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Bringing Back the Bobwhites with Teamwork

Hunter with his dog

By Tony Young

Quail hunting in Florida - one of the most popular types of hunting during the 1950s, '60s and '70s - has changed. Florida's quail population has dropped between three and five percent each year; a decrease of 70 percent since 1980, according to the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).

Where Florida hunters once harvested about 2.5 million quail annually during the 1960s, they now take fewer than 250,000 birds. Experts say that is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem - loss of quality habitat.

Habitats are disappearing because of urbanization, increased grassland cultivation and transition of once native, grassy fields into woods and forests - a process called succession.

To solve the problem, wildlife conservation authorities met in November 2005 at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy north of Tallahassee to map a plan to reverse the 25-year decline in Florida's bobwhite quail population.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), in cooperation with Tall Timbers, called upon Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson, Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, and other state, federal and key conservation organizations for a meeting - "Leadership Summit on Bobwhite Management on Florida's Public Lands."

The purpose of the half-day conference was to enlist support of leaders and key stakeholders in public land management, conservation and bobwhite management for the focus of restoring habitats. The initiative will help not only quail but several other birds, including the federally- endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the threatened Florida scrub-jay, as well as more than 40 endangered or threatened plant species, all of which depend on the same open pine woods ecosystems for survival.

Other states within the bobwhite quail's range, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, have started similar initiatives. South Carolina and Mississippi also are getting involved, and the NBCI's goal is to improve habitat on 5.7 million acres within the bird's range to increase the existing quail population by 2.7 million coveys, restoring it to 1980 levels.


"I feel really good about the level of leadership, and I'm confident we have the ability and commitment to get some things done to help restore quail populations in this state," Boyd said.

Florida has roughly 6 million acres of public lands. Approximately 1.5 million acres could provide suitable quail habitat if proper land management techniques were employed.

A cooperative program, the Upland Ecosystem Restoration Project (UERP), was formed. Tall Timbers, nationally recognized for its quail research, coordinates the endeavor aimed at enhancing upland habitat on Florida's public lands. Three state agencies, the FWC, Florida Forest Service and Department of Environmental Protection, each gave $20,000 toward the $60,000 matching funds needed to take advantage of a $300,000 grant from the FWC's Wildlife Legacy Initiative.

The Florida Wildlife Legacy Initiative is a conservation effort encompassing all native wildlife, made possible through partnerships with conservation organizations, farmers, hunters, anglers, businesses and other governmental agencies. Its goal is to build a statewide effort for conserving the vast array of wildlife that calls Florida home.

Another need identified at the summit: Create a full-time paid position to spearhead the initiative. Greg Hagan, hired as the coordinator of UERP, will identify specific tracts of public land that could provide suitable quail habitat with proper management.

Two committees were formed to help ensure the greatest conservation benefits are realized. Asteering committee - composed of leaders from land management agencies, and a technical committee of biologists and land managers.

Experts estimate it will take 25 years to accomplish all of the goals, but during the next 10 years, UERP's plans are to establish projects affecting restoration on more than 100,000 acres of upland habitat on public lands.

Florida manages for quail on the 65,770- acre Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Charlotte County and on parts of the 7,952-acre Apalachee WMA in Jackson County.

"To gain some early victories, we've identified and targeted areas within three additional WMAs that, with nominal efforts, could provide great quail habitat," Hagan said. "The areas are the Apalachicola National Forest, Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties and Three Lakes WMA in Osceola County."

These projects will be based on research and previous land management experience. Quail and other wildlife populations will be monitored and evaluated to see how they respond to specific habitat manipulations like chopping, timber thinning and burning.

Quail lands

"Florida's vegetation and land cover varies greatly, and different methods must be applied to create amicable quail habitat," said FWC biologist and small-game management section leader Tommy Hines. "Prescribed burning and chopping needs to be done in South Florida to thin the dense palmettos and replace exotic vegetation with native grasses to provide better cover and food for quail. In northern Florida, dense pine stands must be thinned."

The plan calls for more frequent prescribed burning on a one-to two-year rotation. Burning in the summer works best because it results in desirable heavy grass and seed production. Thick pine stands should be cut and thinned to between 40-60 basal area. Basal area is a measurement used to determine the density of trees per acre. Quail prefer open pine forests where the sunlight can penetrate the forest floor. Land that falls into the 40-60 basal range has 40 to 60 average-sized (13.5 inches in diameter at the base) pine trees per acre.

A roller chopper is an effective tool for controlling the dense saw-palmetto thickets found in the south-central part of the state. The machine is a large steel cylindrical drum with blades pulled by a tracked Caterpillar tractor.

On private lands, UF will hire a qualified person to work with the university's cooperative extension service under the direction of Dr. Bill Giuliano. That person has the task of enlisting private landowners, whose property offers good quail habitat potential. Two programs are offered to private landowners. One is through the USDA's Farm Service Agency called CP 33: Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds. The other is part of the Farm Bill and administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service called the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

CP 33 has incentives for farmers to leave natural buffers along edges of their agricultural fields. Participants can receive up to $100 per acre when signing contracts. In Florida, 2,800 acres have been allotted, and only Panhandle areas can qualify.

To inquire about eligibility, interested landowners can contact their county Farm Service Agency office and sign up through 2007 or until all 2,800 acres have been enrolled.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program, a cost-sharing program, provides assistance to landowners with a wide range of environmental practices and benefits. In Central Florida, 17,000 acres of ranchland has been registered. The FWC encourages more landowners to get involved and has a goal of enrolling 50,000 acres. Interested landowners should contact their local Natural Resources Conservation Service agent.

"This is the last chance anyone has to help the bobwhite quail in this state and reverse the downward spiral in its population," said FWC Commissioner Richard Corbett. "As part of this team, I promise to do everything in my power to see that tomorrow's generation can enjoy this great species."

Reprinted with permission of Covey Rise. Copyright 2010