Pri­vate land the key to quail restora­tion in state

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS OUTDOORS - BRYAN HEN­DRICKS

Just when I be­lieved we were mak­ing progress on quail restora­tion, a con­ver­sa­tion re­minded me how far we have to go.

More to the point, out­dated ideas and mis­con­cep­tions are al­most as great a bar­rier to quail restora­tion as lack of habi­tat.

My cor­re­spon­dent ap­plauded the idea of the Ar- kansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion es­tab­lish­ing an up­land bird hunt­ing stamp. He said he’d buy one, or even two, in sup­port.

How­ever, he said it’s “B.S.” to say that quail will only thrive on pri­vate prop­erty. The Game and Fish has enough up­land habi­tat on some of its wildlife man­age­ment ar­eas right now, he added, es­pe­cially if it trans­plants quail from Texas or Ok­la­homa, to re-es­tab­lish bob­whites with­out pass­ing the buck to pri­vate landown­ers.

“If the Game and Fish can first get quail to thrive with a sus­tain­able hunt­able pop­u­la­tion on WMA’s, then en­gage pri­vate lands, the gen­uine sport of quail hunt­ing will fol­low, and thrive,” my cor­re­spon­dent wrote. “It’s pass­ing the buck to say it has to start with pri­vate land.”

My cor­re­spon­dent sug­gested Petit Jean Moun­tain Wildlife Area as the Eden from which Adam and Eve Bob­white will be fruit­ful and spread across a state that is largely de­void of quail habi­tat.

If that is true, why hasn’t it hap­pened al­ready?

The Game and Fish Com­mis­sion has tried it else­where, no­tably at Fort Chaf­fee in the early 1990s. It was not suc­cess­ful be­cause it was an is­land pop­u­la­tion that was con­fined to a rel­a­tively small amount of habi­tat. Ad­ja­cent pri­vate lands were not suit­able for ex­pan­sion, and there were no quail on ad­ja­cent land to aug­ment the Fort Chaf­fee quail.

Also, the Game and Fish Com­mis­sion was not com­mit­ted to long-term suc­cess. At that time, a few mem­bers of the AGFC’s wildlife man­age­ment di­vi­sion be­lieved that “is­land” cov­eys were sus­tain­able. That was be­fore such land­mark works like Steve DeMaso’s Pack­sad­dle Quail Mor­tal­ity Study and Fred Guth­ery’s On Bob­whites and Beef, Brush and Bob­whites pro­vided greater in­sight.

The U.S. For­est Ser­vice has good num­bers of quail in a 160,000-acre chunk of the Oua­chita Na­tional For­est, but they are con­fined due to the lack of habi­tat on ad­ja­cent pri­vate lands.

Hunt­able is a loaded word, pun in­tended. A covey of 15 quail is hunt­able only for one day if it en­coun­ters a party of good dogs and good shoot­ers. If that covey is re­duced sig­nif­i­cantly over the course of a sea­son, it won’t sur­vive to next sea­son if it can­not in­ter­min­gle with dif­fer­ent cov­eys that sus­tained equal or greater hunt­ing losses. Th­ese “is­land” cov­eys rapidly dwin­dle away, and there’s a moun­tain of re­search to doc­u­ment it.

Sus­tain­able is the more en­dur­ing con­cept.

It is un­re­al­is­tic and un­eth­i­cal to main­tain iso­lated quail cov­eys on pub­lic land that ex­ist only for hun­ters to shoot. That’s how it was done in the past, and that phi­los­o­phy is al­ways short lived be­cause it has no mo­men­tum and no guid­ing, long-term mis­sion.

Sus­tain­abil­ity is a holis­tic con­cept that in­volves heal­ing large, con­tin­u­ous and con­tigu­ous blocks of na­tive grass­land. Re­newed num­bers of bob­white quail and other grass­land wildlife species, es­pe­cially song­birds, are the re­wards for do­ing things right.

That’s why Ducks Un­lim­ited spends so much money conserving grass­lands in south­ern Canada, and why the Rocky Moun­tain Elk Foun­da­tion spends so much money buy­ing elk habi­tat in the West. The key is to cre­ate part­ner­ships with landown­ers to im­prove the land­scape and achieve mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial goals.

As I un­der­stand it, that is how the Game and Fish Com­mis­sion will use pro­ceeds from a pre­sump­tive up­land bird stamp. The agency has lim­ited funds to as­sist or in­cen­tivize landown­ers to cre­ate or im­prove up­land habi­tat. Money from an up­land hunt­ing stamp can in­crease the amount of fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance at the agency’s dis­posal for landown­ers.

There is no ar­gu­ment that the hey­day of quail hunt­ing in Arkansas was when quail were abun­dant on pri­vate land. When that habi­tat went away, so did the quail.

Even so, landown­ers want quail on their prop­erty. They pack every quail man­age­ment sem­i­nar I at­tend, but they al­ways balk at the ex­pense. Disc­ing, con­trolled burn­ing and restor­ing na­tive warm-sea­son grasses, legumes and forbs costs a lot of money.

Nev­er­the­less, that’s what it will take to re­store quail. The Game and Fish Com­mis­sion can’t do it alone on its pal­try amount of up­land habi­tat.

Re­gret­tably, the com­mis­sion’s first hur­dle ap­pears to be ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic out of long held quail man­age­ment myths.

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