"It All Started with 20 Birds..."
didn’t think they could live up here,” Shag said.
But they did live. Shag had a hand in that, too. The winter of 1961-62 was bitterly cold. Two feet of snow blanketed the ground. Fearing that the hard-won “seed” turkeys would die, the county assessor took bushels of ear corn to the release sites twice a week. He was dismayed at first to see the tracks of birds that had walked right past the handouts, apparently not recognizing the corn as food. But eventually they caught on.
Shag also encountered problems due to the increasing success of the restoration program. One day the sheriff came to Shag’s office and told him he knew of a landowner who was near the point of shooting some turkeys. They were feeding on grain he had shocked up for cattle fodder.
“I went and asked him how much he thought the fodder was worth, and he said it must be about $50,” Shag said. “I gave him $50 and told him he could keep the fodder if he would just let the turkeys share it with his cattle.”
The payoff for all his efforts came in 1967, when the Conservation Commission declared an open season for spring turkey hunting in Adair County. Shag remembers picking up a turkey hunting regulation brochure that had a map of Missouri showing the areas open to hunting. “There were a bunch of counties marked in southeast Missouri and—way up north—Adair County. That made me mighty proud,” he said.
“I’m not critical of the Conservation Department,” Shag said. “They were doing what they believed was right, but it was hard for them to get over the belief that turkeys couldn’t survive outside the big timber.
“I truly believe we have the greatest conservation department in the nation. I have some good friends down there in Jefferson City, but I made ’em eat crow.”
Within a few years, Adair County’s turkey population provided seed birds to populate the rest of the region. By the early 1990s, turkey numbers there rivaled those in the Ozarks, and by mid-decade north-central and northeastern Missouri led regional harvest totals. Macon and Adair counties routinely turned up in the top three turkey harvest counties statewide, driving a stake through the heart of the myth that turkeys could not survive in northern Missouri.
Others who helped push for turkeys in Adair County included Vern Staggs and Northeast Missouri State University football coach Morris E. “Red” Wade. But it was Shag’s energy and perseverance that got the job done.
John Lewis oversaw Missouri’s turkey restoration program from its start in 1954 until the successful conclusion in 1979. He said the turkeys themselves, which proved far more adaptable than anyone expected, deserve 90 percent of the credit for their recovery. But he acknowledged the important role played by citizens like Grossnickle and other citizens throughout Missouri’s turkey restoration effort.
“He really opened our eyes to the potential for turkeys in northern Missouri,” said Lewis. “It was a stroke of good luck for everybody. The surrounding counties and Iowa piggybacked on top of the knowledge we gained in Adair County.”
Shag is an excellent example of the key role that citizens have played in Missouri’s conservation saga. Missouri’s turkey restoration program succeeded because of passionate conservationists like him and landowners willing to protect the growing turkey flock. The same is true of restoration programs that have brought back white-tailed deer, Canada geese, bald eagles, river otters and other species whose fate hung in the balance years ago.
Shag notes that what began as a personal quest for turkey hunting close to home eventually developed into an economic boon for north-central Missouri.
“Today you come to Adair County in April and all the motels and campgrounds are full. Restaurants are doing a land-office business. People come here from all over the country to hunt turkeys. I never dreamed of any of this when I was trying to get them to bring turkeys up here. It all started with 20 birds.”