin'."

Morrison says he never thought he’d see the day when turkeys were so plentiful in Missouri and he’s glad he was able to play a role in bringing them back.The 51st turkey hunting season in Missouri begins April 19th.For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.

W. J. Morrison (left), Bernice Morrison (right) The remains of the cabin where Bernice Morrison was born in 1917
photo credit:  Michele Skalicky Bernice Morrison in front of the cabin where he was born
photo credit:  Michele Skalicky Bernice Morrison in front of the cabin where he was born
photo credit:  Michele Skalicky