This interview with National Wild Turkey Federation CEO George Thornton is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations.

More than four decades ago, outdoor writer and hunter Tom Rodgers founded a small organization called the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). He was also the group’s first donor, investing $10,000 in the NWTF. The organization would later go on to play a pivotal role in what many call the greatest restoration of a native species in the history of North America: the return of the wild turkey. Due to this unprecedented success, current CEO Geroge Thornton told me that the NWTF has broadened its horizons.

“For years, the mission of the NWTF has been the restoration of the wild turkey in North America, that was our goal since inception until recently,” George shared in an interview. “Our mission recently changed to the protection of all upland species and their habitat, as well as the preservation of hunting heritage.”

George took the helm of the NWTF in 2008 following a lauded career in the agriculture industry. He said that the organization has some high goals for the next decade, which befits the largest single-species conservation group in the world.

“Today our mission is conservation and education,” he said. “The goal we set for ourselves is to create 1.5 million new hunters over the next 10 years, to gain access to 400,000 acres of public lands for hunting, and to protect another 4 million acres of habitat. The concern there is it is estimated that at least 1,000 acres a day are lost to urban and suburban sprawl. On an annual basis, that’s the equivalent of losing an area the size of Yellowstone National Park.”

But George is confident that the marks the NWTF has set for itself can be reached. After all, the organization has much more resources at hand now than it did in the past. When Tom Rodgers founded the organization, he kept membership receipts in a cigar box. That would be a bit difficult now, given that the NWTF has more than 250,000 members across North America.

“Tom was a very entrepreneurial leader, he was a visionary who created something out of nothing,” George said. “He had the ability to gain people’s confidence and support. He had a tremendous personal drive. He would literally travel all over the country and come into peoples’ homes and convince them why they should support this organization.”

Tom passed away on Christmas Day in 2008, but his vision ensured in part that North America’s turkey population would thrive.

“The number of turkeys currently in North America are equal or greater than at the time of [the] exploration [of] the New World,” George said.

The bird, which was once championed by Benjamin Franklin as a true symbol of the the fledgling United States, had almost disappeared from the nation’s territories by the early 1930s. By 1920, wild turkeys were gone from 18 of the original 39 states as well as the province of Ontario, their ancestral range.

“It is a fact that the wild turkey was close to extinction in the 1930s and the residual populations were restricted to some very rough wilderness areas,” George explained. “Places that people couldn’t get to easily.”

The remoteness of turkey habitat proved to be their lifeline against extinction, and things soon fell into place for their restoration. Game laws came in effect, allowing for proper wildlife management. Many hunters also enlisted for service during the Second World War, reducing hunting pressure on the birds.

“The NWTF pioneered the concept that turkeys can be transferred from place to place, which meant there was an exchange program set up between states so they could swap species,” George said. “When Dr. James Kennamer worked with various state agencies to get that system established, it allowed us to take the lead for transferring turkeys. It was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It allowed us over the years to trap and transfer 200,000 turkeys around the continent, which are the basis of the populations we have now.”

The NWTF has since broadened their focus in an initiative called “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.” As George noted, what benefits turkeys usually benefits other upland species as well. Beyond that, habitat enhancement positively affects a wide variety of wildlife such as deer, rabbit, squirrel, and so on. George said that while he still finds the time to hunt today, he gets the greatest satisfaction in being able to ensure the same opportunities for future generations.

You can view a summary for the NWTF’s new initiative below:

George also added that after years working in the corporate world, it was a big change for him to lead the NWTF.

“In my previous experience, I found it was the role of the CEO to come in and energize the company, basically every day,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve found that the volunteers here at the NWTF can also energize me. I am continually amazed at the efforts of our volunteers, and the time and work they put into the organization.

“Rob Keck, our second leader, was a very charismatic leader, a great hunter, and had large support both inside and outside of the organization. My role is probably more in the background than my predecessors. My role is ensuring we have the right organizational structure, making sure that the NWTF is healthy, and I brought over the administrative skills I’ve gained in corporate America to make that happen.”

The environment, people, and issues he deals with are different now, and so are the challenges. George said that the need for resources is always present. Unlike for-profit corporations or government agencies, conservation groups depend on fundraising and donors in order to carry out their mission. More vital to the future of hunting and North America’s wildlife, however, is educating people on what conservation means.

“The biggest challenge I see is expanding awareness of what we do,” George concluded. “Non-hunters don’t understand much about us or conservation. There is a great deal of conservation illiteracy in the country.”

We would like to thank George for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with MDF President Miles Moretti.

Image courtesy Matt Lindler/ George Thornton

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