Talkin' Outdoors

Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to hunt quail. That word – "hunt" may be a bit misleading. I've shot pen-raised quail, which is a far cry from earlier hunts two or three decades ago when our part of the world actually had a good population of wild quail.

If you grew up in the country as I did, your dad, your granddad and all our neighbors had a truck patch where peas, corn, tomatoes et al were grown. Chances are there was a fence row around the patch left uncut where native weeds and grasses flourished. Many times I've gone out to the family garden and flushed a covey of quail from their fence-row living quarters.

Today, the fence rows around those old truck patches and gardens have largely disappeared. We no longer wake up to the clear crisp "bob white" of quail calling from the fence row. For sure, it's not just the loss of habitat that has caused quail numbers to plummet throughout the south; other factors such as fire ants, pesticides, overall land use changes, etc. are also prime suspects causing the decline.

There is a relatively new organization at work on the cutting edge of attempting to learn why quail numbers are decreasing and coming up with innovative ways to attempt to quell the decline.

Working with some 25 state wildlife management agencies, various conservation groups and research institutes to form the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), the organization is optimistic that research undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the feasibility of utilizing native grasses as opposed to the aggressive non-native grasses could be a spark that ignites the comeback of quail.

"USDA's forage subsidy policies are one of the main causes of bobwhite quail decline range-wide," NBCI Director Don McKenzie said, "as well as the decline of an entire class of grassland songbirds. NBCI is working with USDA and a range of wildlife and conservation organizations to promote policies that benefit both producers and wildlife."

The issue came into focus a couple of years ago as drought left livestock producers across the country's midsection with pastures full of drought-stricken cool-season exotics and no way to feed their herds. NBCI along with other conservation groups urged the USDA to shift a portion of their subsidies toward replanting drought-stricken pastures with drought-tolerant native forage grasses instead of the traditional exotics.

Switching from exotic grass species to more drought-tolerant native grasses could have made a big difference in livestock feed as well as giving a big boost to wildlife.

"We wouldn't have seen so many producers in so much trouble during the drought and we would have seen more quail and grassland songbirds and taxpayers would not have to foot such a large bill for re-planting the same pastures that will again die during the next drought," McKenzie said.

Restoring quail populations to the numbers we knew as youngsters may never happen but efforts such as these implemented by groups such as NBCI can give us the hope of some day in the not too distant future waking to the clear "bobwhite" of a quail. It's a call I've missed and would dearly love to hear again. Kudos to NBCI for working to help me realize that possibility.

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