Can Sooner Quail Make A Comeback?

Can Sooner Quail Make A Comeback?

Oklahoma's bobwhites have had their ups and downs of late. Are they about to bounce back from the drought that they've endured over the past few seasons? (December 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

And then the rains came. And life returned to the prairie.

After a couple of years of severe drought, Oklahoma quail hunters worried that Sooner State quail hunting was imperiled. Quail hunting was substandard, and many believed that quail reproduction was low. Quail habitat was in dismal condition virtually all over the state.

Predictably, quail hunters lobbied the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to shorten seasons or restrict hunting to only a few days a week. Some even suggested closing quail season completely, while others recommended that the ODWC resume a practice that it had discontinued long ago: stocking quail into the wild.

Owing to poor quail reproduction in 2006, the ODWC braced for another year of bad hunting in 2007-08, and also for the inevitable public demand for action.

In April, it started raining, and it continued well into the summer. In fact, by July 3, Oklahoma had experienced 20 consecutive days of rain. That helped revive the grasslands and helped produce a banner year of seeds and insects, just in time to nourish a new year-class of quail chicks.

Now, instead of another down year, 2007-08 looks like a great year for quail in Oklahoma, and thus, a great year for quail hunting.

"We should have a favorable hatch," said Doug Schoeling, upland game bird biologist for the ODWC. "It's got the potential of being better than last year. There'll be more bugs and more vegetation. Weeds will produce more seeds, and there should be more food out there for the quail. There should be more grass, too, so there should be more actual habitat."

As harsh as the drought was, quail may not have suffered as much as it seemed. Micah Holmes, information supervisor for the ODWC, said there were plenty of birds the last couple of years, but dry weather contributed to really poor scenting conditions. Dogs had a hard time finding birds, and when a covey scattered, dogs often couldn't scent the singles.

As a result, an estimated 34,395 hunters killed an average of 2.64 birds per day in 2006-07 and killed a total of 580,000 birds. Each hunter spent about 6 days in the field, and hunted slightly more than 200,000 days collectively. That's comparable to 2003, when 50,221 quail hunters bagged an average of 2.66 birds per day.

Some of the toughest hunting last year was at Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area and Black Kettle National Grasslands, two of the Sooner State's best quail areas.

"Packsaddle and Black Kettle were almost a bust," Schoeling said. "It was bad. From what I've heard, if you moved two coveys in a day, you had a good day. The year before, they were moving 13 coveys in a day. It was way down, but there were still birds around here."

The harvest numbers support Schoeling's assessment. In 2004-05, on the other hand, hunter success rates were fairly standard. In 2005, for example, a total of 41,524 hunters bagged a daily average of 3.25 quail. In 2004, a virtually identical number of hunters killed an average of 3.31 birds per day.

"In terms of five-year trends, I'd say the population was up two years ago, and then dropped back down again," Schoeling said. "It dropped back down again last year pretty low, but I would say we had one of our better years a couple of years ago."

To me, the most interesting statistic over the last four years has been the dwindling number of quail hunters. There were about 15,000 fewer hunters in 2006 than in 2003. Perhaps the drought took a bigger toll on them than it did the quail. Maybe low quail numbers and poor hunting discouraged many hunters from going afield. That's an elusive statistic in its own right because the ODWC doesn't have a really accurate way of estimating the number of quail hunters. One method is to look at when a hunter purchased his license.

It's a very inexact science -- much like accurately estimating quail populations.

An important consideration for quail hunters is that quail are small birds vulnerable to many threats and variables. They don't live very long in the best of times, so you can't stockpile them as you can turkeys and deer. They pretty much live by the moment, rising and falling depending on the conditions at any given time.

"Quail populations are boom and bust," Schoeling said. "The population of quail almost fluctuates with the amount of rainfall we get. As we get more rain, it's going to increase the amount of habitat we get. The habitat is going to follow the rainfall, and so will your quail population. Quail populations are not going to follow the rainfall exactly, but they're going to reflect that trend."

Of course, drought and wet cycles are essential to healthy quail habitat, just as they are to waterfowl habitat in the prairie pothole region of southern Canada. Drought serves as something of a cleansing influence, while rainy weather replenishes. If rain is plentiful every year, the habitat grows too thick for quail; drought helps knock it back.

"Static conditions are bad for quail habitat," Holmes said. "You have to have those cycles to keep all the successional elements in balance. The best quail habitat will have strips in various stages of succession. That's why it's not a bad thing to let cattle graze down certain areas almost to nothing, and then let it grow back."

Drought serves as something of a cleansing influence, while rainy weather replenishes. If rain is plentiful every year, the habitat grows too thick for quail; drought helps knock it back.

In 2007, one of the most promising projects ever to benefit Oklahoma quail was initiated. In partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the ODWC began an ambitious initiative to restore quail habitat around the state. Similar to quail restoration projects in Arkansas and Missouri, the Oklahoma project identified five key focal areas throughout the state: near Woodward and Arnett in northwest Oklahoma, Tishomingo, Holdenville, Vinita and Tahlequah. Using its own funds and outside grants, the ODWC will spend $4 million over the next five years to improve habitat in those five areas. Expenditures will be $500,000 a year in 2007 and 2008, and then $1 million per year for the remaining three years.

"It's real promising," Schoeling said. "We're in our first year, so we haven't done a lot of habita

t improvement yet, but the contracts are written. The NRCS is looking at it as a promising program."

Habitat management strategies will vary from one focal area to the next. In Western Oklahoma, for example, efforts will concentrate on removing cedar trees from grasslands and restoring cropland back to native grasslands.

In Eastern Oklahoma, projects might emphasize controlled burning. In some cases, landowners might be encouraged to alter their burning regimens.

"In the two focal areas up north, landowners have a tendency to burn every year," Schoeling said. "We're trying to get them to burn every third year because they're burning up the nesting habitat every year. We're also trying to encourage them to plant native grass and remove cedars and open up the (forest) canopies."

Schoeling said the ODWC hasn't projected a specific amount of acreage for the plan to cover. However, the program is designed to encompass large, contiguous blocks of habitat. In some cases, WMAs serve as hubs, with preference given to adjoining private lands. Large blocks of private property, specifically those owned by The Nature Conservancy, are also hubs.

"We put them up around WMAs or Nature Conservancy properties to link habitats," Schoeling said. "We've got the Nickel Preserve, around Tahlequah, and we've got Blue River WMA and a TNC property north of Tishomingo. Around Holdenville, there are no WMAs, so we're just trying to adjoin habitat among major landowners."

Without question, the biggest threats to Oklahoma quail are not drought or over-hunting, but loss of prairie habitat to commercial and residential development, and also the conversion of native grasslands to fescue pastures. Without ample habitat, we won't have the amount of quail we remember from Oklahoma's glory years. We can probably never duplicate the habitat we had in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, but we can recreate them as closely as possible with partnerships between landowners and state and federal resource management agencies.

Protecting and restoring quail habitat will provide a much greater remedy than will closing or altering seasons, or stocking pen-raised quail.

For the short term, we can expect this year's hunting to be better than last year's.

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