In Search of a Holiday Turkey, Finding a Rural Way of Life

What fall turkey hunting can teach you about the modern rural economy.

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Brassard says South Dakota—essentially the pheasant hunting capital of America—is a good example of an economy that depends on hunting for economic prosperity.

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"They're very much reliant on out-of-state hunters coming and it's a big part of their economy," Brassard says. "You go through the airport in Sioux Falls and there's a big 'Welcome Hunters' sign greeting you. That's the same kind of sign you'll see in hotels and in restaurants."

Brassard helps run a program in several states with big hunting populations to remind the public how important hunting is to the survival of small businesses.

"Especially in this economy, we're talking about jobs that might not exist if hunters didn't come into these communities," Brassard adds. "Their spending at convenience stores, roadside diners, sporting good [stores], hotels, hardware and clothing stores has an absolutely astounding ripple effect on local economies and jobs across America."

Historically, few other regions have felt the impact of incoming hunting dollars more acutely than North Central Pennsylvania, where hunting continues to be a lifeblood for the region's economy. Glenn McConnell owns a general store in Waterville, Pa., and says about 70 percent of his business comes from out-of-towners, many of whom are hunters.

"We have an old-fashioned convenience store that has a little bit of everything," McConnell says. "Based on where we're located, people don't want to drive 15 miles each way to get groceries for their camp."

But as much as the local economy has always depended on hunting, the relationship is changing. While McConnell remembers years ago stores in the area being able to make enough money in the opening weeks of deer hunting season to last them for several months,"that's really not so much the case anymore," he says.

"There's been a decline in the deer herd here, so people aren't coming up here like they used to," McConnell adds.

While that might be a death sentence for some towns whose economies are so tightly intertwined with hunting, for towns near here, the burgeoning presence of a completely different industry has dulled the pain of the area's waning hunting industry.

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The region sits at the heart of Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale formation, a massive source of natural gas. hese days it seems farms are dotted with more bulldozers than tractors and fields are gouged with deep trenches ready to house gas pipelines.

But while the new industry around town might make for a temporary eyesore, it's done a lot to pad the pockets of local business owners.

"It's had a significant impact on our business,"says Adam Kordes, who owns National Sporting Goods in Jersey Shore, Penn. "There's not a business around that hasn't benefited."

In any case, the hunters aren't complaining. According to Ray, after the gas companies lay pipeline, vegetation grows in the newly cleared areas providing excellent nesting and feeding grounds for various animals, including wild turkeys. Habitat preservation is key to the work Ray does for the NWTF because better habitats typically means more turkeys. More turkeys potentially means more hunters, and more hunters bring more money to help support local businessowners like McConnell and Kordes.

It's also fundamental to the organization's mission.

"We're hunters, but we're also conservationists," Ray says.

After a few more hours of unsuccessful turkey hunting, returning home empty handed is increasingly becoming the more likely outcome. We've crisscrossed Ray's best turkey spots and seen dozens of telltale signs, but despite many pleading calls, the wily birds aren't interested.

Ray seems surprised that we haven't heard a peep from the birds, but the challenge of finding them is exactly what makes hunting turkeys anything but boring. This is what hunters live for, what they pay thousands of dollars to outfit themselves for, what they wake up early and sit in the dark and cold for. It's a cerebral undertaking.