The Wildlife Journalist® and Higher Calling blog publisher Chester Moore was awarded the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) “Advocatus Magni Award” for being an outstanding advocate of wild turkey conservation and hunting.
Moore received the award at the NWTF Texas banquet in College Station, TX and said it a true honor to be recognized by such a prestigious organization and for something he believes in wholeheartedly.
“As turkeys go, so do America’s forests. If we get turkey conservation right then everything from whitetail deer to gopher tortoises and wild sheep benefit,” he said.
In 2019 Moore embarked on a quest to raise awareness to turkey conservation and began by photographing the Grand Slam of turkeys around the nation in one year.
“There’s much more to come. This award inspires me to do even more and explore things like the link between turkeys and sheep in their shared range. It’s going to be a great year,” he said.
The highlight will be taking a group of teen’s from Moore’s Wild Wishes® program into Colorado on a search for wild sheep, turkeys and elk in the mountains.
These Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions will take these young people who have a critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling on a special conservation mission trip to raise awareness to sheep, turkey and elk habitat and conservation issues.
A desert bighorn ram crossed the steep, rocky opening with incredible ease.
I had struggled to quietly get within photo range without slipping and falling to my death for longer than I would like to admit. The ram, however, crossed through a much more treacherous spot with impunity-in seconds.
Seeing their ability to survive and thrive in such habitat is one of the things that draws men to seek out wild sheep-whether with a camera, rifle or bow and arrow.
And Jan. 15-17, thousands of sheep enthusiasts gathered in Reno, NV. at the annual Sheep Show hosted by The Wild Sheep Foundation.
It was my first time attending and I came both as a fan of wild sheep and a wildlife journalist wanting to get the story on what makes this group of people tick.
The fan was satisfied as soon as I walked through the doors of the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Anyone into wild sheep would be impressed with incredible wild sheep taxidermy displays and hundreds of booths ranging from outfitters specializing in argali hunts in Tajikistan to Colorado’s grass-roots Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.
A melanistic desert bighorn taken in Mexico was of particular interest as well as a mountain-style display of wild sheep and goats from Asia.
Sheep hunting is not for the out of shape was evidenced by conversations with outfitters who start some of their hunts at upwards of 12,000 feet.
And it’s not for the out of work either.
While lottery-style draw permits gives the working-class man access to sheep hunting, much of it is a wealthy man’s game.
But that has come as a benefit to wild sheep.
Whereas whitetail deer can pay for themselves through standard hunting licenses fees due to their huge distribution and strong populations, sheep can’t survive through that model.
Auctioning off a portion of tags to wealthy hunters at banquets like those held at the Sheep Show funds a huge part of wild sheep conservation efforts. And whereas whitetail need studying and observation, sheep need an entirely different level of management.
Moving sheep from areas with high population densities to low and making sure they do not co-mingle with domestic sheep that can pass on deadly pneumonia is incredibly expensive.
Without groups like The Wild Sheep Foundation which according to president Gray Thornton spent more than $6 million on conservation efforts in 2019 along with regional groups like the Texas Bighorn Society and Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, sheep would be in real trouble.
Tags at these auctions regularly go more than $100,000 and some coveted tags like those for Montana’s giant rams have fetched more than $400,000.
The hunters with that kind of coin could easily hunt big rams with outfitters who have tags and spend less. But these hunters believe in conservation and don’t mind spending to make it happen.
The most impressive part of the event came at the beer reception for the Less Than One Club. Its a subgroup of The Wild Sheep Foundation for members who have never taken a wild sheep.
More than 2,000 people attended this year’s event, shattering the previous record and showing an incredible diversity of people.
I’m a member and despite having traveled and written all over North America have never taken a sheep.
Neither had the lifelong sheep biologist who I sat with or the 28-year-old girl I met who dreamed of sheep hunting. Virtually very income level, background, ethnicity and state in the union was represented and everyone was truly excited.
And although I don’t have official demographics, I estimate a third of that room was 35 years and younger and half under 45. In the hunting world those are impressive numbers and they show hope for the future of wild sheep.
Enthusiasm for these great animals is not limited by age, income bracket or location. It’s universal to those who have somehow found a fascination with wild sheep.
