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Chestnut Blight-Fighters Breeding Brighter Future

Tide slowly turning in war against against decimating spores

Grand stands of native chestnut trees, now absent from our forest landscapes, are the stuff of legends.

Hailed in its heyday as the “Redwood of the East,” the once mighty and magnificent North American chestnut was a towering, commonplace presence across woodland countrysides, from the middle of Mississippi throughout Appalachia and New England up into Canada.

American chestnuts thrived in nearly all of Tennessee, save some of the western lowlands.

Throughout its 200 million acre range in the eastern United States, chestnuts provided a source of forage for the entire food chain.

Prior to the tree’s calamitous demise in the early and mid-20th Century, chestnuts were “the single most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife from bears to birds,” according to the Tennessee chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation’s website. It was an “essential component of the entire eastern US ecosystem.”

The wood and nuts served as a staple of survival and prosperity for humans as well. Prized not just as a food source for people and livestock, Chestnut trees were a nearly boundless source of sturdy lumber.

Chestnut is estimated to have at one point been the highest timber-volume tree in Tennessee.

Insidious Interloper Introduced

But nature’s native chestnut bounty is no more in this country.

“Oh mighty, magic chestnut tree, how did you slip away from me?” asked Dolly Parton in a musical ode to the arboreal archetype.

The answer was a foreign invader.

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Dr. Hill Craddock discusses chestnut blight disease characteristics at a field demonstration in Cookeville. The orange-colored blight spores can be seen encasing the trunk of this tree.

A fungus blight imported from across the Pacific Ocean on Oriental varieties of chestnut trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s took hold in New York. And over the course of just a few decades, the relentless pestilence — which was relatively innocuous to the Asian chestnut varieties — devastated the non-resistant American chestnut.

“There is no example of a forest disease that so quickly and completely eliminated its host,” Dr. Hill Craddock, a biology professor and chestnut-breeding expert at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, told Center Hill Sun. “It spread very quickly in concentric circles, killing literally billions of trees.”

Craddock said the distinction between “epidemic” and “pandemic” is tragically vital in the tale of the American chestnut tree’s rapid descent toward oblivion.

“This was a true pandemic. There were no unaffected individuals,” he said. “The chestnut blight pandemic may be the worst ecological disaster in the history of North America since the Ice Ages.”

The blight pathogen, which kills back infected trees by scoring and splitting the bark with necrotic cankers, reached Tennessee in the 1930s. By the 1950s, mature American chestnut had been all but obliterated from forests throughout the United States.

However, if there was anything resembling a bright side to the blight plague, it was this: The fungus cankers terminate the tree’s trunk and canopy growth, but the root systems lived on.

And the chestnut is famous for its ability to send up fast-growing new shoots.

“If you walk in the woods today, you can still find chestnut trees sprouting from the base,” said Craddock. “So, therein lies the hope that we can bring them back.”

Craddock, 56, is a celebrity and savant among chestnut restoration enthusiasts. He’s committed his professional life to battling the blight through means of plant breeding and public education about how to engineer a rebound. In a 2004 Smithsonian magazine profile headlined “Chestnutty,” he was described as a “chestnut evangelist.”

This spring, Craddock led a group of regional foresters on a tour of a university chestnut-breeding plot he is managing near Tennessee Tech’s Hyder-Burks Agricultural Pavilion.

“The strategy we’re using is to create a hybrid between the blight-resistant Asian species and the American chestnut,” said Craddock.

Backcrossing to the Future

The breeding process he is using to develop blight-resistant trees is known as “backcrossing.” Parent trees of both Chinese and American are crossed, then back-bred to successive generations to eliminate most of the Chinese tree’s physical characteristics — except for blight resistance.

“If we start with a tree that’s fifty-fifty Chinese-American and we backcross that to an American, we get a tree that is three-quarters American and one-quarter Chinese. When we backcross that generation, then we get a tree that’s seven-eighths American. Backcross that, and then we get a tree that is fifteen-sixteenths American.”

Craddock selects for trees that have the look or “form” of the American chestnut, and also display blight resistance.

