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Imagine sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner in a world without wild turkeys.

It’s hard to conceive — if you live in the United States, chances are you’re just a short distance away from a large population of these birds. They roam forests, wood lots, farm fields and prairies from Maine to Florida, from New Jersey to California.

But a century ago, many conservationists sat down to their Thanksgiving dinner, and, indeed, contemplated a world where gobbles ceased to echo through the woods.

The turkey, in short, seemed doomed.

In the early 1900s, the world’s wild turkey population was an estimated 30,000 birds — a smaller number than today exists for orangutans, polar bears and African elephants, all species with futures causing considerable angst among conservationists.

Rampant poaching and habitat destruction offered little hope for the wild turkey’s future.

But today, 7 million turkeys trot, cluck and scratch around North America, occupying almost all suitable habitats and even expanding beyond their original range.

How conservationists (and turkeys) pulled this off should offer some lessons — and hope — for those of us facing conservation challenges today.

The American model of wildlife management has since colonization been based  on the idea that wildlife belonged to the people — a philosophy that led to a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation.

People shot, ate and sold whatever they felt like, whenever they felt like it.

But conservationists such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell framed our common ownership of wildlife in a new way: as a common investment that all people had a stake in protecting.

The United States passed wildlife protection legislation. Even more importantly, it enforced that legislation.

Citizen-conservationists played a vital role, from protecting habitat to funding turkey reintroduction efforts. Groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation worked closely with state and federal agencies to ensure full restoration of turkey numbers.

There were mistakes and flawed ideas, of course. At one point, many state agencies used hatchery programs in an attempt to reestablish wild birds. But those turkeys proved naïve to predators and hunters, and were also susceptible to disease.

Overall, conservationists were spectacularly successful.

Too many environmentalists take species like turkeys — and white-tailed deer and Canada geese and other abundant species — for granted. They’re so common it seems unbelievable that they ever really needed help.

And the fact that they thrive alongside humanity, if we’re being honest, invites skepticism. After all, deep down, many suspect that humans and the rest of nature just can’t get along.

Not many environmentalists, I suspect, see a flock of geese on a city golf course and exclaim: “Success!”

Which is too bad.

Because at one point turkeys (and deer, and geese) faced a future every bit as bleak as rhinos and tigers do today.

A century ago, many conservationists felt hopeless about long-term prospects for what are now considered common North American game animals.

As conservationists, we’re striving for a future when people can thrive alongside abundant rhinos, orangutans, elephants and pandas.

While we work towards that worthy goal, let’s not forget to be thankful for the turkey. Long may its gobble echo through the hardwoods, and may the turkey’s own conservation story show us the way as we work to conserve the Earth’s other magnificent creatures.

-- Text by Matt Miller, Cool Green Science Blog

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