By Nathan Czochara
On Thanksgiving Day, wild turkey hunters in Southwest Michigan should give thanks to two Vicksburg residents, Gary Van Dyke and Tony Decker, members of Southwestern Michigan Long Beards, a local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. VanDyke is president and Decker the treasurer of this group of wild turkey hunters who pursue the conservation of turkey populations and natural habitats across North America.
The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), founded in 1973 in Edgefield, SC, is the largest upland game conservation organization in the U.S., spending $412 million conserving 17.25 million acres of habitat. Michigan has 80 chapters.
The Southwestern Michigan Long Beards, which includes Kalamazoo County, was founded by Van Dyke in 1986. The chapter was the first in the United States to become Diamond Life Sponsor in the Federation by giving over $10,000 to the national fund of the NWTF.
“We were the first chapter ever to do a NWTF sanctioned banquet in the state of Michigan in 1988,” said VanDyke. “Through our banquet program, completing 29 banquets, we have raised $1,019,349. We are the only chapter in the United States to accomplish this.”
Besides the fundraising accomplishments, the Long Beards have made huge strides in conservation of wild turkeys and other wildlife in the county and across the state. Working with other organizations like the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other NWTF chapters, the group has helped fund the trapping of wild turkeys to replant them in Kalamazoo County and other areas in Michigan. The chapter has been a part of the repopulation of trees, pheasants, and other wildlife in Michigan.
“We gave turkeys to Ontario, and they gave us moose, to help repopulate the Upper Peninsula,” said Van Dyke.
“The shining moment is every time I see a wild turkey, and hear people talk how many turkeys they see,” he said. “It makes you feel good inside because when we first started there weren’t that many here. That is a shining moment that I relive on a daily basis.”