“When the trees get up to four or five years old and two or three inches in diameter, we deliberately inoculate the tree with the chestnut blight fungus,” he said.

Trees that show acceptable resistance are used in future crosses, thus bringing forth evermore resistant varieties that are, genetically speaking, very close to native chestnuts.

Seeds from the most resistant strains are then planted in a seed orchard. “In those trees we expect to recover full resistance,” he said.

So, in a nutshell, things are looking up for the iconic giant that once shaded the eastern United States and showered sustenance onto forest floors.

“Ultimate success,” however, is measured not in decades, or even human lifespans, but more like centuries, said Craddock.

“We are talking about ecosystem restoration” he said. “We need a tree that can survive and reproduce on its own under natural conditions. We are hoping to be able to release these trees into the woods in a way that allows natural selection to take over.”

For that to occur, trees must display a level of blight resistance enabling them to survive and reproduce in the wild. “In my lifetime, I think we will have initiated those plantings,” Craddock said.

“A hundred or two hundred years from now, I think we will be able to measure success in another way: if we have naturally reproducing populations of chestnut trees in the forest,” he said.

Interested in learning more about chestnut trees, or obtaining young trees that have been bred for blight-resistance? Contact Dr. Craddock through the American Chestnut Foundation at paul@acf.org, or visit the Tennessee chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation website at tnacf.org.

(Photo at top of page: Krystal Kate Place of Chattanooga is pollinating chestnut flowers. The bags over the blossoms are to prevent pollen pollution.)

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Trophy Browns and Rainbows Sharing Caney With Big Brook Trout

Shad-fattened lunker lurking below Center Hill Dam shatters state record

Some anglers say it’s bad luck to catch a fish on your first cast of the day.

Try telling that to Sasa Krezic.

He actually caught several more fish after that big brook trout gobbled up his introductory baitfish offering below Center Hill Dam’s spillway.

Of course, it was April Fools Day, so maybe all bets were off, superstition-wise. Or maybe the First Cast Curse just doesn’t apply if the catch is big enough.

But it’ll assuredly be that first fish on that lucky first cast that Krezic remembers, and probably for the rest of his life.

As he was wrestling the bruiser ashore, the 27-year-old Nashvillian figured it was “probably a keeper.” But little did Krezic figure he’d also soon be the keeper of a new state record for brook trout: 4 pounds 12 ounces.

Krazic, who spent the first decade of his life in the war-ravaged Balkans, said he actually “got pretty lucky” in getting his name added to the record books.

A friend he was fishing with observed, “That’s a pretty good fish — a nice-sized brook trout.”

Krazic, who’d only ever caught browns and rainbows on the Caney, said he’s seen bigger fish come out of the river. And he wasn’t particularly familiar with the state records, which, for brook trout, was 3 pounds 14 ounces and had been set on the Hiwassee River in 1973.

“I really wouldn’t have known if this other guy hadn’t looked up the old record online on his phone and told me, ‘I think this one probably weighs more’,” Krezic said.

They weighed Krazic’s brookie on a digital fish scale. Then they promptly put in a call to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

No Joke: Not a Case of Mistaken Identity

Will Collier, a TWRA fish biologist in the area, figured somebody was angling to hook him into a bit of April Fools mischief when he got a call from the agency’s enforcement officer, Tony Cross.

A record-breaking brook trout on the Caney, huh? And the guy caught it on his first cast? You don’t say.

To Collier’s surprise, the fishy story turned out to be legit. And it wasn’t a misidentified brown trout, which he’d alternately suspected. It was indeed a big brookie — almost a pound bigger than the old record.

But the more he thought about it, the more sense it made.

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YEP, THAT’S A KEEPER. Sasa Krezic of Nashville caught a state record brook trout in the Center HIll Dam spillway on April Fools Day this year.

“Compared to rainbow trout and brown trout, we haven’t put all that many brook trout in,” Collier said. “But if a person was going to catch a state record, it’s not too surprising that it would be by the dam here, where they feed on shad kills and whatnot. He caught it on a minnow, which made perfect sense. Certain times of year the fish are piling up right there, eating those little fish that come from the lake, getting fat in the process.”

