Oklahoma Quail Hunting On The Decline

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Deer hunters will march on the steps of the capitol to protest buck regulations; but quail hunters just go away._ --A frustrated New Jersey quail hunter/conservationist

If quail hunters made as much noise as bear hunters, this agency would be doing more for quail. --A southeastern wildlife agency administrator, September 2011

Those two quotes are the beginning to an excellent blog post over on the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative website. The blog, written by NBCI Director Don McKenzie, is a must-read for anyone concerned with the current state of the bobwhite quail.

It outlines what every quail hunter and bird dog owner can and should be doing to make their voices heard above the din of various interests that are always vying for limited wildlife funds and resources. McKenzie, a former state wildlife agency administrator himself, explains why.

_Wildlife agency commissioners, board members and administrators are human, and respond to squeaky wheels. I used to be a mid-level administrator for a southeastern state wildlife agency, and saw firsthand how readily deer hunters will storm the castle to try to get their way, while quail hunters are silent and invisible. Deer hunters make things happen. Quail hunters could learn a few lessons from them.

"...If throngs of quail hunters in all 25 NBCI states began making noise worthy of the urgency of the problem, agencies would begin to notice and respond. Respectful prodding may be needed in some places, especially at first. But over the longer term, quail hunters need to engage their state wildlife agency and commission with positive reinforcement - constructive interaction that is supportive of the agency's efforts.

"...Quail hunters who "go away" will not win political support. Quail hunters who "go away" will not influence agency policies and spending. Quail hunters who "go away" will not foster positive change._

It's that last part that particularly resonates with me, because I've been able to witness that long-term decline first-hand. My home state of Oklahoma has gone from well over 100,000 (and probably many more) quail hunters in 1986 to an estimated 30,000 last year (and I'd call that estimate generous). I live in the middle of what is regarded as the best quail hunting region in Oklahoma, and I live a few minutes away from one of the best public-land quail spots in the state. I consider it my "home" place. The opening weekend of quail season here usually means local motels crowded with trucks hauling dog boxes, and legions of hunters following their dogs across the sandhills in search of birds.

But it hasn't been that way in the past few years. Slowly but steadily those hunters have quietly disappeared to the point that when I hunted my "home" place on opening morning this year, I was shocked to discover that I had almost the entire 16,000-acre area to myself. There were, near as I can tell, more duck hunters on the lake than there were quail hunters in the hills. And in this part of the world that's an unusual sight, indeed. I stopped to talk to one other quail hunter, a regular who had been coming up here for years, and he agreed he'd never seen it like this. All those quail hunters had simply elected to "go away."

Now, there are all sorts of problems (all solvable) associated with this long-term decline, but since this is ostensibly a gundogs blog, let's just focus on that aspect. What do you think will happen to our magnificent pointing dog breeds if we can't halt this decline in bird hunter numbers? For countless generations and centuries, these dogs have evolved to find and point birds for us, to hunt. But if there are no birds to point, if there are no hunters to train them, to fine-tune that instinct and then take them afield, what then? Do they eventually become just another pet breed, their exquisite and remarkable qualities dulled by a largely meaningless 21st-century canine existence? The kind of life in which chasing neighborhood pigeons at the dog park is about as good as it gets?

Granted, suggesting that our pointing breeds may be on the verge of an existential crisis due to low quail hunter numbers may be a bit of an anthropomorphic (not to mention philosophical) stretch. For all we know, our dogs may be just as happy to grow fat and lazy on the couch as we seem to be, but I doubt it.

I recently blogged about the experience of finally getting my young setter her first solid point on a wild quail. It was, as it always is when these things come together, a sublimely exhilarating thing to witness. To watch a dog's entire being suddenly and unexpectedly snap into one crystalline moment of focus and quivering intensity is to witness the kind of primal self-awareness and surety of purpose your average lapdog will never know. You will never convince me otherwise, and anthropomorphism be damned.

So where does that leave us, as bird dog owners and lovers? As the quail go, so go we and our dogs? Let's not let it get to that point. Let's not just "go away." As Don McKenzie, suggests, let's take a cue from the deer hunters, the bear, hunters, the duck hunters and make a little noise. Join. Show up. Advocate. It's not too late. Don't be the last quail hunter to turn out the lights in your state. Keep your pointer pointing, don't let your inaction doom him to a Pekingese existence*.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.