Three Dall sheep hunts were given away that night in draws that had everyone on their edge of their seats. Asian ibex hunts were given away for the international component of this unique club that everyone in the room inherently wants to be disqualified from.
The day after the show, I drove seven-hour span from Reno to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show on behalf of Texas Fish & Game magazine. It was an incredible drive through stunning country with frequent “Bighorn Crossing” signs.
I had learned about a tract of public land with a good sheep population and hoped I would be able to photograph my first sheep in Nevada and by God’s grace and good information there was the sheep at the beginning of this story.
I could not help but think back to the Sheep Show and wonder if this beautiful, young ram would even be here without the love of those in the sheep-hunting community.
Just as I decided to head back down as not to spook the ram, he made his way down toward me.
He stopped about 75 yards away, highlighted perfectly by the brilliant desert sun and essentially posed while looking right at me. I could now make out a tag in his ear with a very easily identifiable number.
This ram had at some point been captured, documented and maybe even moved from another area to here.
That kind of management doesn’t come cheap and it does not come without people who believe in wild sheep management like the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Wild Sheep Foundation.
The beautiful creature turned and headed back up the slope, this time journeying to the peak and over.
I left Nevada with great hope for the future of sheep and sheep hunting thanks to the Sheep Show and a deeper curiosity about Nevada and it’s three varieties of wild sheep.
My daughter Faith excitedly proclaimed those words as she cracked open a box and released an Eastern turkey into the wilds of Titus County, TX.
We went to document the release for this blog and Texas Fish and Game and she got a chance to participate courtesy of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).
To say she was pumped was an understatement.
This bird was one of 21 brought in from Missouri over a two-day span to kick-off what TPWD calls a “super stocking”.
A “super stocking” involves releasing a minimum of 80 turkeys at each site over time with the ideal ratio of three hens for each gobbler.
In the past, TPWD released smaller numbers in area but have over the last decade went to larger stockings and are seeing more success.
“It’s the same old story,” said TPWD turkey program director Jason Hardin.
“The birds were essentially wiped out by subsistence and market hunting along with extensive habitat loss in the later parts of the 19th century, but with the help of the NWTF, we have been able to bring the birds back all across the country. Although more than 50 counties in East Texas were stocked during the 1980s and 1990s only 28 counties are open for turkey hunting today. So we had to start looking at why we were not as successful in keeping the Eastern wild turkey population flourishing as other states in its historic range.”
I have been talking turkey with hunters in East Texas since these super stockings began and have many reports of increased turkey numbers in the counties where they have taken place.
Stockings attempts in the 1970s involved releasing Rio Grande birds as well as pen-raised Easterns but both failed to gain traction.
Now TPWD only releases wild-caught Eastern turkeys from states like Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina.
They give a $500 donation to participating state wildlife programs for each bird that comes from upland game bird stamp sales. Transportation and other fees are covered by NWTF.
For an extremely in-depth discussion on this topic listen to the podcast of my radio program “Moore Outdoors” on Newstalk AM 560 KLVI as I talk with Annie Farrell of NWTF.
In March 2019 I began a quest to capture quality photographs of Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Osceola turkeys-all within 2019.
The idea is to raise awareness to turkey conservation. I call this project Turkey Revolution!
Hunters (like myself) call this quest the Grand Slam.
And while I took a few hunts this year including bagging my first eastern in New York, this quest is to document with a camera these great birds and to share the experiences through my various media platforms like this blog, Texas Fish & Game, Newstalk AM 560 KLVI and The Wildlife Journalist®.
I happy to announce I wrapped up year one of this adventure in Colorado photographing Merriam’s turkeys.
I got photos of numerous birds there including a very special one-a cinnamon-colored bearded hen you can see a brief clip of in the video below.
Also check out this photo of another beautiful Merriam’s I found in Colorado and a shot of a distant flock I got on a return trip in October on a snow-covered mountain.
This has been a truly exciting adventure and 2020 looks to be equally as interesting as we are in touch with the top biologists, wildlife managers and hunters around the nation on the issue of turkeys.
The Sacramento River in northern California is magnificent.
With cool waters running from the Klamath Mountains in the shadow of magnificent Mount Shasta it flows over smooth, gray stones along wooded shorelines.
As I made my way up a game trail leading from the main river, a shocking scene unfolded before me.
