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What happened to our quail? Part II

2/25/2009

Not all is bad news on the bobwhite quail front. In 2007, conditions in some states were such that bobwhites populations rebounded, at least temporarily, providing better hunting than has been seen in recent years.

In much of Texas and the Central Plains, for example, above average rainfall was prevalent in 2007. In these areas that are normally very dry during summer, there was an abundance of rain. The wet spring and summer created a multitude of unusually lush pastures and rangeland, and this plethora of native grass and the resultant insect populations provided excellent nesting/brood cover and forage conditions. Forecasts were for excellent fall quail hunting in this region.

In Missouri, reports statewide indicated more people were seeing bobwhites and their broods than they had for many years. This was especially evident where landowners are actively managing their property for quail or are participating in government-sponsored conservation programs such as the Conservation Security Program. Many landowners reported seeing quail for the first time in six or seven years. The state Department of Conservation also has helped with an intense bobwhite management program on 19 conservation areas that impacts 78,000 acres.

Despite declining populations and habitat across the upper Midwest, in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, there are still good to excellent local quail hunting opportunities on both public and private lands. Habitat programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Upland Buffers for Wildlife Program have been extremely beneficial for upland game birds such as bobwhites and should continue to provide good local hunting opportunities.

Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
The brightest news for bobwhite quail and quail hunters is a new program called the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).

NBCI had its beginnings in 1998 when directors of state agencies in the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, knowing that immediate action was needed to save bobwhites, decided they needed a recovery plan similar to the successful North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The task of formulating this plan was assigned to the Southeast Quail Study Group, a partnership of more than 100 wildlife professionals from state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations. In March 2002, the first edition of the resulting NBCI was completed. This is the first landscape-scale habitat restoration and population recovery plan for bobwhites in the U.S.

The goal of the NBCI is to increase quail density on improvable acres to the same level that existed in the 1980s. To accomplish this, three general strategies will be used. The first involves increasing the amount and improving the quality of agricultural lands for bobwhite nesting, brood rearing and roosting. This is best accomplished by conservation plantings of native warm-season grasses, shrubs and forbs. The NBCI also calls for better management of pinelands and mixed pine-hardwood areas. This would involve thinning, controlled burning and increasing acreage devoted to longleaf pine. Finally, the strategy targets rangeland improvement through vegetation management and grazing regimes that favor retention and improvement of native plant communities important to quail and other grassland birds.

To meet NBCI goals, managers must find ways to improve habitat on about seven per cent of 81.1 million acres of farm, forest and rangeland. Doing so should increase the current quail population by 2.7 million coveys.

Proponents say if immediate action is taken, the bobwhite's decline may be arrested in five years. And if the plan is followed to its conclusion, a complete restoration of bobwhites may be effected in 20 to 25 years.

Perhaps some day, quail hunting's numerous devotees will once again enjoy hunting like that of decades past. Even now, there's good quail hunting to be found if you take time to seek it out. And the elements of the hunt — camaraderie, fresh air, gaunt pointers, sporty wingshooting — retain their obsessive allure.