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Kentucky Loses George Wright
Henry Mosby Award Winner
News Release from Kentucky Commerce Commission
The KY Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Frankfort, KY – Stunned sportsmen and conservationists across Kentucky and the nation are remembering George Wright today as a hero, an icon, a top wildlife biologist, a fine country gentleman, and a friend.

Wright, the undisputed architect of Kentucky’s wild turkey restoration program who retired from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in 2002 after 27 years, suffered a massive heart attack while turkey hunting with his wife in Mexico last week and died Wednesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 62.

“We’ve lost a true friend and strong ambassador for the wild turkey,” said David Hale of Knight & Hale Game Calls. “And the wild turkey has lost its best friend.”

“But he beat the system,” said Hale. “He loved his work and not many people get to do that. He’s a legend and he lived a dream come true.”

“He and I shot the first net over the first bunch of turkeys that came to Kentucky,” remembered former First District Fish and Wildlife Commission Member Mike Boatwright. “We were in Greenville, Mississippi and we had turkeys coming to bait. We thought it was going to rain and Dale Perry dropped us off in there a little late.

“The turkeys showed up before we could get in there and I thought we were busted,” continued Boatwright. “George was laying there in the mud and leaves and I asked him what I was going to do. He said, ‘You’re going to catch them, that’s what. Touch that wire to that battery and let’s get this thing going.’”

The rest is history. Kentucky’s tremendously successful wild turkey restoration program became a national model in the next two decades. In 2002, the National Wild Turkey Federation presented George Wright with its highest professional award, the Henry Mosby Award, given to only one person annually judged to have made the most significant contribution to wild turkey restoration and research study.

“George is an icon in the eyes of the NWTF when they look at the success of the wild turkey flock in Kentucky,” said Joe Bland, NWTF national board member and former State Chapter President. “You simply cannot think of Kentucky’s wild turkey program and not think of George Wright.”

George was born in Pensacola, FL, and later graduated from Treadwell High School in Memphis in 1961. After eight years in the U.S. Navy, he returned to Tennessee and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Technical University in 1972. He then added a Masters Degree from Auburn University in 1974.

He joined the department in September 1974 to conduct a raccoon study in East Kentucky. But a contingent of west Kentucky wild turkey enthusiasts that included Hale, Harold Knight, Jim Williams and others petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Commission to commit Wright’s efforts toward bringing turkeys back to Kentucky.

“There are a lot of tales out there,” agreed Hale, “but that one is true. We were struggling in the state and about 30 of us signed a petition to get George.”

Retired KDFWR Deputy Commissioner Tom Young says it was tough going in those early years. “We took a bunch of old vehicles, boxes, and a lot of junk down there to get those turkeys. George set it all up.”

And set it up he did. All marvel at the grass roots level deals he worked with persons in other states.

“We got a lot of turkeys from Mississippi,” said Young. “They wanted big deer – 170 pound bucks – and they had plenty of turkeys. So we traded them deer for turkeys.”

But it was his river otter swap deal with Missouri the proved to be the program’s major catalyst.

“He pulled off some pretty good coups there in the early days,” laughed Boatwright. “When he locked up that river otter swap with those Louisiana trappers, that made the program. Everybody else tried to slip in there afterward, be he had them locked up. He just gelled with those trappers.”

With strong backing from the Commission, Wright bought river otters from Louisiana trappers who had mastered the difficult task of keeping the captured critters alive until they could be transported and delivered. He then traded the otters to Missouri for wild turkeys. This relationship continued for years.

Wright used the Mississippi and Missouri turkeys to build his own supply source, transplanting them into prime locations with good natural habitat and with landowners who promised to protect them. The transplants took root and soon he was trapping turkeys in state and transplanting them all over Kentucky.

“He was so strong-willed about it,” said Young. “He had a strong enough personality to get things done. He would not back down. He would always fight for it. He had the total respect of turkey hunters, and the Commission trusted him. He pursued it with a vengeance and a passion.

“He was ‘Top Gobbler,’ and he stayed with it,” said Young.

Ron Schureman, retired KDFWR Wildlife Division assistant director and close friend, was succinct. “He’s Mr. Turkey, no doubt about it. Kentucky wouldn’t have any turkeys if wasn’t for George.”

Again, the rest is history.

Today, every county in Kentucky is open to wild turkey hunting and the state’s flock is more than 230,000 strong.

“We were great buddies,” said WHAS Radio Hunting and Fishing talk show host Jim Strader, a lifelong hunter and fisherman. “I talked to him just before he left for Mexico. We were planning to go bluegill fishing…

“I’ve been very fortunate to have known a lot of very fine wildlife biologists in many states,” said Strader. “But I’d have to say our turkey biologist, George Wright, was definitely the cream of the crop.

“He was a unique individual who cared passionately about the resource,” said Strader. “The legacy of the wild turkey in the state of Kentucky will forever be linked with this fine country gentleman’s name.

“He was my friend. He was my mentor. And I’m going to miss him sorely.”

“His relentless hours spent on Kentucky’s Wild Turkey restoration program paid great dividends in restoring the wild turkey to all parts of the state,” said Harold Knight and David Hale. “His devotion to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife as well as his loyalty to the National Wild Turkey Federation makes George Wright a Who’s Who to all turkey hunters.

“His passing leaves a void in each of our hearts to be filled only by countless hours spent hearing the thundering gobbles of the wild turkey for generations to come,” they said. “He led by example and we thank him for it.

“We salute George Wright as a true friend, a great sportsman, and his efforts to restore the wild turkey to the state of Kentucky.”

KDFWR Commissioner Tom Bennett summed things up. “George used good science, passion and salesmanship to make the Kentucky wild turkey restoration successful. He had guts, grit, and the glory for getting this program going.

“We’ll miss him.”
 




 

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