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By Mitch Tobin

BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE - Biologists have released more than 25,000 masked bobwhite quail here since 1985, when the federal government bought a ranch for nearly $9 million and booted cows from the grasslands south of Three Points.

But within a year of being set free, more than 90 percent of the endangered birds are dead, most of them picked off by hawks. Today, 100 to 200 of the quail survive in the wild.

Now, with the refuge's manager for its first 19 years deposed over allegations he illegally moved frogs, officials have decided to halt releases of the quail so they can figure out what's going wrong.

"We're not giving up the fight for the masked bobwhite," new manager Mitch Ellis said earlier this month, five days on the job. "We'll keep doing what we can for the habitat, and the birds will come along at some point."

The reintroduction program - skewered in 1996 by an NBC News "Fleecing of America" segment - has long been held up as a costly federal boondoggle by conservative critics and neighboring ranchers.

Backers of the 118,000-acre refuge - by far the largest ever created to recover an endangered species - counter that the Buenos Aires protects open space that might otherwise sprout homes and benefits a raft of species besides the bobwhite.

The refuge has no problem pumping out quail, using techniques borrowed from commercial poultry production. But captive-bred birds may not retain enough wild instincts, and the landscape they inhabit is still recovering from more than a century of grazing, erosion and human influence.

"We're trying to get a handle on what's going on out in the wild without throwing all these birds out there," said Sally Gall, assistant refuge manager. "We're at a real crucial turning point. . . . It's been many, many years of releases and you really can't say we're fully succeeding here, to be honest."

In the shadow of Baboquivari Peak's bald knob, an unnatural proliferation of mesquites crowds out grasses and gives raptors places to perch. Lehmann lovegrass, a species from South Africa, dominates the Altar Valley and outcompetes native plants the quail rely on for food and cover.

The refuge has already tweaked its aggressive prescribed-burning program. It is now considering experiments with seeding, herbicides, chain saws and even limited grazing to restore the native vegetation.

"We're not ruling anything out," said Ellis, an Ajo native.

Ellis replaced Wayne Shifflett after he was removed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after he was accused of transporting threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs without a permit. Shifflett, who didn't return calls, faces possible federal felony charges for what he has said was a desperate attempt to save the frogs before their tanks went dry.

Found mostly in Sonora

Tucsonans have no trouble seeing quail in subdivisions within city limits, but those are usually the Gambel's variety. Masked bobwhites are far more sneaky and were never common in Arizona. Nearly all of the bird's historic range is in Sonora, and Arizona's settlers found them only in the Altar and Santa Cruz valleys.

That's why the reintroduction is bound to fail, said Arivaca resident Mary Kasulaitis, whose family's Noon Ranch borders the refuge on two sides.

"We're saving something that isn't really indigenous to this area or was here in great numbers to begin with," said Kasulaitis, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1879. "If they want to save this as desert grassland, that's one thing. But if they want to waste a lot of effort on these birds, that's another."

The bird was first collected in Arizona in 1884 by Herbert Brown, former owner of the Arizona Citizen newspaper. Transplanted Easterners like Brown were enamored of the quail since its mask and call of "bobwhite" recalled the northern bobwhites commonly hunted back home in the 19th century.

Brown named and advocated for the species, but 20 years later - after a cattle boom went bust - he lamented "there are none left to protect." Drought and overgrazing decimated Southern Arizona's grasslands and caused the U.S. birds to vanish by 1900, scientists say.

Ornithologists and conservationists rallied around the bird because it was "a symbol of all the destruction that occurred in Southern Arizona at the time," said Nathan Sayre, whose doctoral thesis and book, "Ranching, Endangered Species and Urbanization in the Southwest" (University of Arizona, 2002), focuses on the quail and refuge.

With the bird a poster child for anti-grazing forces, Sayre said, "the refuge took a very simple-minded approach to the ecological challenge": boot cows, set fires and wait for quail to come back without any rigorous monitoring of the valley.

"It's no surprise," he said, "that sooner or later that caught up with them as far as actual outcomes."

The quail landed on the cover of the 1964 "Birds of Arizona," which called it "Arizona's most famous bird." But numerous reintroduction attempts failed, and it wasn't until the 1973 Endangered Species Act that the federal government was mandated to recover the quail.

Wild birds fare better

Initially, birds trapped in Mexico were bred at a Fish and Wildlife facility in Maryland. Chicks were packed in crates and refuge officials picked them up at the baggage claim at Tucson International Airport.

