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Bedwell's evidence pulls Oregon turkeys from exotic ranks

Dr. Stephen Bedwell was an up-and-coming anthropology professor when he drowned in 1972 in Wisconsin, and secrets about the pre-history of wild turkeys in Oregon almost went with him to the bottom of Lake Winnebago.

Now 33 years later, Bedwell could become the accidental patron saint of Oregon's wild turkeys, posthumously rescuing these birds from wildlife purgatory and giving them what turkey-lovers say is their rightful status as an Oregon native.

A footnote in Bedwell's 1970 doctoral work, which involved the excavation of caves used by early natives near Fort Rock, reveals his discovery of turkey bones there dating as far back as 13,000 years.

Turkey bones showed up in several layers of earth under the ash from the explosion about 7,000 years ago of Mount Mazama, which eventually formed Crater Lake, according to the 1972 publishing of Bedwell's findings in a book called Fort Rock Basin, Prehistory and Environment.

That runs counter to Oregon's wildlife rules, which consider turkeys an introduced exotic species.

Wild turkey advocate Mike Ayres of Medford recently discovered Bedwell's work thanks to a chance meeting with an amateur archeologist at a Medford lumber yard this winter.

Now hunters and biologists believe Bedwell's work finally can take that scarlet E for exotic off Oregon's flocks.

It's proof positive there is historical evidence of turkeys in Oregon, says John Thiebes, a National Wild Turkey Federation field biologist in Medford. And we want to make sure people are aware that turkeys were in existence in Oregon before (introductions).

If accepted, Bedwell's research could lead to a reclassification of turkeys from exotic to native/re-introduced.

Such a change wouldn't necessarily mean shifts in turkey management, which is guided by a recently developed 10-year plan.

But it would pull turkeys from the exotic ranks with the likes of bullfrogs and starlings to the more stately re-introduced realm with bighorn sheep and mountain goat.

I don't know if that alone will do it or not, but that's something we need to get our hands on, says Larry Cooper, the OFDW's deputy administrator for the Wildlife Division and the architect of the agency's Wildlife Integrity rules.

If we find something pretty concrete, it does lend credence to the notion of turkeys existing here, Cooper says.

And that credence may result in a much cooler status for turkeys.

It is cooler to be (re-introduced), Cooper says. Way cooler.

And Bedwell could very well provide that coolness through a research book he created but never saw.

Bedwell was a University of Oregon doctoral student of Dr. Arthur Cressman, the father of Oregon archeology and the discoverer of the 18,000-year-old Ft. Rock sandals, which are considered the oldest shoes ever found.

Bedwell was part of a team of U of O students who returned to the Fort Rock area in 1967-68 to excavate a series of caves. Bedwell's quest was to show that a climate shift in the eastern Oregon portion of the Great Basin was wet enough to draw animals and natives into the Fort Rock area thousands of years earlier when the explosion of Mount Mazama happened 55 miles away.

He had an interest in a climatological approach to archeology, says Dave Stuart, an amateur archeologist in Medford. You can walk around in the desert out there and see the old lake levels high on cliffs.

The excavations unveiled numerous fragments of birds, mammals, wood and other material that carbon dating revealed was as much as 13,000 years old. Bedwell's discoveries revealed that the climate was far more wet and much less harsh than it is now, supporting different plant and animal species than those normally associated with Oregon's high desert.

One of those different species, Bedwell noted, were pinion pines and turkeys, most likely the Merriam's sub-species. Several bones dug from the site were sent to the University of Michigan and were identified by Robert W. Storer, curator of birds, and Joseph G. Struach Jr., research assistant, from the Museum of Zoology, according to a footnote in the manuscript.

The research helped Bedwell earn his doctorate from U of O in 1970, and he became an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Bedwell was finalizing his book on the research in May 1972 when he drowned in Lake Winnebago while testing a motor and boat.

Cressman finished assembling the manuscript and U of O published the book later that year, according to the book's forward written by Cressman.

The book remains in short circulation, mainly among people interested in eastern Oregon's prehistory.

That's why Stuart read the book about 15 years ago.

I just happened to stumble on it, Stuart says. I remember thinking it was interesting that pinion pines and turkeys were there.

While armchair archeologists knew about the once-native turkeys, the turkey clan certainly didn't.

Then Ayres went to Rogue Pacific Lumber Co. in Medford earlier this year to seek donations to a NWTF banquet.

He struck up a conversation with Stuart, the company's owner.

While talking turkey, he mentioned Bedwell's findings to Ayres.

For some reason, the turkeys and pinion pines stuck in my brain all these years, Stuart says.

Ayres researched Bedwell's name and earlier this month stopped at the U of O library.

I brought my grandkids with me to be part of history, Ayres says.

There, stashed in section 878, they found Bedwell's book.

It almost had an Indiana Jones feeling to it, Ayres says. A real mystery.

Ayres since has learned more about Bedwell's work and his untimely death at age 42.

Now Thiebes has ordered a few reprints he's found online and plans to forward one to ODFW.

He'll highlight the tables where the turkey bones are logged, and note references to the native turkeys of old.

We're anxiously awaiting it, ODFW's Cooper says. It's very interesting. We want to find out what this fellow found.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail