Turkeys for Tomorrow strives to help solve mystery of birds’ decline

by | Aug 28, 2023 | Hunting | 0 comments

By Brent Frazee

When Ron and Tes Jolly attended a reunion with some of their longtime hunting buddies, there was a common denominator in conversations.

“Why are wild turkey populations declining?”

Each of the 12 veteran hunters related his or her own theory. But they agreed on one thing:  There needs to be more research and less guessing.

“When turkey populations started declining, we couldn’t get wildlife biologists to talk to us about what was going on,” said Ron, who has hunted turkeys for six decades and is a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Grand National Hall of Fame.  “They said it was just a natural cycle.

“But we weren’t convinced. We thought more scientific research was needed.”

That was the root of Turkeys for Tomorrow, a new non-profit organization devoted to raise money to fund research programs across the turkey range.

It got started when those 12 hunters each ponied up $300 in 2021. By this summer, membership had grown to 5,000 members and 10 chapters.

“When we started, we had the lofty goal of funding five projects in five states in five years,” said Ron, who is co-chairman of the organization’s board. “As of August, we’ve already funded nine projects in six states.

“So, we’re happy with the progress we’re making. I think our mission is really resonating with a lot of people.”

Turkeys for Tomorrow operates under a simple formula. State agencies or universities request funding for projects, and a board of directors deliberate over which ones to support. The group tries to avoid duplication, instead trying to support specific problems in specific areas.

It is a separate entity from the long-standing National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Ron Jolly doesn’t view his organization as competition for the established NWTF. Instead, he said, “We view this as collaborative. We all have the same goal—to rebuild turkey populations.”

Early findings confirm one thing: More than one factor is affecting the birds. Rather, it’s a series of problems, often region-specific.

For example, in Alabama, where the Jollys live, feral hogs are a major problem. Like many, they had enjoyed a thriving turkey flock on their 210-acre farm for years. But when feral hogs began affecting habitat, turkey numbers correspondingly dropped.

“Our turkey flock went from 60 to about a dozen, and it’s been that way for four or five years,” said Ron, who is an award-winning author and video and television producer. “Other factors were at work, but that was a major one.”

Feral hogs are less of a problem in other parts of the country. But concerns about habitat, ground predators, the negative aspects of supplemental feeding, invasive grasses and the reduced populations of insects that are critical food for poults also are at play.

In some areas, it’s obvious that landscapes have changed subtly since the turkeys’ heyday. The message professionals are putting out is that landowners have to change with the times if they want to rebuild turkey numbers.

The Jollys have started that process on their land.

“Some of our land had invasive grasses that are the worst enemy of brood cover,” said Tes, who is a nationally known photographer. “You want bunch grasses. The poults can’t get through some kind of grasses because it’s too thick.”

The Jollys have introduced native variants that are more conducive to brood cover, and they are encouraged that will pay off.

They are similarly encouraged that the results of research projects funded by Turkeys for Tomorrow will help stem the decline.

“The average turkey hunter is not only hungry for information, but how he or she can help,” Tes said. “They want some of these research projects translated in layman’s terms and how they can apply them.

“We’re trying to concentrate on science to identify some of these problems and how they can be dealt with. We think we can make a difference.”


For more information on Turkeys for Tomorrow, go the website turkeysfortomorrow.org.  The website includes the organization’s podcast, Wild Turkey Science, which explains turkey research and management in layman’s terms.

To learn more about TFT on the Great Plains Outdoors Podcast, check out our episode with Ron and Tes here

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