There was another curious quirk, or near-quirk, in the tale of April Fools 2016’s catch of the day. Had the fish been just a half-inch shorter, it would have fallen within the Caney Fork’s “protected length range” — which for brooks and rainbows is 14-20 inches.

In that case, it would have been illegal to keep.

“It would have been something to have to write a ticket for a state record fish,” said Collier.

Bumpy Road for Brookies

For TWRA’s chief of fisheries, Frank Fiss, catching wind that a new state record brook trout had been pulled from the Caney Fork was particularly gratifying. And likewise for Andrew Currie, who manages Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery — where the big new state record brookie was reared from egg to a fry before its release, which they estimate was probably three or four years ago.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Fiss.

Back in the early and mid-2000s, TWRA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Dale Hollow hatchery, weren’t keen on stocking the bigger and hardier non-native brook trout strains in Tennessee waters. They feared competition or cross-breeding would jeopardize the smaller and more threatened southern Appalachian brook trout.

“We were not real eager to expand brook trout populations,” said Fiss. “But then we got a better handle on what we had in the mountains — which areas needed protecting, and which areas already had northern brook trout in them.”

They figured they could plant northern brook trout in lower elevation Tennessee rivers where they’d never commingle with native populations.

The Watauga, Clinch and Lower Caney fit the bill. Between 2007 and 2008, stocking commenced in those waters. But it wasn’t an overnight success, as any new fish-stocking initiative tends to involve some trial and error.

The Watauga was the first river where they planted. But the fish all vanished in short order. They tended to run up into the tributaries and disappear, said Fiss. So they scrapped the program there.

On the Clinch River and the Caney Fork, brookies fared much better — particularly early on.

“I remember when we first put them in, I wrote an article saying that maybe in a few years we would have brook trout over 14 inches,” said Fiss. “Then, like the next year, fishing was terrible for brook trout, and I was wishing I’d never written the article.”

Big Stocking Season Predicted for Summer of ’17

Now, though, Fiss is feeling better about the program going forward. As is Currie, who told Center Hill Sun he’s confident that after a few tough years getting good brook trout eggs shipped in, more reliable supplies are lined up.

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Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery manager Andrew Currie surveys fish-rearing raceways in Clay County, TN. Currie manages the facility, which raises brown, rainbow and brook trout for stocking in regional waters. Netting hung above the pools helps reduce predation loss to fish-feasting birds.

Last year no brook trout were stocked in the Caney because the eggs, which come from Utah, were in such short supply. And this year the Dale Hollow hatchery will only release about 5,000 brookies. But a lot more are in the early stages of development. In order to enhance their chances of survival in the wild, the fish are usually 16-18 months old and nine inches long when they’re released, Currie said.

Next summer’s goal is 100,000 brook trout, Currie said. Barring unforeseen hazards and snags, a good portion of those will ultimately find their way to the Caney Fork.

In the first months of their lives, brook trout are particularly susceptible to adverse water quality, especially nitrogen supersaturation, said Currie. But their survivability substantially improves once they’re big enough for transport to the outdoor concrete raceways — to the point that they’re hardier even than the hatchery rainbows and browns.

“Once they go outside, they outperform everything,” said Currie. “Once they get up to about three inches, they do well. It is getting them there that’s the difficulty.”

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Buffalo at Home Roaming TN Highland Range

America’s newest national symbol is on majestic display at Lazy G Ranch in Putnam County

Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of the great American buffalo.

But prior to the demolition of wild bison herds across this country in the latter 19th Century, the massive, magnificent beasts wandered vast sweeps of the continent — not just the Great Plains and Mountain West.

The historical range of Bison bison bison — which is the buffalo’s distinctive scientifically accurate name — encompassed an immense expanse of the North American interior, from Alaska to Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle.

Buffalo Valley, just off the I-40 Center Hill Dam exit, is said for example to have gotten its name because the area served as a congregating point for migrating bands of bison meandering down to water in the Caney Fork.

The multitude of bison that once ranged this country at the end of the 18th Century, and the magnitude of their demise in the century that followed, is almost impossible for the modern American mind to grasp.