Lying on the edge of the trail was a massive, dead blacktail buck.
With antlers that would make any hunter proud it was evident this buck had died within the last 24-36 hours.
For a moment I pondered if I might have come across a mountain lion’s kill but it was not buried and there were no marks in the neck. Upon closer examination it was evident coyotes had started eating the hind quarters but there was no sign they killed the buck.
There were also no gunshot wounds. Only a single hole with no exit wound could be found near the base of the neck and judging by the diameter it was made by the antlers of another buck.
It seems like this old buck met his match and I had been fortunate enough to get a glimpse before nature had its way and all of its parts went back into the ecosystem.
The blacktail is America’s forgotten deer.
Whitetail dominate conversations among hunters and wildlife managers and mule deer take up the slack but but blacktail barely make a blip on the radar.
Scientists believe blacktails split off the whitetails eons ago and at some point mule deer arose out of the blacktail.
There are two varieties of blacktail, the Columbia which can be found from California through Washington and the Sitka, which roams British Columbia and Alaska.
Blacktail are facing a number of issues in the Pacific Northwest ranging from an exotic louse introduced to the region in 1995 to loss of habitat and decline of quality forage in available habitat.
A 2018 report by the Mule Deer Working Group of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies features concerning observations from a majority of states and provinces in the blacktail’s range.
Oregon: Both mule deer and black-tailed deer are substantially below the long-term statewide management objectives and benchmarks.
Washington: Regional harvest trends indicate black-tailed deer in western Washington have decreased. Loss of black-tailed deer habitat due to encroaching human development continues to be a concern.
British Columbia: Predation from wolves and cougars on black-tailed deer continues to be a concern in most areas as well as the need for effective measures to conserve high quality habitat. Black-tailed deer buck harvest has dropped by approximately half since the early 1990s.
California’s population seems to be stable but habitat problems proven in other states seem to be rearing its head there. Alaska’s numbers have faced ups and downs but seem to be holding steady overall.
Things are changing quickly in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and it is my opinion that blacktail and their close cousins the mule deer are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.
What happens to them is an indicator of what is happening at a much larger level ecologically and I have committed to monitoring this issue.
Finding this massive buck inspired a deeper look at blacktails and gave me an even deeper appreciation for these majestic forest dwellers.
It was obvious she knew I was a stranger in her rocky domain and I suspected her to bolt at any time.
But as clacking sounded from the rocks below, she broke the stare and looked down.
Up came her baby, a gorgeous Rocky Mountain bighorn born this spring and already masterfully moving up through this gorgeous and treacherous gorge.
After the lamb came up, eight more bighorns moved up into the plains above the gorge. It was an incredible sight and is proof of New Mexico’s hard work to see its bighorn populations increase.
According to Nicole Tatman, Big Game Program Manager for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (Game & Fish), the state has populations of both Rocky Mountain and desert bighorns.
“We actively manage both herds and are always evaluating populations and areas where we can translocate sheep from abundant herds into areas that need more or that currently do not have sheep,” Tatman said.
In 2018, Game & Fish officials released 40 desert bighorns in Alamogordo and over the last decade stockings of Rocky Mountain bighorns in the Rio Grande Gorge and near Bandelier National Monument have proven successful.
The state is able to conduct translocations from its own herd and has seen significant progress in its sheep program. According to Game & Fish officials their desert bighorn herd was an estimated 170 in 2001 and now sits at over 1,000. Rocky Mountain bighorn populations edge that out and are expanding into suitable habitat.
And suitable habitat can change.
The tragic Las Conchas fire that consumed more than 150,000 acres created treeless habitat in the mountains that is perfect for bighorns.
Controlled fire is a practice that benefits sheep along with other wildlife like New Mexico’s Merriam’s turkeys, so it is interesting to see that even after something as catastrophic as that fire, hope can arise.
I plan to do more expeditions into New Mexico in search of bighorns in the next year, focusing both on the desert and Rocky Mountain herds.
Just before the sheep I found disappeared into their rocky habitat, a young ram tried to make a move on an older ewe. You could tell it wasn’t quite his time yet but the instincts are there.
And those instincts to reproduce, persevere and expand will keep hope alive for New Mexico’s bighorns in the coming years.