Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
While some lucky birds get pardoned for Thanksgiving this time of year, a colorful wild turkey in New Mexico’s Bootheel region may lose its protected species status.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is looking into removing the Gould’s wild turkey from the state list of threatened and endangered species.
Under the Wildlife Conservation Act, “investigations into delisting a species may be conducted based on new biological evidence,” the Department said in a news release announcing the effort. “Gould’s wild turkey was listed as state threatened in 1974 due to its limited range within New Mexico and uncertainty about its abundance at that time.”
After field research in recent years and with birds added to the Peloncillo Mountains population in the Bootheel, the goals set out in a recovery plan for Gould’s in 2017, have been met, the department said.
Eighteen birds were counted in 2006 and 95 in a 2016 survey.
One Santa Fe wildlife conservation advocate was cautiously optimistic.
“Defenders of Wildlife is happy to see the Gould’s Turkey numbers are up this Thanksgiving season,” said Bryan Bird, director of Southwest Programs for Defenders of Wildlife. “This unique subspecies of turkey is only found in the Bootheel in New Mexico, a biologically rich region.”
“But just because the numbers are up, does not mean they will remain that way,” Bird said, adding that the state should track the population for “several more years” before removing the turkeys from the threatened and endangered species list.
“It will also be critical that the threats that put the animal on the list in the first place have been addressed, including uncharacteristic fire, livestock grazing, and poaching,” he said.
Casey Cardinal, Game and Fish resident game bird biologist, said in an email that if the turkeys are delisted, “We will continue to monitor the population size indefinitely, and for at least the next 4 years will continue to fine tune our understanding of Gould’s turkey ecology and behavior in the Peloncillo Mountains.”
An official with the National Wild Turkey Federation praised the news of the population increase.
“New Mexico Game & Fish, the NWTF, volunteers and supporters have worked for years to ensure Gould’s habitat and these populations are secure,” said Patricia Dorsey, Federation director of conservation operations – west, in an email.
Antelopes for turkeys
The birds didn’t suddenly start multiplying, but like a baseball trade on deadline, New Mexico was able to bargain for more birds.
The department traded 40 pronghorn antelope, in an agreement with he Arizona Game and Fish Department, for 60 Gould’s turkeys. The Gould’s are the largest of six subspecies found in New Mexico. And the birds are packing more than extra pounds.
“The 60 turkeys were moved from southeastern Arizona to the Peloncillo Mountains between 2014 and 2016, 27 of which were fitted with radio-backpacks,” the department said in a release. “With this technology, researchers can monitor the turkeys and the data is providing information on dispersal and mortality rates.”
Most of the range for Gould’s turkeys is in Mexico but the smaller populations exist in New Mexico and southern Arizona.
“Preferred habitat types for this species are pine-oak forested canyons into adjacent piñon-juniper grassland slopes and cottonwood-sycamore riparian habitats,” according to the Department’s New Mexico Wildlife magazine.
Never a lot of hunting
The bird is named for J. Gould, who spotted it in 1856 while traveling in Mexico, and it was first documented in New Mexico in 1892. There after there were few sightings until the 1980s.
Researchers in 1982 at New Mexico State University gathered population and other information. “Based on the research, population estimates of Gould’s turkeys in the Peloncillo Mountains ranged from 12 to 75 birds in the 1980s and ’90s,” Game and Fish said.
After the university’s research, the agency conducted annual surveys to monitor population and calculate “a minimum population estimate.”
Hunting for Gould’s is limited to two months in the spring in Enhancement Hunts with two hunting tags available, one raffled and one auctioned with all proceeds “used solely for habitat enhancement, conservation, research and management projects in New Mexico for the species auctioned or raffled,” Cardinal said via email.
Delisting could allow more hunting but “there will never be a lot of tags,” she said by phone.
It’s the least known of the turkey subspecies. The bird has “distinctive white tips on the tail feathers and tail rump coverts (sets of feathers) which usually separate to show an ‘eyelash’ appearance,” according to beautyofbirds.com.
The State Game Commission will make a final delisting decision at a regularly scheduled meeting likely in the fall of 2022.