Toxic Turkeys

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife conservation officers served summonses today on nine people, seized 15 wild turkeys and 25 wild turkey eggs persons following an eight-month, multi-state investigation which resulted in 421 criminal charges of illegally importing, possessing or selling wild turkeys in Kentucky.

Officers obtained summonses in 11 counties spanning the state from Calloway in far western Kentucky to Pike in far eastern Kentucky. The investigation, termed Operation Toxic Turkey, documented 167 live wild turkeys illegally imported into Kentucky, including Eastern and Rio Grande wild turkeys acquired from a New Mexico hatchery.

It is illegal for the general public to possess a live wild turkey in Kentucky, and a wildlife transportation permit issued by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife is required of anyone bringing wildlife into the state.

Investigators were first alerted to possible illegal trafficking in wild turkeys last August, when they heard a broadcast on a Bardstown radio station advertising live Eastern wild turkeys for sale. The investigation that followed quickly expanded beyond state lines and turned up similar violations in at least 13 additional states.

New Mexico Department of Fish and Game officers helped trace the Eastern and Rio Grande turkeys purchased and imported into Kentucky from Privett Hatchery in Portales, New Mexico. Purchase and shipping records obtained by investigators led to the charges and summonses. The hatchery has a permit to legally sell turkeys. Wildlife biologists say importing wild turkeys into Kentucky puts the state's native wild turkeys at risk of contracting diseases for which they've developed no natural immunities.

"There are many biological concerns when releasing captive-raised poultry into the wild," said Steven Dobey, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's turkey program coordinator. "The potential for transmission of diseases and non-native parasites is increased due to their captive origin."

Kentucky's wild turkey flock ranks among the nation's top wildlife restoration successes. Statewide wild turkey numbers were estimated at fewer than 900 birds in the mid 1950s, and nearly all of those resided in west Kentucky's Golden Pond area, now Land Between the Lakes.

The department embarked on an aggressive restoration effort in the 1980s, and today's flock has rebounded to number about a quarter of a million birds. Gobbling can be heard in every Kentucky county and hunters enjoy liberal bag limits statewide.

"In our generation, wild turkey numbers have grown from fewer than 1,000 to well over 200,000 birds in Kentucky," said Dobey. "Kentucky Fish and Wildlife has worked diligently toward these restoration efforts, and I am positive the sportsmen and sportswomen of Kentucky want nothing to threaten this success."

"The wild turkey has become a major component of Kentucky's tourism industry," said Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jon Gassett. "The wild turkey's economic impact annually in Kentucky is almost $230 million, and almost 2,200 jobs depend on it.

"It is critical that we not inadvertently introduce disease into our flock," he continued. "That could be catastrophic."