Nevada’s only National Park needs a Thanksgiving miracle.
Wild turkeys are starting to cause problems at Great Basin National Park, about 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas, where the prolific birds threaten to disrupt some of the more sensitive native species.
They’re also making a bit of a mess.
Last winter, a gang of turkeys — that’s the actual term; you can look it up — took to roosting in a white poplar tree in front of the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, where they fouled the sidewalks and damaged the lawn with their droppings.
“They’re awfully beautiful birds and majestic to look at,” park Superintendent Steve Mietz said, “but we wish they’d roosted someplace else.”
No one’s quite sure how many turkeys there are in Great Basin, but more than 200 have been counted in one watershed alone. They are thought to live in almost every part of the park and have even been spotted in the snow at elevations above 10,000 feet.
A wide array of predators — mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks and other large birds of prey — has yet to make much of a dent in the population.
“They’re big, healthy and well fed, and they’re not hunted in the park so this is a nice refuge for them,” said Ben Roberts, Great Basin’s chief of natural resource management.
They also don’t belong there.
Wild turkeys are not native to the Snake Mountains of Great Basin National Park or anywhere else in Nevada. The birds now flourishing in the park are the descendants or lucky survivors of about 100 turkeys released in eastern White Pine County by state wildlife officials in January 2004.
Curt Baughman, a Nevada Department of Wildlife game biologist in Ely, said the birds were imported from Idaho and set free on private land in two different locations near the park in hopes of establishing a population for hunters.
NDOW officials expected the turkeys to spread out. They did not expect them to move up into the national park and take hold the way they have, though in retrospect they probably should have seen it coming.
“The Idaho guys called them Idaho mountain turkeys, and they’ve certainly lived up to that name,” Baughman said. “They’ve been more successful than we thought.”
The mess at the visitor center is the most obvious impact so far, but the turkeys are causing other problems, or soon could.
For example, the birds had to be chased out of a stand of 500-year-old Ponderosa pines near one of the campgrounds to keep them from disturbing raptor nesting. And Roberts said the park’s efforts to replant sagebrush in some areas have been slowed because the turkeys eat the seeds.
The birds are omnivores of opportunity, happy to dine on everything from pine nuts and insects to small vertebrates such as snakes, lizards and small rodents. That could eventually pose problems for a few of the park’s rare, endemic species.
To get the turkeys away from the visitor center, the park tried “hazing” with noisemakers and other devices. Wildlife biologist Bryan Hamilton said they even tried the kind of giant laser pointer that airports use to scare birds away from runways, but it apparently works on “everything except turkeys.”
In the end, park personnel settled on the “pretty low-tech solution” of scaring the birds away themselves, which requires a week or two of nightly visits from staff members.
“So far they’ve haven’t come back,” Hamilton said.
But only time will tell.
“If they decide to return to the same trees this winter, I’m not sure what we’ll do other than keep cleaning up after them,” Mietz said.
The state began importing and releasing turkeys for hunting about 50 years ago.
It’s one of several exotic species set free in Nevada by NDOW. The Ruby Mountains in Elko County are home to snowcocks from the Himalayas and mountain goats from Washington state. Mountain ranges from one end of the state to the other, including Mount Charleston, harbor chukar partridges from Asia.
“We don’t just go throwing different species around willy-nilly,” Baughman said. “We think we use a lot of discretion.”
But he also acknowledged that national parks have a different mission, one that doesn’t always mesh well with nonnative species, even “pretty benign” ones like wild turkeys.
Great Basin National Park has yet to draft a turkey management plan, but Mietz said it might have to in the next couple of years.
In the meantime, the Park Service is expected to ask state wildlife officials to increase the size of next year’s turkey hunt in the area, though that will work only if the birds come down out of the park so hunters can pick them off. Great Basin, like most national parks, does not allow hunting.
Nevada’s turkey hunt takes place in the spring, when the state generally issues about 25 tags for male birds near the park. Last year, hunters bagged 17 gobblers, which can weigh 18 pounds or more.
Baughman said one option is to open up a second fall hunt, targeting hens. Allowing hunting in the park — perhaps in remote areas far from campgrounds and popular hiking trails — also might make a difference, he said.
But a turkey hunt inside the park boundary is not likely to happen. If the Park Service ever approves any kind of “lethal control,” the job would probably go to contract sharpshooters, Roberts said.
Long before it comes to that, though, Mietz said park personnel would try to trap the unwanted turkeys.
And then what?
“Give them back to NDOW,” he said with a smile.
Contact Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.