More than 40 million buffalo are estimated to have roamed what’s now the Lower 48 and upper Mexico two centuries ago, and tens of million more lived north of the U.S. border. In less than 50 years in the late 1800s, buffalo numbers plummeted to near extinction.

“To go from tens of millions of wild buffalo down to thousands — that’s something that is hard to comprehend,” says Eddie Gaw, who runs a herd of aboubisonbwt 30 bison on his Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Hwy 135.

Today roughly half a million bison exist in America, on both public and private lands. Wild herds are managed by fish and game agencies in 11 states, including the Land Between the Lakes. That’s far, far fewer than the wild wandering herds of centuries past that the Lewis and Clark journals said “darkened the whole plains.”

But all the same, it’s an undeniable turnabout in the bison’s fortunes. And that was brought about by a growing popular appreciation for buffalo, coupled with efforts to preserve the colossal even-toed ungulate’s iconic place in the country’s imagination by ensuring it continues to exist on its landscapes.

Gaw’s buffalo serve as a living local monument to an ongoing conservation triumph. But to him, raising bison in the 21st Century is about planning for the future as much or more than just remembering the past.

Safeguarding a Living Symbol

The bison’s rebound has bisonwebbabymommabeen commemorated this year with its formal recognition as an official symbol of the United States.

In April, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the buffalo as the “national mammal.” President Obama signed the Act into law May 9.

The Act declares that “bison are considered a historical symbol of the United States.” Buffalo were “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” the measure goes on.

Furthermore, buffalo historically shaped the terrain they roamed, which aided in the health and survival of other native plant and animal species. “Bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands,” the Act reads.

Passage of the Bison Legacy Act marked the climax to a half-decade-long effort by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of more than 60 buffalo-advocating businesses, ranchers and nonprofit groups. A statement on the coalition’s website described Congress’s approval of the Act as “a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture.”

Marketing Sustainable Meat

The Bison Legacy Act specifically recognizes early efforts by private ranchers in rescuing the buffalo from oblivion.

“A small group of ranchers helped save bison from extinction in the late 1800s by gathering the remnants of the decimated herds,” declares the Act, which also expresses that “bison hold significant economic value for private producers and rural communities.”

Today, bison that are “under the stewardship of private producers” are responsible for “creating jobs and providing a sustainable and healthy meat source contributing to the food security of the United States,” the Act declares.

Dedicated to promoting bison’s potential as a source of beauty, pride and healthy red-meat protein, the National Bison Association is among the groups delighted to see the bison given official national significance along with the bald eagle and the oak, which was declared America’s National Tree in 2004.

“There has never been a national mammal,” said the association’s assistant director, Jim Matheson. “Bison being the largest mammal on the continent, and also probably the greatest conservation success story of America. So we see it as a great fit.”

Some of the bison at the Lazy G Ranch, particularly non-dominant bulls, are slaughtered for meat and hides. But Gaw’s foremost mission is raising awareness. He’s hopeful a charge of bison-promoting publicity related to the National Mammal classification will send more folks his direction for a firsthand look at the country’s newest symbol.

Gaw has set aside about half of his 150 acre spread of rolling grassy pasture for his bison. Over time, he’d like to more than double the size of the herd to around 75, and expand their range to most or all the ranch’s pastureland.

Awesome to Behold

Already, it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen cars pull into his ranch driveway on a Saturday to gaze while the buffalo graze.

What is it about bison that people find so captivating?

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“Blizzard” is a rare white bison. His owner, Eddie Gaw, bought him as a calf two years ago. Like a lot of privately owned buffalo in America, Blizzard’s genetic profile probably includes some trace DNA remnants of beef-cow. Mr. Gaw is a member of the National Bison Association, which opposes ranchers purposefully cross-breeding buffalo with cattle.

“Just look at them,” says Gaw. The two words that typically spring to people’s minds when viewing bison — especially up close — are “powerful” and “majestic.”

That, and “big,” of course.

Bulls can weigh more than a ton and stand six-and-a-half feet tall at their hulking shoulders, The horns on their mammoth, wooly heads — worn by males and females alike — can grow two feet long. These burly beasts seem not far removed from the Ice Age.

