Legend has it that it all started on a cold dawn in 1971 when Tom Rodgers, then manager of an insurance company and writer for a syndicated outdoor column, headed toward a favorite turkey hunting spot in northern Virginia. Moving swiftly over the dim landscape, Tom’s heart was full of adventure as he envisioned an old longbeard perched on his roost. However, his heart sank when he topped out on the ridge. Rodgers would later describe what he saw as “a desolate field, filled only with decaying tree stumps and no wild turkeys in sight.”
On that cold morning, Rodgers, immensely disappointed, began to envision a way to improve the outlook for wild turkeys and their habitat; as a hunter, he realized that he had a responsibility to preserve land and wildlife, both for its own sake and for ours. On March 28, 1973, Rodgers put down his own $440.00 to launch the National Wild Turkey Federation, along with its flagship publication Turkey Call Magazine, in Fredericksburg, VA. Drawing on the connections he had made as an outdoor columnist, Rodgers recruited the help of wildlife biologists, outdoor writers and public relations specialists to launch a public relations campaign. It was not long before his old cigar box was way too small to hold the flurry of membership applications. In June of 1973, Rodgers moved to Edgefield, SC and with his friend and new business partner, Sam Crouch, established the national headquarters for the NWTF, where it remains today.
When Rodgers launched the NWTF there were only 1.7 million wild turkeys roaming the fields and forests of North America, and habitat management alone would not be enough to revitalize the population. It was Rodgers’ idea to trap birds from areas with healthy turkey populations and release them on suitable habitat where the birds were scarce. The NWTF also assisted with the trapping and relocation efforts by providing funding, equipment and staff to both state and provincial wildlife agencies. It worked. In fact, trapping and relocation made the revitalization of the wild turkey population one of history’s greatest conservation success stories. As of today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States. As for the NWTF, they are currently a vibrant, multinational federation built on state and local chapters all dedicated to conserving the wild turkey and together they have spent $412 million dollars on conservation and have preserved nearly 17.25 million acres of excellent habitat. Also, by preserving wild turkey habitat, which by definition is spacious and biologically diverse, the NWTF has preserved ideal habitat for countless other game and non-game species, including a number of threatened and endangered species.
In addition to conservation, the NWTF is dedicated to fostering our cherished hunting tradition. Through initiatives such as Wheelin’ Sportsmen, Women in the Outdoors, Families Afield, and JAKES, the NWTF brings the outdoors and the hunting tradition to women, children, the disabled, and so many others who might otherwise miss out on the outdoor experience. No other conservation organization has had such a positive impact on both land and people.
It all started in the heart of a citizen-conservationist who sat on a stump in a ruined habitat and wondered what he could do to ensure a bright future for the game, the land and the sport he loved so much. As fate would have it, a disappointing turkey hunt would inspire one of the most successful conservation stories in history. But most of all, those of us who are deeply stirred by the sight of a stately tom or the echo of his daybreak gobble, owe so much to Rodgers’ vision, and to the hard work and determination of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
To learn more about the National Wild Turkey Federation or to get involved, visit www.nwtf.org.
Hunter S. Bridges