A Canary in the Coal Mine: Bobwhite Quail Population

It should be self-evident for all gundog owners that the future of the dogs we love is inextricably tied to the future of the game birds we hunt. And it all starts with habitat. No habitat means no birds and ducks…no birds and ducks means no bird and duck hunters…therefore no bird and duck dogs.

That's why we need to be paying particular attention to things such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. These federal programs are crucial for our upland gamebirds and waterfowl.

But having said that, there is one species that by and large hasn't responded as well to federal conservation programs and it's the one species that, for many of us, embodies the very essence of the upland hunting and bird dog experience--the bobwhite quail.

It's not hyperbole to say that the bobwhite quail is in an extended, long-term, range-wide population nosedive, particularly in the southeastern region that once was the epicenter of quail hunting culture and legend. It simply buggers the noggin' to realize that in the past 50 years quail hunting in the south has gone from a ubiquitous and passionate avocation for millions, to a largely niche pastime practiced by a few die-hard devotees on put-and-take shooting preserves, private plantations and what few public hunting areas still hold huntable-but-dwindling numbers of quail.

And it's not just a southern thing, either. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, the Midwestern states have all seen steep declines in bobwhite populations.

Combine the long-term quail decline with the rise in popularity of deer and turkey hunting and socio-economic and demographic factors that don't favor gundog ownership (apartment living, no access to training grounds, etc.) and it's no mystery why quail hunting is waning. The question is, what can be done about it? Can it be reversed?

That's the goal of a group called the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative http://www.bringbackbobwhites.org/ an umbrella organization of 25 state wildlife agencies, four federal governmental agencies and almost 30 private and academic conservation and hunter-based groups, including Quail Forever, Quail Unlimited, the NWTF and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (which was recently featured on F&S).

Last week the organization released a report detailing its master conservation plan for the bobwhite quail.

From this news release on the NBCI website:
_If its (NBCI) habitat management goals were to be fully implemented across "priority" landscapes it could add 4.6 million additional coveys - or more than 55 million birds -- to the plummeting populations of bobwhites across the range, estimates the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).

That was one message delivered Thursday night at an evening reception packed with representatives from an array of federal, state and private conservation organizations at the North American Wildlife & Natural Resources Conference. They gathered to see the 25 states comprising the core range of the northern bobwhite quail unveil the new, web-based NBCI 2.0, the massive revision and expansion of the original 2002 printed bobwhite plan, known then as the "Northern" Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. It was instituted primarily by 16 southeastern states to help reverse the drastic decline of quail and a suite of other wildlife species dependent on disappearing diversity of native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs on rangelands, farmlands, grasslands and timberlands.

"...Essentially a range-wide prescription for bobwhite recovery, NBCI 2.0 includes a thorough update and analysis of the bobwhite's situation, a survey and classification of 600 million acres of landscape across the bobwhite range, and inventories 195 million acres of priority landscapes where bobwhite and grasslands conservation have a relatively high potential of success. It also prescribes specific management actions necessary for those acres to achieve respective state bobwhite population goals, and identifies specific keys to success, such as the addition and management of diverse native grasses and wildflowers to agricultural fields, pasture lands and forests._

The entire report can be accessed online if you want to delve into the nuts-and-bolts of it. Its findings are important, and should--like the plight of the bobwhite quail--be getting more attention than it is. It's not an exaggeration to say that the slow, inexorable disappearance of the bobwhite quail is an environmental crisis. But it's a quiet one, and one that many of us have let slip by without notice or comment, while much smaller and isolated declines in other, more popular game species like deer, elk and turkey, generate reams of publicity and debate. That has to change.

Bird hunters need to be as vocal as big-game hunters when it comes for advocating for the future of our sport. Join Quail Forever, Quail Unlimited, The Quail Coalition or whatever organization you believe can make a difference. Go to your state's wildlife department public meetings. Contact your state and federal elected officials. Advocate and be heard, because a future that doesn't include being able to hunt behind your dogs isn't much of a future.