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Birth and Rebirth at Caney Mountain

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Published on: May. 6, 2010

numbers. This did nothing but make a bad situation worse. The pen-raised birds had trouble surviving, and those that lived long enough to propagate produced poults that, due to their partially domestic heritage, weren’t as hearty or as wily as their wild brethren.

By the time the Missouri Department of Conservation came into existence in 1937, wildlife experts of the newly formed agency knew the only way to save the state’s turkey population was to find an area where wild birds still roamed. These birds, if they still existed, would have to be isolated from human disturbance and then, if propagation was successful, they could be used as seed stock to repopulate the state. Starker Leopold, son of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold and project leader of the state’s turkey restoration effort, had been tasked with finding such a location. When he saw the wooded hills of the Caney Mountain Area, he knew his search was ended.

“Starker Leopold came down here and fell in love with this area,” Morrison recalled. “He just thought it was a wonderful place.” In a 1941 report, Leopold described why Caney Mountain was a perfect spot to begin the wild turkey’s comeback in Missouri.

“Historical accounts indicate that native wild turkeys maintained their numbers in the Caney Mountain neighborhood for a longer period than in most other sections of the Ozarks,” he wrote. “This was undoubtedly due to the later period of settlement, as well as the roughness, size and isolation of this range of hills.”

In 1940, the state purchased a 5,530-acre area in Ozark County, named it the Caney Mountain Wildlife Refuge, declared it off-limits to hunting and designated the site for wild turkey management. Leopold was to be the lead biologist and W.J. Morrison, Bernice’s father, was appointed as Caney Mountain’s refuge patrolman. To fulfill his job, the state supplied Morrison with a pickup truck, fire-fighting equipment, farm implements, tools and a horse. The elder Morrison was assisted in his duties by his son, Bernice. Their duties also included planting and caring for wildlife food patches, patrolling the refuge’s boundaries, maintaining ponds and springs on the area, fostering relationships with adjacent landowners and, of course, keeping accurate records of turkey numbers and turkey activity on the area.

At the project’s beginning, there wasn’t much to keep track of. “They were down to about 10 or 12 turkeys for the whole refuge,” Morrison says. Though this number seems

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