A plan to release wild turkeys into the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County has upset a flock of opponents from local environmental groups who say it could upset the ecological balance of the forest.
The Sierra Club and the Audubon Society object to plans by the state Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Forest Service to plant a species of the American wild turkey, called Merriams, in wilderness deep within the forest.
"They could introduce zebras and giraffes, too, but I don't think wanting to make this outside area a zoo is a function of the Forest Service," said Sally Reid, wilderness chairwoman of the Southern California region of the Sierra Club. "Their business is to maintain the natural environment of the natural species."
Reid said she is concerned that the introduction of turkeys would push other fowl out of existence, including the endangered California condor, because some hunters might mistake condors for turkeys. The turkeys could also become a feast for predators such as coyotes and mountain lions.
State game officials, however, say the prolific wild turkeys do a good job of taking care of themselves in the wilderness.
Wild turkeys already roam California's wilderness preserves, including parts of the nearly 2-million-acre Los Padres forest north of Ventura County, including Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. There are about 100,000 wild turkeys in parks and national forests statewide, officials said.
"We are seeing those turkeys doing quite well, and we aren't seeing an impact on native species," said John Massie, an assistant game coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game, the agency responsible for releasing turkeys into the wilderness. "We don't have any kind of an ongoing problem."
Fish and game officials say efforts to relocate wild turkeys have increased the population of one of America's favorite game birds.
"Turkeys have been expanding their range for the past 25 years," Massie said. "This is no Noah's Ark situation. There are turkeys in all but one state."
If the turkeys do come to Ventura County, they would be brought next winter, after the hunting season ends, Massie said.
State fish and game officials would be responsible for releasing the turkeys, but U.S. Forest Service rangers would maintain the natural resources, such as water, needed to keep them alive.
Forest Service biologists in Ojai and in Frazier Park in Kern County are studying areas of the national forest where the wild turkey could survive.
Nine new areas proposed for the release of the wild turkeys straddle the Kern and Ventura county lines. They include four Ventura County sites: Mt. Pinos, Frazier Mountain, Sawmill Mountain and Alamo Mountain. Another five areas in Kern County are slated for release of the turkeys.
"We've identified a suitable habitat in our district," said George Garcia, a biologist in the Ojai district office of the Los Padres National Forest. "There's available food, there's water."
Water might have to be provided in some areas of the forest to keep the wild turkeys alive, Garcia said, adding, "but we would have to do that anyway as a management measure."
In addition to an environmental impact report of the areas where turkeys may be released, biologists are studying the economic impact the birds will have as hunters and bird-watchers flock to the area. The report will be ready by mid-August for public comment, officials said.
Hunters and state fish and game officials said the turkeys are probably already in Ventura County. Last year about 60 turkeys were imported into the Tejon Ranch in Kern County, and many of them may have flown the coop to parts of the forest closer to Ventura County, Massie said.
Nearly half of the vast Los Padres National Forest lies in Ventura County, but it also stretches into Kern, Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties.
In the past, wild turkeys have had little effect on native species, according to U.S. Forest Service environmental reports prepared for previous releases of the wild turkeys into national forest preserves.
But local environmental and anti-hunting groups disagree. About 40 have written letters urging Los Padres National Forest officials to quit the project cold turkey, said wildlife biologist Patty Bates.
One representative of the Audubon Society said wild turkeys raise little interest among local bird-watchers. He said he fears that other birds would be killed by hunters stalking wild turkeys.
"Our concern would be that other game would be taken by accident," said Art Marshall, president of the Ventura chapter of the Audubon Society. "Other birds that are not turkeys would be killed."
Representatives of hunting groups, including a member of a local quail club, said there is plenty of room in the forest for other birds.
"I don't think quail and turkey would compete. If biologists say there's enough food up there for quail and turkey, I feel I can fully accept that," said Bill Cullen, vice president of the Ventura group, Quail Unlimited.
"I think the people who are getting excited about this don't realize it's been done several times in other places," Cullen said.
Because of the drought, some parts of the Los Padres National Forest have become hostile to wildlife, Cullen said. Quail Unlimited, a 50-member group that includes hunters and conservationists, provides food and water supplies to feed game animals during winter and summer.
"Man has got to help them along because we've crowded out the most desirable habitat because we're living in it," he said.
Other hunters said they are not likely to confuse turkeys with an endangered species, such as the condor.
"It's totally false when they think there will be a case of mistaken identity between a condor and a turkey," said Will Whitaker, a hunter who sits on the Ventura County Fish and Game Commission, an advisory panel to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.