Bison are startlingly agile and fast. “Buffalo can jump six feet vertical. Anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump,” Gaw said. And they can outrun a horse over sustained distances.

Just looking at them is precisely what Gaw wants more people to do at his ranch. He encourages visitors to stop and simply behold the grand critters.

Their stately grace is undeniable, whether ambling slowly along munching at turf, laying about ruminating their cuds, loping over a hill in a rumbling formation, or blithely bathing in a dirt wallow, which Gaw said they do to ward away bugs.

“A lot of people just don’t really know much about buffalo,” he said. “Anytime I see people down by the road watching them, especially if they’ve got kids, I like to go down and talk to them, and maybe educate them a little.”

Gaw is happy to entertain fibisonwebwarningeld trip buses of youngsters and adults. Residents of the Fairfield Glade Retirement Community in Cumberland County were excited to visit after reading a story in the Crossville Chronicle a couple years back about a rare white buffalo calf that Gaw had acquired from South Dakota.

“Blizzard,” as the blond young bull was christened, is a baby no more. But he still attracts an audience, including American Indians for whom a white bison holds particularly solemn spiritual significance.

Gaw said Indians have come to his ranch and sat on the grass for hours at a time meditating on the sight of Blizzard and the rest of the herd. “I’ve even had them write me letters asking for locks of hair,” he said. “If they have buffalo hair in their house, it’s Good Medicine.”Google ChromeScreenSnapz005

One of the best viewing times to watch the bison on Gaw’s ranch is as the afternoon wanes. That’s when they tend to get particularly lively and animated, calves and adults alike.

“In the evening, sometimes they’ll get to running and run the whole area of their field,” said Gaw. “They’re liable to do it for 30 minutes, chasing each other just like they are playing.”

If you’d like to call ahead to book a guided visit, call Eddie Gaw at 931-528-1681. Look them up on Facebook at Lazy G Ranch TN. The ranch address is 6070 Dodson Branch Rd (Hwy 135), which is about five miles north of TTU’s Hooper Eblen Center.

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Burgess Falls Overlooks Closed, Park Still Open

Repairs planned, but not for popular old metal stairway

Storm-damage last summer to scenic observation decks and the unique gorge-descending staircase are keeping prime Burgess Falls viewing points inaccessible this spring.

A notice on the state park’s website declares, “Repair work should begin on the overlook shortly, but the stairs down to the main falls will remained closed.”

Visitors may still hike along the Falling Water River and view various smaller cascades in the park.

“Extensive damage” to the metal staircase and overlooks in July resulted in both being “compromised and badly damaged,” park officials say.

Repairs are planned for the main falls overlook, which will cost around $55,000, and the middle falls overlook after that, said Kelly Brockman, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman.

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Storms last summer blew out two overlooks and the staircase into the gorge at the popular state park along Falling Water River.

Federal money has also been earmarked for park upgrades by way of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “That should help as well,” she said. “We do have funding for that, and we are in the early design process.”

However, no plans are in the works to fix and reopen the staircase, which is fastened to 90-year-old concrete pillars.

“That’s more of a capital project, and we don’t have funding for that right now,” said Brockman.

Located on the Falling Water River southwest of Cookeville, Burgess Falls State Park is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

“A lot of folks come from all over the United States to see this, it’s unbelievable,” said Mike Jeffers, whose family runs MMKM Family Produce on Burgess Falls Road.

Jeffers’ business is noticeably off this spring, as it was last year after the overlook and staircase closings.

“We’re down 50 percent, easy,” he said. “People go down there and they come out mad. They drive a long way and they can’t see anything.”

Jeffers, who’s been in business 13 years, figures he can weather the financial doldrums, though. When the Window Cliffs Natural Area opens, “we’ll be right in the middle of both parks,” he said.

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Can-Do Trout Flies for the Caney Fork

Ronnie Howard is an expert Tennessee angler with decades of fish-finding experience on regional waters. He’s also the resident fly fishing aficionado for Cumberland Transit outfitters in Nashville.

