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More to the point, outdated ideas and misconceptions are almost as great a barrier to quail restoration as lack of habitat.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