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"It All Started with 20 Birds..."

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 22, 2010

On a balmy Sunday evening early in April, 15 or 20 hunters gathered at Marty Jayne’s barn southwest of Kirksville to share a potluck supper that featured wild meats of every description.

The diners ranged from sprightly lads barely big enough to shoulder a gun to seasoned octogenarians. Their common bond was a passion for turkey hunting.

When the plates were put away and the sun was slanting low, a silver-haired orator stood and addressed the group.

“I’m a-goin’ to tell you the story of how we came to have wild turkeys in this country.”

The speaker’s given name was Gerald, but none of the thousands of Adair County residents who elected him to the offices of sheriff, assessor and public administrator over four decades ever knew him as anything but “Shag” Grossnickle.

Speaking skills honed during countless stump speeches were evident in his spellbinding cadences. Laughter danced in his eyes, and his restless glances hinted at energy undiminished by his 89 years. Shag was in his element, and his audience climbed aboard a time machine bound for 1960.

“I was in southern Missouri deer hunting, and a bird ran across in front of me in the distance, and I didn’t recognize what it was. When I got back to camp I asked a local about it, and he said, ‘That was a wild turkey. You should have shot it. That’s a lot better eating than that deer.’

“I thought about that on my way back to Kirksville, and I thought, if they’ve got turkeys in Texas County, why not Adair County?”

He posed the same question to the Conservation Department. The agency had been engaged in a turkey restoration effort for six years, trapping turkeys in the few areas where they survived and planting them like precious seeds in areas with suitable habitat.

Shag began hectoring Department biologists and administrators to put Adair County on the list for turkey stocking, but his overtures fell on deaf ears. Turkeys, they told him, were forest creatures and could not survive in northern Missouri, where most of the land was row crops or pasture.

That conviction was rooted in the fact that by the time restoration work began, turkeys had been eliminated from all but a few pockets of deep forest in the Ozarks. Turkeys were a scarce commodity, and biologists didn’t want to plant them in areas they considered unsuitable.

Shag’s conviction that turkeys could make it in Adair County was based on more than cockeyed optimism. As a youngster, he heard his grandfather reminisce about hunting turkeys there and in southern Iowa. To this day, he remembers an old photograph of a man with a musket proudly displaying a turkey gobbler.

But before the Conservation Department would stock an area with turkeys, area landowners had to agree to the plan. They also had to promise to protect the birds from poachers until the birds’ numbers reached levels that could support hunting.

“They told me I had to have willing landowners with 5,000 acres of forested land before they would stock turkeys,” Shag recalled. “I got it, and they said I had to get 10,000 acres, so I got that. Then they said that I had to have 15,000 acres, so I called them up. I said, ‘Send me a bunch more of those forms,’ and I went out and got 20,000 acres.”

About this same time, Shag got state Sen. W.O. Mackey interested in the project.

“He went down there to Jefferson City and told them, ‘This guy isn’t going to quit until you give them some turkeys up there.’”

That seemed to break the logjam. The Conservation Department dispatched wildlife biologist Allen Brohn to inspect the area. Brohn, who eventually became the Conservation Department’s assistant director, drove to Adair County and was unimpressed with what he saw. He went to the assessor’s office to settle the matter.

Shag wouldn’t take no for an answer. He gave Brohn a guided tour of some of the 20,000 acres landowners had agreed to put at the Conservation Department’s disposal for turkey restoration. Brohn had to admit the land was better than he had expected. After returning for a more extensive tour a week later, he recommended an experimental stocking.

The next year, 14 wild turkeys trapped in southern Missouri arrived in Kirksville by airplane. One of the birds was dead on arrival, but the other 13 were released around Thousand Hills State Park.

That seemed like a paltry effort to Shag, so he asked Brohn for more birds. “I told ’em if they were going to do this as an experiment, why not give it a good try instead of just a one-time deal?”

In December, a Conservation Department worker from Peck Ranch Conservation Area delivered six more birds.

“After he turned them loose, he said ‘I’ve got to get back down to Carter County quick, or those birds will beat me home.’ He 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.”  

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