Author: Cassie Gasaway
The National Wild Turkey Federation will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023. According to Tom Spezze, NWTF’s national director of field conservation and state policy, conservation is the backbone of the organization. “It’s our entire platform; it’s the core of our mission in addition to conserving the wild turkey and preserving our hunting heritage,” he said. The NWTF’s approach to conservation has changed dramatically over the last 49 years, so let’s explore the organization’s history, current priorities and initiatives, and how ATA members can get involved to boost conservation efforts nationwide.
The NWTF was founded in 1973 to increase wild turkey populations across the country. When people showed interest in the bird, the organization moved in to assist. NWTF staff worked with locals to plant food plots, create watering holes, remove invasive species and conduct cleanup projects to give native or “trapped and transferred” wild turkeys the best chance at survival in the area. Spezze said the habitat-related approach was random and isolated, but it was successful because “every vacant corner has turkeys in it now,” he said.
In 2013, the organization wanted to evolve its conservation efforts and took a different approach with its Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative. The 10-year initiative set goals to recruit 1.5 million hunters, open access to 500,000 additional acres for hunting, and conserve or enhance 4 million acres of critical wildlife habitat. It focused less on individual habitat projects and more on a coordinated large-scale effort with everyone associated with the NWTF. All three goals were accomplished two years early. At the same time, the organization established America’s Big Six, another initiative that separated the country into six different geographical areas, each with similar ecosystems and conservation issues. The approach allowed the NWTF to concentrate funding and staff resources on top conservation priorities within each region.
The success of each initiative prompted NWTF stakeholders to think about conservation in a holistic manner. And the timing of the realization couldn’t have been better because the COVID-19 pandemic halted crucial funding sources, forcing the organization to adapt.
“It caused us to think differently,” Spezze said. “We had to do more with less, and our random approach to conservation became more strategic with a landscape-based focus. We didn’t turn our back on what was successful in the past, but we elevated our game with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, private partners and others.”
The NWTF worked with partners to determine four shared natural resource core values, including water, healthy forests and wildlife habitat, robust recreational activities and secure communities. The change forced NWTF staff and state chapters to shift their focus from local efforts to broader ones connected to other initiatives that could benefit the wild turkey and also improve the ecosystem and environment for all species and recreationists. The newfound mindset and approach created opportunities for the NWTF to improve wild turkey habitat by tackling issues surrounding one of the four conservation values.
Spezze said the NWTF’s national conservation efforts are now categorized into three sections:
1. Initiatives the organization leads like the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, which seeks to improve water quality and create more fire-resilient forests, thus improving wild turkey habitat with help from the US Forest Service.
2. Initiatives that the organization co-leads like the White Oak Initiative, which is focused on the long-term sustainability of white oak forests and the economic, social and environmental benefits they provide to people, plants and animals like the wild turkey.
3. And initiatives that the organization neither leads nor co-leads but assists with regularly as a partner, like the Longleaf Pine Initiative, which the NRCS oversees to restore longleaf forests for the 600 plant and animal species, including wild turkeys, that rely on them.
Each type of initiative positively affects the wild turkey as well as hundreds of other species, making the NWTF’s conservation efforts that much more powerful and impactful.
“The wild turkey is in the middle of all those projects,” Spezze said. “Conservation means what it always has in our last 49 years but the scale that we’re delivering it on is much grander. We’re not only impacting the resource, but we’re inviting other nontraditional partners to the table that have been benefiting from the work we’re doing but not investing in it.”
The change also allowed NWTF volunteers and members to step away from the habitat management work they were used to, to focus on the organization’s hunting heritage programs, including the JAKES Program, Women in the Outdoors Program and Wheelin’ Sportsmen Program. These programs are centered on R3 efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters. They also provide social support to participants and help build a unified hunting community. NWTF volunteers dedicated more of their time to mentoring newcomers, inviting their friends to hunt and working to keep the hunting component of conservation alive, which is extremely important to the NWTF’s mission.
“Hunters are the ultimate conservationists,” Spezze said. “Hunting is a primary tool for population control and wildlife management. The American model of conservation funding is founded on money generated through the Pittman-Robertson Act by sportsmen and women who provide funds every time they buy a hunting license or hunting equipment. So, it’s an easy connection between hunting and conservation, not only from a financial standpoint but in the end result as well.”
NWTF supporters also contribute to conservation by joining the organization, attending the NWTF Convention, attending local NWTF banquets and making financial donations that support the organization’s nationwide efforts. The NWTF uses 89 cents from every dollar generated or donated to improve conservation.
The ATA is proud to support and partner with the NWTF on many of the initiatives described above, and encourages its members to get involved. Spezze outlined three ways to help.
ATA members can support NWTF's initiatives. Photo Credit: NWTF
How ATA Members Can Get Involved
1. Host a class to promote turkey hunting with archery equipment at your business.
Spezze said hunting with archery equipment is the ultimate extreme, and a bow is the choice of most big-game hunters seeking a more rewarding experience. He believes many turkey hunters want to try bowhunting the birds but don’t know how. He encourages ATA members to host classes to provide information to those interested in hunting wild turkeys with archery equipment. These classes help keep people engaged with hunting, which ensures the longevity of hunting, conservation and ATA-member businesses. Consider teaching the course with NWTF biologists and volunteers. Visit the NWTF’s “In Your Area” webpage to find contact information for NWTF representatives in your state.
2. Plug into the NWTF’s R3 efforts and hunting heritage programs.
Many local NWTF chapters host events and activities that introduce people to hunting or encourage and support them to keep hunting, Spezze said. ATA members can connect with these existing efforts to provide support, information or discounted products. Regardless of whether you, your staff or your customers volunteer for events or mentor newcomers, the involvement is a great way to meet like-minded people, potentially recruit new customers, and position your brand as a trusted community resource.
3. Attend a banquet, buy a membership, make a monetary or product donation, or attend the national convention to support the NWTF’s nationwide conservation efforts and initiatives.
Spezze said the NWTF has an average match ratio of 1 to 10, meaning for every dollar the NWTF brings in, they turn it into $10 by working with partners. Supporting the NWTF financially with a donation, or a membership or ticket purchase, benefits the wild turkey and other species and environments, thanks to the NWTF’s forward-thinking approach to conservation.
To learn more about the NWTF, visit the NWTF website. If you have questions regarding how to connect or get involved with the NWTF as an ATA supporter or partner, please contact Josh Gold, ATA’s senior manager of R3 and state relations, at (507) 233-8145 or firstname.lastname@example.org.