William Henry Turcotte first learned to appreciate wildlife while hunting and fishing with his father and older brother in the piney woods of southern Mississippi. Born in Magee, Mississippi, on 24 January 1917, Turcotte ultimately spent more than forty years as a biologist with the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission, conducting research and managing the successful reintroduction of game animals such as white-tailed deer and wild turkey. Known during his long tenure for an interest in nongame species and his commitment to rational scientific management practices, Turcotte was perhaps the most influential Mississippi wildlife biologist of the twentieth century.
At the age of seven Turcotte moved with his family to Clinton, where he developed an interest in collecting birds and eggs. By his teens he held a scientific permit for his considerable collection of eggs and nests. His interest in birds led to an early association with conservationist Fannye Cook, who often hired him during the 1930s to help with taxidermy work in support of her research interests. Turcotte earned a degree from Mississippi College in 1939 and went to work the next year for the state commission. When World War II intervened, Turcotte joined the US Army Air Corps and became a navigator; he spent nineteen months as a German prisoner of war.
After the war Turcotte returned to some unique opportunities in a changing state. The rural farming population had begun to decline in response to the increasing mechanization of agriculture; at the same time, a system of state refuges set up in the 1930s had begun to provide a surplus of animals for restocking programs that could be funded in part by federal money. With his state on the cusp of a dramatic recovery in large-game animal populations, Turcotte supervised the live trapping and transplanting of deer and turkey to counties where they had been extirpated for generations. Large-game populations continued to expand over much of the state, although the prevailing conditions eventually proved detrimental to small game. By 1979, when Turcotte retired, Mississippi had healthy populations of deer and turkey, with deer alone numbering around half a million.
Turcotte also left a body of scientific work that reflected his concern with wildlife in general and went beyond his career with game species. He spent years collecting the songs of Mississippi birds and frogs and published selections in audiotaped field guides. His lifelong interest in birds culminated in the comprehensive Birds of Mississippi (1999), which Turcotte wrote with David L. Watts. Turcotte died on 5 November 2000.
- William H. Turcotte, interview by Wiley Prewitt, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science Reference Library