Howard chatted with Center Hill Sun about some tactics and must-have trout flies that will enhance your chances of hooking up with a trophy brown, ‘bow or brookie when you bug out for the Caney Fork River.

Go-to patterns include woolly buggers, midges, soft hackles, nymphs, emergers, mayfly imitators, stimulators and, occasionally, elk hair caddis and cicadas.

One of the not-so-obvious flies that every trout angler ought to have at the ready for when the fish get inflexibly finicky is an everyday red or black ant.

“Most folks don’t think an ant is capable of catching big fish, but big fish like ants, too,” said Howard.

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Talkin’ Turkey Restoration in TN

Robust return of iconic game bird has been hailed a marvel of modern conservation

Few sounds echoing through the woods are more emblematic of springtime in Tennessee than the exuberant gobble of a strutting tom turkey.

But not so long ago, that sound — along with clucks, cackles, peeps, whistles, yelps and other modes of turkey talk — was all but unheard in the wilds.

By the early 20th Century, turkeys had virtually disappeared from Tennessee. Remnant populations survived only in remote swatches of the Cumberland Plateau and Mississippi River bottomlands.

turkeynwtfToday, however, turkey populations throughout the country appear stronger than at any time since likely before Europeans began settling North America.

And nowhere has the rebound been more impressive than Tennessee and the South. The great turkey turnaround is one of the “tremendous success stories” of American wildlife restoration efforts, said Brad Miller, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“Particularly in the last 25 years or so, turkeys have really grown in numbers across the state,” he said. “In 1990, hunters killed a little over 2,600 birds in Tennessee. Fast forward to the year 2000, and they reported killing a little more than 22,000 in Tennessee.”

In the current decade, hunters are bagging in the neighborhood of 30,000-35,000 birds a year statewide, said Miller.

Few have a keener appreciation for the turkey’s arduous odyssey than Tim White, a biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

White’s become something of a Tennessee turkey historian, having investigated two-and-a-half centuries worth of books, statistics, articles and photos documenting the demise and recovery of turkeys across the three Grand Divisions.

He calls today’s overall robust health of today’s flocks “pretty astounding,” given what the future looked to hold in the first half of the last century.

But even well before that, turkeys were facing trouble. Throughout the mid-to-late 1700s and into the 1800s, wild turkey populations had started declining, he told the Center Hill Sun. The culprit then was primarily over-hunting.

War is Hell on Wildlife, Too

But it was the Civil War and its aftermath that set in motion the most ruinous period for the wild turkey. Habitat destruction resulting from four savage years of military operations in the South proved catastrophic for many native wild species, said White.

“The Civil War had some pretty devastating impacts on habitat and wildlife, and not just turkeys,” he said. Estimates suggest that in the years 1861-1865, Union and Confederate armies were clearing 400,000 acres of timber a year just for firewood, White said.

In the war’s aftermath, so continued the “big downward slide for a lot of wildlife, like elk and passenger pigeons that went extinct,” he said. “Deer and turkeys were really hit hard, too.”

“People killed and ate pretty much anything that they could find. There was widespread poverty,” he said. “Most everything was in pretty serious decline.”

Under the Deadening Chestnut Tree

Yet the the nadir was still to come.

Another decimating shock started taking shape in the early years of the 20th Century: The appearance of the chestnut blight. Over the course of the ensuing four decades, virtually all the mature, native chestnut trees in the eastern United States were felled by the disease. Prior to the blight, as many as one in every four or five trees in American hardwood forests are thought to have been chestnuts.

“The chestnut was really common in the Southeast back in the day,” said White. “It was a really important food source — and it was suddenly gone.”

To make matters worse, as the chestnut die-off was climaxing, the Great Depression commenced. And just as in the aftermath of the Civil War, destitute-stricken rural populations often turned to hunting wild meat for basic sustenance, or selling for extra money.

“Everything seemed to be working against the turkey back then,” said White. “The forests had been obliterated all across the Southeast. By the end of the 1930s, we were pretty well at a low point with wildlife — not just in the Southeast but probably everywhere.”

