The tide may be turning for Gentleman Bob and other native species
The 2016 National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic just came to a close in Kansas City, Mo., where more than 20,000 hunters and conservationists convened at the nation’s largest upland event. As always, we were thrilled to participate in the annual Fest, which really does have something for everyone—from hunters and farmers to foodies and dog lovers.
This year’s event was particularly special, as it hosted the first-ever National Quail Summit, which brought together policymakers, upland biologists, hunters, and landowners to discuss long-term habitat solutions for the restoration of bobwhite quail populations in the U.S.
Here are a few things we learned at the summit:
- CRP works for quail. The Conservation Reserve Program is absolutely critical to quail population success. “Bobwhite buffers,” the 30- to 120-foot-wide habitat buffers for upland birds and just one of the conservation practices encouraged under CRP, add 30,000 bobwhite quail coveys annually to the landscape. Farmers and landowners love these buffers, which became part of CRP back in 2004, and they got even more buffer options last year when the USDA began allowing farmers to enroll disconnected patches of farmland. This small change has caused enrollment to skyrocket in the last four months, and quail numbers are expected to get a big boost as a result.
- Sportsmen can’t shoulder the conservation load alone. Here’s one good illustration of the state of the bobwhite and of bobwhite hunters: In Kansas in 1999, there were 117,000 quail hunters who harvested 1.3 million quail. In 2014, there were just 38,000 hunters and 175,000 quail harvested. That is a shocking decline on both counts, and it doesn’t bode well for a conservation model where sportsmen and shooters, by and large, pay for conservation. Less habitat means fewer quail, which means fewer quail hunters and fewer dollars for quail habitat restoration—it’s an endless and destructive cycle for game species. The state of Missouri, where the summit was held, happens to have a different model, which is held up as one of the best conservation funding mechanisms in the nation. Everyone pays for conservation through a 1/8-cent sales tax, adding about $110 million to the state’s conservation budget each year. The result? Everyone benefits.
- But sportsmen will remain essential. That’s why states like Missouri are investing their conservation dollars in programs like the brand new Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program (MRAP). Just like other beneficiaries of the USDA’s Voluntary Public Accessprogram, MRAP pays landowners to allow hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing on private property, and even incentivizes landowners to improve habitat on their lands. Access to hunting land remains the biggest hurdle to hunter recruitment and retention, but by connecting outdoor recreation to private lands conservation, MRAP will help to reverse that destructive cycle we just mentioned: Having more hunters leads to more dollars for conservation, which leads to better habitat and more quail.
- We need purposeful management on a meaningful scale. Purposeful management—whether for habitat maintenance or habitat restoration—means to provide the specific habitat components that will sustain quail populations at the landscape level. Managing explicitly for adequate amounts of nesting cover, woody cover, and food access is essential. Setting land aside and hoping wildlife will move in is less successful. In many parts of the country, this means reintroducing fire to the landscape through prescribed burning, which helps recreate the native habitat that was once present. (It’s worth noting that land managers get very excited about prescribed fire. Robert Perez from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department joked at the summit that “inside the heart of every wildlife biologist is a pyromaniac dying to get out!”)
- Conservation doesn’t happen by accident. We make it happen through funding, legislation, and hard work on the land. The only way that we’re going to win the war for conservation—especially to benefit quail, pheasants, and all the critters we love to hunt and fish—is if we form coalitions, work together, and remind people of the famous T.R. line: “There is no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.” If that’s the only message taken to heart by every Pheasant Fest attendee, we’d be pretty happy.
Looking around at the crowd listening intently to these facts and principles made me excited for the bobwhites’ prospects. Surrounded by hundreds of vendors showcasing guns and gear and puppies and delicious food, these individuals took the time to discuss bringing back our native species from the brink. It was easy to walk away feeling like we might just succeed.