Birth and Rebirth at Caney Mountain
Bernice Morrison and Caney Mountain Conservation Area are joined at the heart.
“I have a lot of memories of this area,” the 92-year-old Gainesville resident says as his eyes roam off into the surrounding hills and hollows that give this Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife refuge in Ozark County its natural beauty. Many of those memories involve the work Morrison did—first as a concerned citizen and later as a Department of Conservation employee—to help bring back the wild turkey in Missouri.
Today, with a healthy population and a spring hunting season that pumps millions of dollars into Missouri’s economy, it’s hard to believe Missouri’s turkeys ever needed help. However, there was a time when wild turkeys were on the verge of disappearing from the state. Many of the reasons they didn’t are rooted in a Conservation Department restoration program that started more than a half-century ago at the Caney Mountain area.
Morrison’s connection with this 7,899-acre swatch of Ozark splendor goes beyond turkey trapping and gobbling surveys. Years before Caney Mountain became the alpha site of the turkey’s comeback in Missouri, it was the birthplace of Morrison. Reminders of that event are still visible in the form of a rock chimney that stands vigil over a small enclosure of collapsed log walls alongside Caney’s North Hiking Trail. It’s all that remains of the cabin Morrison’s father, W.J. “Joe” Morrison, built for his family in the closing years of the 19th century.
“I was born there on Christmas Day, 1917,” Morrison proudly recalls. Hard times forced the family to leave that site when Bernice, the youngest of 10 children, was still an infant, but the Morrisons remained in the area. The family honed their affections for the Caney Mountain area by hunting the rugged terrain often. One quarry that was showing up with alarmingly less frequency for the Morrisons and other hunters around the state was the wild turkey.
“They were being poached out,” Morrison recalled. Poorly regulated hunting, coupled with habitat destruction caused by overgrazing, over-burning and a number of other human-related alterations to the landscape, had dropped Missouri’s turkey numbers to just slightly more than 2,000 by the mid-1930s. In 1938, the Department of Conservation closed turkey hunting throughout the state.
Attempts at reviving the state’s turkey population were already well underway—and failing miserably. Beginning in the 1920s, state biologists began to release farm-raised birds into the wild in an effort to reverse the declining turkey 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 too small to be believable, Leopold’s 1941 report backs up Morrison’s memory. In a survey done in the spring of 1940, Leopold counted 10 turkeys on the 5,530-acre Caney Mountain area. In a broader survey that encompassed 76,800 acres, Leopold recorded a paltry sum of 35 turkeys.
When W.J. Morrison died in 1942, Bernice took on his father’s job as refuge patrolman at Caney Mountain and continued to work closely with Leopold. Just as important as the turkey numbers they saw steadily increasing were the management strategies they were documenting. Caney Mountain was a test site that would either be the first step of a turkey restoration project that could be replicated in other parts of the state, and perhaps the country, or the final chapter of a failing wildlife management effort.
“Some practices being applied in this area may be applicable to other turkey refuges in Missouri,” Leopold wrote in his 1941 report. “Others need testing. Still others may never find general application. But from this project may eventually come some fairly definite knowledge of how to manage wild turkeys on an Ozark refuge.” Fortunately for today’s hunters, those experimental strategies produced results, first at the Caney Mountain area and later at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Carter and Shannon counties, which was purchased in 1945.
“With the wild turkey refuge at Caney Mountain and the later purchase of thousands of acres at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, there was finally enough land to protect and manage whole-heartedly for turkeys,” says Conservation Department Wildlife Division Chief DeeCee Darrow. “As the population grew and we relocated birds to other parts of the state, it was the start of something that was to rewrite conservation history in Missouri.”
Morrison moved to Kansas in 1943, but he returned to Missouri in 1956 and got a job with the Conservation Department. Turkey hunting was still closed throughout the state but, by this time, Missouri’s wild turkey numbers were well on the road to recovery. Morrison had several wildlife-related duties and one of his main jobs was trapping turkeys and transporting them around the state.
“You had to wait until the turkeys were on the bait and their heads were down, then you fired the nets. And you talk about a job … getting those turkeys out of the net—now that was work,” Morrison recalled with a chuckle. It was work that bore its first real fruit in 1960 when Missouri held its first turkey season since the late 1930s.
In addition to trapping turkeys, Morrison has also harvested his fair share of turkeys over the years. Despite the wear and tear that 92 years of life is beginning to impose on Morrison’s frame, he still considers himself a turkey hunter.
“I don’t know whether I’ve stopped (turkey hunting) or not,” he says, and laughed, noting that he hunted last spring. “It’s still pretty exciting to hear that old gobbler in the spring.” Thanks to the efforts of people like Morrison more than a half-century ago, that’s a sound that can be enjoyed by many Missourians today.
“I like to think that I had a small part in bringing the turkeys back,” he says.