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News Articles

26
June 16, 2004, 10:58PM

Dwindling quail populations create crisis situation
Texas takes lead by starting plan to reverse trend
By SHANNON TOMPKINS
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Many, perhaps a majority, of today's 21-plus million Texans never have heard the distinctive, two-note, namesake whistle of a wild bobwhite quail, much less seen the little pear-shaped birds skittering through a grassy field or exploding into flight with a rush and clatter that invariably puts hearts in throats.

Unless something happens — something considerable — in the next couple of decades, the opportunity to see, hear and experience wild Texas bobwhites stands to become much more rare than it is.

"Bobwhite quail are in trouble, and it's big trouble," Leonard Brennan, professor and holder of an endowed chair in quail research at Texas A&M-Kingsville's Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, told the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission during a recent briefing in Austin.

Over the past 30 years, bobwhite population in Texas has declined perhaps 70 percent, state wildlife managers said.

The scary thing is that Texas' quail numbers are in good shape when held against those from other states in the birds' native range.

Bobwhites, once so amazingly abundant and widespread in the Southeast that the birds were a part of the social fabric, have all but faded from huge swaths of their native range.

Culprits in the quail tumble are clear. Loss of quail habitat and the fragmentation of remaining habitat are the largest factors.

Quail have fairly narrow habitat requirements — they like open areas with low grass cover (but not just any grass cover) and an abundance of seeds and insects.

And they need a lot of it.

Quail research (and bobwhites are one of the most-studied birds in the United States) shows it takes an average of 5,000 contiguous acres of quail habitat to support and maintain a self-sustaining quail population.


Many land-use woes
Changes in land use across the bobwhites' range — transforming long-leaf pine savannah to pine plantations, replacing fields of native grasses with coastal Bermuda and other non-native species, suppression of fires in forest and fields, invasion of brush species into areas that were grasslands — have exterminated quail from huge areas.

Fragmentation of the remaining habitat exacerbates the problem.

A 200-acre tract might support a covey or two of quail.

But they will not survive for long.

Quail are a notoriously high-turnover species, with as many as 50 percent or more of a population dying over the course of a year, even without hunting mortality.

One bad winter or poor nesting season or drought easily can extinguish all the birds in an isolated population.

And releasing pen-raised bobwhites to bolster sagging wild quail numbers or re-establish an extinguished quail population not only does not work, it inflicts further damage.

Release of pen-raised quail never has re-established a self-sustaining bobwhite population, despite it being tried innumerable times across the breadth of quail range.

Also, research has shown that repeated large-scale release of pen-raised quail into areas holding a population of wild quail results in increased mortality of those wild birds.

Bobwhite quail did not get in their current precarious situation overnight — it's just that what had been a long, slow slide took a dive over the past 30 or so years as the weight of negative habitat impacts manifested themselves across the bird's range.

Rescuing bobwhite quail from the dark hole into which they have been pushed will be an equally monumental, time-consuming, and hideously expensive project.

But it's a necessary effort, Brennan and a legion of wildlife scientists, managers, hunters and general wildlife lovers have decided.

Spurred by the dramatic decline in bobwhites, the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies initiated drafting of a plan aimed at, first, stabilizing the decline in quail populations, then rebuilding populations.

The goal of what has become the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, according to its guiding document, is to restore bobwhite populations, range-wide, "to an average density equivalent to that which existed on improvable acres in 1980."

Translated, that means restoring, enhancing and connecting millions of acres of quail habitat across the birds' native range.

The target is to have an autumn quail population that holds 2.7 million more coveys of quail (a covey averages about 12 birds) than the current autumn population.


First to step up
Almost three dozen states are involved in this massive undertaking.

But only Texas has progressed to drafting and beginning to implement a plan to accomplish that goal.

The Texas Quail Conservation Initiative, which Brennan and TPWD small game and habitat program director Vernon Bevill briefed the TPW Commission about, focuses on three main areas.

First is using TPWD wildlife management areas to help develop and demonstrate quail management techniques.

The plan also calls for providing incentives — money — to landowners as incentives to practice "quail friendly" land uses.

And it calls for implementing a "joint venture" program in which state, federal and non-governmental groups cooperate to plan, fund and implement a large-scale quail project.

The program is modeled after the joint venture system used in addressing issues related to waterfowl.

Funding for the Texas projects remain an issue. But those involved in the project are counting on as much as $1 million from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP) and other wildlife-related programs offered through the Federal Farm Bill as a way of paying for quail work.


Hunters can pay up
And Texas upland game bird hunters — the 95,000 or so quail hunters and the 400,000 or so dove hunters — could be the source of much of the funding for state projects.

Legislation that would create an upland bird hunting stamp, similar to the current state waterfowl hunting stamp, is being planned for proposal in the 2005 session of the Texas Legislature.

Such a stamp could generate as much as $4 million a year for projects aimed at quail and other upland birds.

Even if everything in the Texas Quail Conservation Initiative plan falls into place and serious work begins immediately, the results will be slow in coming.

Brennan said it could take a decade to stanch the bleeding — stabilize the decline in quail population and habitat.

It would take another 20 to 30 years to accomplish the plan's seemingly modest goal of returning things to the way they were less than a quarter-century ago.

It's a horribly daunting task.

But the cost of not trying is even more intimidating.

shannon.tompkins@chron.com

BOBWHITE QUAIL FACTS AND FIGURES
Bobwhite quail, once one of the most common game birds in the South and Texas, have suffered a dramatic and steady decline in population over the past decades. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are the main factors in the decline. Texas is the first state to develop and begin implementing a long-term plan to restore quail habitat and populations to 1980 levels.
- Texas' quail population has declined approximately 70 percent in the past 30 years.
- The number of quail hunters in Texas has declined from 224,000 in 1986-87 to 95,000 in 2002-03.
- Quail harvest in Texas has dropped from 1.8 million in 1986-87 to 567,000 in 2002-03.
- Wild quail populations and harvest in traditionally strong quail states have dropped to near nothing. Quail harvest in Mississippi declined almost 93 percent from 1980 to 1999. Quail harvest in Louisiana and South Carolina declined 91 percent over that same period.
- South Carolina's quail population has declined 90 percent in the past two decades.
- Nationwide, bobwhite quail population has dropped approximately 70 percent in the past 20 years.
In 1980, the bobwhite breeding (spring) population was estimated to be 19.62 million with an autumn (post-nesting season) population of 58.85 million.
- By 1999, that breeding population had dropped to 6.71 million, with an autumn population of 20.14 million.
SHANNON TOMPKINS

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