Pa. hunters work to protect turkeys

October 25, 2000

Pa. hunters work to protect turkeys

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - Ring Spencer Miller's home phone number and if he's not in, his answering machine sounds like a lonely wild turkey calling its mate.

For guys like Spencer Miller, Doug Tosten and Dennis Barnhart, wild turkeys, or more precisely, hunting wild turkeys, is close to being a religion.

Tosten, 42, of Fayetteville, has a wild turkey tattooed on his left bicep.

Miller, 66, of Newville, Pa., took early retirement from his plumbing job because the work interfered with his turkey hunting.

"It's like a fever to me," Miller said, even though he has only shot two turkeys with his 12-gauge Mossberg pump shotgun in the last 12 years.

Tosten's weapon of choice against the big bronze game birds is the bow and arrow. Barnhart, 53, of Green Village, Pa., prefers a shotgun.


Their common denominator and that of thousands like them is the National Wild Turkey Federation. It's a lobbying group, it promotes turkey hunter safety and some of the more active members spend a lot of time working in the woods to improve habitat and food sources for turkeys.

All three of the men were complaining this week that the number of turkeys in the 85,000-acre Michaux State Forest, which runs through Franklin, Adams and Cumberland counties, has been down in the last 12 years or so. "We just don't know why yet," Miller said.

Mary Jo Casalena, a state wildlife biologist, said she is conducting a study of the turkey population at Michaux State Forest and environs, the area designated as Turkey Management Area 7B.

Turkeys are trapped, tagged and monitors are affixed to them to track their movements, Casalena said. She said the goal is to learn why the population in the forest area is down. "We hope to have an answer in about a year-and-a-half," she said.

Casalena credits wild turkey federation volunteers with being "a really big help. They put their money where their mouths are. They show up at 4 a.m. to help us with the trapping and the survey. They plant trees and shrubs for habitat."

Nationally, the wild turkey population was nearly wiped out from over-hunting and bad timbering by the close of the 19th century, Miller said.

"In the old days they clear-cut everything and that destroyed the food and habitat for turkeys," Miller said. "Today, they do selective cutting, taking two or three acres in one place then move on to another. When the new growth starts to come into an area that has been cut over, it creates new habitat for turkeys."

New conservation methods, laws regulating the logging industry and improved management have combined to bring the birds back in great numbers in all states. Pennsylvania has a turkey trapping and banding operation to keep track of the birds' movements and habits.

Tosten is president of the 243-member Fort Chambers Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation in Chambersburg. Barnhart belongs to that chapter. Miller belongs to the 365-member Michaux Yellow Breeches Chapter in Cumberland County. It's named after a stream that runs through the forest.

Both chapters work closely with the state Department of Conservation and National Resources in developing and improving turkey habitat, said Philip Varndell, a department forester and wildlife coordinator at Michaux.

The Yellow Breeches chapter maintains a nursery in Michaux State Forest where it grows the kinds of trees and bushes that provide food or habitat for turkeys, Varndell said.

"We have hawthorne, crabapple, autumn olive and barberry in the orchard," he said. "We usually plant about 600 a year from our own nursery plus we plant another 1,000 trees that we get from the state every year to improve turkey habitat in the forest," Miller said.

Last year, the members planted crabapple trees under a power line that runs through the forest, he said. The clubs also plant grasses that attract insects that turkeys eat.

Other chapters come to the forest to help, too, he said. "We all work together with the state," said Miller, who in 1999 was named volunteer of the year by the state.

Since 1984, the Pennsylvania chapters, through dues and fund-raisers, have given more than $1 million to the state to improve turkey habitat, Tosten said.

"Our goal is to improve turkey habitat, but while we're doing it we also improve habitat for all animals and birds," Barnhart said.

Tosten keeps three wild turkeys as pets in a pen on the side of his garage. Until this spring there was only a pair until his children hatched about a dozen of their eggs in a home incubator. They gave away all the poults except one, which they named Dog, an apt name since the eight-month-old hen acts more like a dog than a turkey.

Dog has become the family pet. She never leaves the yard when let out of the pen, hangs around the family whenever she can and sat on Tosten's lap and cooed during a recent interview.

"Next year we plan to hatch some of her eggs. If they come out we're going to call them puppies," he said.

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