By Dave Payne Sr.
Conservationists, turkeys and turkey hunters alike have lost a great friend.
Wayne Bailey, one of a handful of people who brought the wild turkey back from the brink of disaster, died Feb. 27 in his Danville, Va. home after a long battle with cancer.
Bailey, who was born in 1918 at Rock, W.Va. is known to many as “the godfather of modern turkey management.”
Today, the nation’s turkey population is estimated at five million birds, but when Bailey became a West Virginia biologist around the end of World War II, that number was a scant 129,000 and those turkeys were mostly in remote mountain areas.
Bailey is one of only a handful of people who made that reversal possible.
In the 1950s, the turkey was in serious decline across the East, due to poor management. Bailey not only conducted a landmark 10-year study on turkey population dynamics that has become a Bible for turkey biologists, but he was also a pioneer of live-trapping wild turkeys and introducing them elsewhere to restore populations.
Bailey had difficulty trapping birds at first, but he persevered. He was one of a handful of pioneers developing the “rocket net” technique for trapping a flock of turkeys. The rocket-net device shoots a large net over a flock drawn to bait, allowing biologists to catch them and release them elsewhere.
He was also willing to fight for his beloved wild birds. All that sounds simple today, but it was a difficult undertaking for Bailey. He had to develop a method to catch large numbers of turkey, and, in addition, he had to fight political battles (which went all the way to the governor’s office) to do it. At the time, West Virginia had invested large sums of money in game farms (as had other states), which were dismal failures. Farmed-raised animals, including turkey, had little success in the wild, but making politicians realize that was a difficult undertaking for Bailey. It took decades to overcome that game-farm mentality, but Bailey won.
He was more than a fighter, he was also a diplomat for the wild turkey and used his expertise and personal charm to marshal resources for turkey-restoration projects.
Bailey remained in West Virginia long enough to see the fruits of his labor, a viable population and the state’s first spring gobbler season in 1966. As word of Bailey’s success spread to other states (as did numerous turkeys that crossed state lines after stocking), other states followed suit. Bailey helped with turkey restoration in other states, including: Ohio, Illinois, New Hampshire, Vermont and Pennsylvania. He is also responsible for habitat improvements for wild turkeys and other wildlife on more than a million acres of public land in West Virginia alone.
In the early 1970s, he took a similar job in North Carolina, which at the time had only an estimated 2,000 turkeys and was well entrenched in the game-farm mentality. Bailey’s arrival there literally marked the reversal of the North Carolina turkey’s decline. He fought more battles there as he worked to abolish the traditional fall season and replace it with a spring, gobblers-only season. Hunters were furious about the loss of a strong tradition and, among turkey hunters at least, Bailey was one of the most-hated men in North Carolina. Today, the wild turkey has been re-established in all of North Carolina’s counties. The animosity is gone and Bailey is considered a hero.
Bailey’s contributions weren’t limited to his day job. He was a founding member of the National Wild Turkey Federation (in fact, he was the first charter member), a member of the federation’s first Advisory board in 1973, a member of the federation’s the first technical committee in 1975, and the first recipient of its Conservationist of the Year Award in 1978.
“Wayne Bailey was a pioneer in modern turkey restoration and thanks to his relentless efforts the successful comeback of the wild turkey was possible,” said Rob Keck, CEO of the turkey federation. “It wasn’t only his work in the field that aided in the restoration of the wild turkey, but his work with the NWTF during its early years was instrumental in the success of the organization today.”
.James Earl Kennamer, the turkey federation’s senior vice president of conservation programs, said Bailey has inspired a legion of turkey biologists.
“We have lost a giant in the field of wildlife management. Not only was Wayne a mentor to me, but to so many others involved in the NWTF and with the wild turkey,” he said.
Bailey wrote more than 100 earth-shattering studies and scientific papers. He was a prolific outdoors writer as well. One of his best known, more lyrical works is “Wayne’s Turkey World: Sixty Years of Hunting.”
Curtis Taylor, one of the nation’s top turkey biologists, might have chosen another career had it not been for Bailey’s remarkable work and passionate personality. As a 15-year-old boy, Taylor met Bailey for the first time. That meeting would change his life.
“He had a tremendous influence on me as far back as when I was 15 years old and asked to accompany him and several other DNR biologists to a sportsmen’s meeting in McDowell County,” Taylor said. “I read everything he wrote from high school through undergraduate school and on through graduate school. He made turkeys my passion and was a major reason I chose this profession.”
As if his lifetime of remarkable wasn’t enough for science, Bailey will continue to contribute after his death as he donated his body to be used in studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Bailey is survived by his two daughters, Cheryl Hardy and Janice Nicowski and a son, Emmett Bailey, along with three grandchildren and five great grandchildren.