Robert Abernethy grew up hunting and fishing, especially while spending his summers on his grandfather’s farm in North Carolina. Yet, he never saw a wild turkey until he was an adult. And for a good reason – there weren’t any, or at least not many.
A few decades later, Abernethy, who lives in Aiken, would lead the charge for the National Wild Turkey Federation in a successful quest to restore the wild turkey throughout North America.
For his major contributions toward the restoration of the wild turkey and wildlife habitat conservation, Abernethy received the NWTF’s Henry S. Mosby Award on Feb. 16 at the annual NWTF Convention and Sport Show.
The award is named after the researcher whose mid-1990s work set the standard for wild turkey management. Mosby also helped found The Wildlife Society and later received its greatest honor – the Aldo Leopold Medal.
Abernethy, who saw and harvested his first turkey more than 30 years ago in Louisiana while completing his graduate studies, can now take pride in seeing wild turkeys throughout all 48 continental states plus Hawaii, including his grandfather’s farm in eastern North Carolina.
“I’m proud of the work we were able to accomplish as part of the NWTF and the restoration of the wild turkey,” said Abernethy.
As NWTF director of agency programs for 17 years, Abernethy will be best remembered for directing three major initiatives that shaped the direction of wild turkey management: the relocation (trap and transfer) of wild turkeys throughout the continent for the NWTF; the development of a timber stewardship program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service that allows the NWTF to harvest timber and use the proceeds on forest management projects and the growth of the NWTF’s staff of wildlife biologists from four to more than 50.
“I don’t know anybody who has done more to help the wild turkey in the last 17 years than Robert,” said NWTF Chief Conservation Officer James Earl Kennamer.
Abernethy is now president of Longleaf Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Alabama that focuses on planting longleaf pines – an ideal habitat for wildlife, including wild turkeys and a good crop for landowners.
When Abernethy started at the NWTF, the NWTF and partners were transferring about 2,000 wild turkeys per year. By 2000, the NWTF and partners were moving about 7,000 per year.
“At that rate, by 2003 we pretty much had turkeys on all suitable habitats,” Abernethy said.
The stewardship program with the Forest Service has been a boon for wildlife habitat conservation. Abernethy said the NWTF is currently the fifth-largest buyer of timber on national forest lands.
“It has really made a difference in what we can do for conservation in our national forests,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody. We put the money right back in the ground.”
The NWTF now has wildlife biologists at headquarters and scattered throughout the country, implementing projects that benefit wild turkeys and other wildlife.
Abernethy is a familiar face to many turkey hunters from his days as co-host of the NWTF’s “Get in the Game” television show, which featured ways individuals could enhance the wildlife habitat on their property.
Abernethy, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife biology from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in wetlands ecology from Louisiana State University, lives with wife, Yvonne, in Aiken. They have two children.
The NWTF, a nonprofit organization, is the leader in upland wildlife habitat conservation. Through dynamic partnerships with state, federal and provincial wildlife agencies, the NWTF and its members have helped restore 17.3 million acres of wildlife habitat, investing $412 million.
Since the NWTF’s founding in 1973, the North American wild turkey population has increased from 1.3 million to 6.5 million with wild turkey inhabiting 99 percent of suitable habitat. For more information about the Henry S. Mosby Award or other convention highlights, call (800) THE-NWTF, visit www.nwtf.org or go to www.facebook.com/theNWTF.