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Bobwhite restoration might be tied to productive properties

| Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, 4:00 p.m.
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Efforts to restore bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will only succeed if reintroductions are accompanied by landscape-level habitat changes, said one expert.
Submitted
Efforts to restore bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will only succeed if reintroductions are accompanied by landscape-level habitat changes, said one expert.

The only thing the Pennsylvania Game Commission needs to begin its long-discussed bobwhite quail restoration effort is, well, quail.

Don't be surprised if it doesn't get them for a bit.

Across almost all of their historical range nationwide, bobwhites are struggling. Populations are in serious decline if not — as here — gone, said Don McKenzie, director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, an organization working to bring back what was once America's most widespread and perhaps most popular game bird.

Loss of habitat is to blame.

Quail can thrive not only in agricultural fields but also in pastures and even woodlands if conditions are right, McKenzie said. Too often, in too many places, they're not.

Pennsylvania, he said, is a prime example.

“As you go around Pennsylvania, play a game with yourself. Look around. Say to yourself, ‘Where would a bobwhite live?' ” McKenzie said. “It's hard to find any place. And if you do find one, it's usually the only thing like it around.”

That has to change before bobwhites can return, he added.

Wildlife leaders in other states understand that, and that's impacting efforts to launch a restoration effort here.

The commission first talked of creating at least one “quail focus area” where wild bird might be released — similarly as was done with wild ringnecks in wild pheasant recovery area — several years ago. None have been established, however. None are expected before 2018 at the earliest.

Game commissioner Tim Layton of Windber asked at a recent meeting why.

Part of the problem is the commission can't get any quail.

Bryan Burhans, deputy executive director of administration for the commission, said biologists have been in touch with their counterparts at wildlife agencies in other states that might serve as sources of quail. Several have indicated at least a potential willingness to trap birds.

None, though, he said, want to go to the time and expense unless the commission proves it has somewhere suitable to put them.

“It's no cheap and easy thing to go out and trap these quail,” Burhans said.

Specifically, he said, those other states want the commission to show that it has a habitat management plan in place to create somewhere suitable for the birds to live and that it has a monitoring plan in place to track how they fare over time.

The commission has a quail restoration site in mind, said executive director Matt Hough. That's Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg. It once held quail and now doesn't, he said.

“If the habitat is there, they should still be there. There's something missing that we think we can fix pretty quickly,” Hough said.

The commission will invest in doing habitat work there, Burhans said, by discing fields, doing controlled burns and more. It's also developing a protocol for using telemetry to monitor the survival and dispersal of birds when they do arrive.

He's hopeful that will be no later than 2018.

“We feel that we can move very quickly on our end,” he said.

But to what point?

The commission has shown with pheasants, for example, that it can stock wild birds in areas where lots of habitat work has been done and see them survive and even thrive in cases. It's possible to do the same with quail, McKenzie said.

“Quail restoration isn't a technical challenge anymore. We know how to do that,” he said.

The bigger issue — if the goal is to create more than “museum populations” of birds — is how to produce habitat on a large scale and keep it long term.

Federal subsidy programs that pay farmers to leave marginal lands set aside for wildlife are nice, McKenzie said, but they're also temporary. They come and go.

That's limiting pheasant reintroduction efforts, Hough said. As commodity prices have changed and farmers have taken lands previously set aside for habitat and returned them to crop production, pheasants again have been eliminated in places.

The key with quail, McKenzie said, will be to restore them on “working landscapes,” or lands where farmers, livestock owners, foresters and others can meet their expectations for profit while still supporting quail.

It won't be easy, he said. Resource managers trained in wildlife have to learn to deal with people, politics and money. Those, he said, historically haven't been areas of strength.

“But that's where the big game is. That's where the game's going to be won or lost,” McKenzie said.

Time is of the essence, he added.

Under the best-case scenario, it likely will take a generation or two to restore quail to their past glory.

Right now, there are still a lot of sportsmen who remember and appreciate bobwhites and want to fight to bring that about, he said. But they won't be here forever.

“The only people really fired up to restore quail, who are really interested in making the effort, are the ones who experienced what it was like to have them,” McKenzie said. “If we keep piddling around and let all of those diehard quail hunters die off, we're going to lose the heart and soul of our support and what we're trying to accomplish.”

Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via @bobfryeoutdoors.

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