Birth and Rebirth at Caney Mountain

Bernice Morrison and Caney Mountain Conservation Area are joined at the heart.

“I have a lot of memories of this area,” the 92-year-old Gainesville resident says as his eyes roam off into the surrounding hills and hollows that give this Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife refuge in Ozark County its natural beauty. Many of those memories involve the work Morrison did—first as a concerned citizen and later as a Department of Conservation employee—to help bring back the wild turkey in Missouri.

Today, with a healthy population and a spring hunting season that pumps millions of dollars into Missouri’s economy, it’s hard to believe Missouri’s turkeys ever needed help. However, there was a time when wild turkeys were on the verge of disappearing from the state. Many of the reasons they didn’t are rooted in a Conservation Department restoration program that started more than a half-century ago at the Caney Mountain area.

Morrison’s connection with this 7,899-acre swatch of Ozark splendor goes beyond turkey trapping and gobbling surveys. Years before Caney Mountain became the alpha site of the turkey’s comeback in Missouri, it was the birthplace of Morrison. Reminders of that event are still visible in the form of a rock chimney that stands vigil over a small enclosure of collapsed log walls alongside Caney’s North Hiking Trail. It’s all that remains of the cabin Morrison’s father, W.J. “Joe” Morrison, built for his family in the closing years of the 19th century.

“I was born there on Christmas Day, 1917,” Morrison proudly recalls. Hard times forced the family to leave that site when Bernice, the youngest of 10 children, was still an infant, but the Morrisons remained in the area. The family honed their affections for the Caney Mountain area by hunting the rugged terrain often. One quarry that was showing up with alarmingly less frequency for the Morrisons and other hunters around the state was the wild turkey.

“They were being poached out,” Morrison recalled. Poorly regulated hunting, coupled with habitat destruction caused by overgrazing, over-burning and a number of other human-related alterations to the landscape, had dropped Missouri’s turkey numbers to just slightly more than 2,000 by the mid-1930s. In 1938, the Department of Conservation closed turkey hunting throughout the state.

Attempts at reviving the state’s turkey population were already well underway—and failing miserably. Beginning in the 1920s, state biologists began to release farm-raised birds into the wild in an effort to reverse the declining turkey