Since 1996, the captive breeding has been done at the refuge, where incubators, brooders and flight pens amount to an assembly line for making quail. Heat, light and humidity are regulated to induce breeding, and a crackly radio seems to calm the quail, which can become cannibalistic if they're not debeaked.

With West Nile virus and Exotic Newcastle disease spreading among other birds, illness is always a concern. And with no new genetic material being injected into the population, the refuge staff worries the birds are becoming inbred.

Melanie Culver, a geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that doesn't appear to explain the high mortality. Culver, one of a dozen or so outside experts brought in to evaluate the program this summer, said the refuge's strategy of randomly pairing birds is "as good as any other to avoid inbreeding."

The problem, she and other scientists said, is that survival of the fittest in cages may not select for the traits the birds need to make a living in the wild.

Even under ideal conditions, the quail suffer staggering mortality rates, with 70 to 80 percent perishing in their first year. Pretty much every terrestrial and avian predator in the species' range will gobble its eggs, chicks and adults. The quail aren't strong fliers, so secrecy is their best defense.

"You practically have to step on them before you can see them because they're buried in the grass," refuge biologist Dan Cohan said as he prepared to search for the birds at the start of a balmy August day.

It didn't take long for Cohan to hear the quail's namesake call. But the birds remained invisible after 45 minutes of wading through knee-high grass still wet from monsoon thunderstorms the day before.

Then, in a moment witnessed only a couple of times per year, Cohan spotted a wild-born quail perched in a gnarly mesquite.

The bird was likely the offspring of 33 quail that were trapped in Mexico and released in the area in 1999. Refuge staffers think those wilder birds fare better. But with fewer than 1,000 of the quail left in Sonora - where grazing and land use are less regulated - any transplanting must be conservative.

Steve Dobrott, a refuge biologist from 1985 to 1992, said the bird's best hope is conserving the Sonora population so there are enough quail to transplant to the refuge. But Dobrott, a member of the review team, said even wild quail will find something missing in the Altar Valley, such as enough diversity of winter vegetation.

Sayre's book points to dramatic changes in hydrology: storm runoff once spread across the valley to create a moist microclimate for the birds, but today it's whisked away in a wash that has grown from 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep to as much as 20 feet deep and 1,400 feet wide.

Dobrott and Sayre said it's worth a shot to experiment with new techniques - and treatments will necessarily be small-scale for starters due to the cost.

Many refuge neighbors are also optimistic about the new management since they and Shifflett often clashed.

"It really is a new era," said Mary Miller, a third-generation resident whose family owns the Elkhorn Ranch.

Grazing still polarizes

Nearly everyone with a stake in the refuge thinks it's smart to hold off on more releases, but not all of the possible habitat treatments have universal support. Some environmentalists and scientists worry that applying herbicides, discing the soil or dragging chains with bulldozers to uproot mesquites could do more harm than good.

No option is as polarizing as letting cattle back on Arizona's largest ungrazed grassland.

Although cows prefer native plants to mature Lehmann lovegrass, the non-native species sprouts first and cows find the young plants "delicious," said rancher Pat King, president of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance. "That would be the time to graze it really hard."

But Roy Emrick, vice president of the Friends of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, said it makes no sense to let cattle return "since cows caused the problem in the first place."

Whatever happens with cows, the refuge plans to keep burning 15,000 to 20,000 acres a year in an attempt to replicate the natural cycle. Fires are now set later in the spring so they burn hotter, and refuge officials say the program has already helped native vegetation come back.

But UA researchers Guy McPherson and Erika Geiger have studied vegetation plots on the refuge and found neither burning nor excluding cows has done anything to reduce mesquites or lovegrass.

Decades ago, mesquites spread from drainages across the valley as fires were suppressed, competing plants were grazed and bean pods were deposited in cow patties. Today, fires often "top-kill" mesquites, letting them resprout from their roots. And the lovegrass, which evolved with fire, may come back even stronger after burns, the UA researchers found.

Lovegrass - purposely sown to reduce soil erosion - may forever be entrenched in the valley, McPherson said.

"There's a reason it was selected for distribution after a worldwide search 70 years ago," he said. "It's incredibly well-suited to this environment."

The rare ecosystem also suits seven listed species besides the quail, and that creates conflicts. Burns can be problematic since they may destroy Pima pineapple cacti and nests for pygmy owls - two endangered species tied to Tucson's growth debates.

The refuge itself was once mostly state land that could have been sold off to developers.

Had the government not protected the area, said Scott Wilbor of the Tucson Audubon Society, "we would have lost that habitat altogether."

œ Contact reporter Mitch Tobin at 573-4185 or

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