Hatching Restoration Plans

For the entire decade of the forties, turkey hunting was banned in Tennessee. But White said few probably took much notice: There were hardly any birds left to kill anyway.

Over roughly the same period, more than 3,700 pen‐reared “wild” turkeys were released across the state, 200 at a time. Most all succumbed to predation or disease or the general rigors of nature, and the stocking of the quasi-domesticated turkeys was halted in the early fifties.

White sees 1949 as the beginning of the bounce-back for turkeys. With the state Legislature’s formation of the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission as a stand-alone agency, more focus and technology was brought to bear on restoration, and regulation of hunting became a primary concern.

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A state conservation officer tags one of only 14 turkeys legally killed in 1951. That was the first year turkey hunting was open since 1940. (Photo credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives; Dept. of Conservation photo collection.)

Still, the 50s were lean times. Conservation officers at the time reported turkeys absent in more than half of Tennessee. In many of the counties where turkeys were confirmed to exist, sightings were “very rare.”

But things were actually starting to look up.

Wildlife managers in 1951 began attempting to trap both deer and turkeys for transplant, a strategy that would ultimately prove essential for reintroduction efforts across Tennessee. But it was slow going at first, especially for turkeys. It took three years before state officials actually even caught one. According to White, just 119 birds had been relocated by 1960.

However, new systems of trapping would soon prove revolutionary.

The black powder cannon-net — which was later upgraded to a military-grade rocket-net — propelled out when fired and descended upon an unsuspecting flock of feeding birds. The turkeys could then be efficiently captured, tranquilized and transported to new environs.

There’s unmistakable irony in the fact that explosive-driven projectiles, much so responsible for disintegrating wild turkey flocks, did also ensure the revered bird’s extraordinary resurgence.

Even so, the net method still wasn’t an overnight success, and had its ups and downs. In his book, “Boxes, Rockets, and Pens: A History of Wildlife Recovery in Tennessee,” Doug Markham describes how even the howitzer powder-powered net mortars didn’t always work. “If you blinked your eyes, you missed it,” said one former wildlife management official interviewed for Markham’s book. “But even as fast as the rocket nets were, we still had turkeys outrun them.”

Rebound and Recovery

As the years wore on, though, the successes started to mount.

All told, according to White, more than 11,000 turkeys were trapped and relocated in the second half of the 20th Century. The wildly successful programed was ceased in 1999 because it was deemed to achieved the goal of bringing sustainably reproducing, harvestable turkey populations back to all 95 of Tennessee’s counties.

Caston Bowers, 11, and his sister, Laney, 8, always get geared up for going after spring gobblers. Their four-month-old cousin, Lizzie Watson, might have to wait a couple years.

Caston Bowers, 11, and his sister, Laney, 8, always get geared up for going after spring gobblers. Their four-month-old cousin, Lizzie Watson, might have to wait a couple years.

According to National Wild Turkey Federation population estimates, Tennessee is now one of the top states in the nation in turkey populations.

Although calculating accurate aggregate turkey numbers is difficult, NWTF’s 2015 “Spring Hunting Guide” put Tennessee’s statewide flock at 315,000. Only five states had higher totals — Texas with 500,000, Alabama with 400,00, Kansas with 350,000, Georgia with 335,000 and Missouri with 317,000.

“Although the wild turkey once was found only in isolated pockets and inaccessible areas, populations now occupy more square miles of habitat than any other game bird in North America,” concluded an NWTF publication summing up the turkey’s sensational history. “The restoration is truly a modern conservation marvel that is a credit to the wild turkey’s adaptability to a variety of climatic and habitat conditions, as well as to the great bird’s ability to respond well to modern management.”

(Note: The feature image at the top of this story is a portrait titled “Sons of Thunder” by Ryan Kirby. The National Wild Turkey Federation named Kirby its Stamp Print Artist of the Year for 2016. His work is available for purchase at ryankirbyart.com.)

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Hundreds Attend First Annual Upper Cumberland Wine Fest

Organizers of the inaugural Upper Cumberland Wine Festival, billed as the “first of its kind for the region,” say it was a huge success. Read more