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National initiative tries to revive bobwhite quail

By Brent Frazee

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 2:20 p.m. MDT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (MCT) — Don McKenzie is leading a rescue mission.

The creature he and others are trying to save? The bobwhite quail.

That's no small task.

The brown and white gamebird once was common in this part of the country, the object of hunting lore. Many hunters remember the days when bird dogs would regularly freeze on point in brushy fields, coveys of quail would rise in explosive flight and shots would ring out. But that's mostly history.

In Missouri, parts of Kansas and most other states, the quail has spiraled into near oblivion, mostly because of changing agricultural practices and wholesale loss of habitat.

But people like McKenzie haven't given up hope that the bobwhite might one day soar again.

McKenzie is the director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), a council that was formed to put some of the top quail minds in the nation together to seek solutions to the problem.

The effort started in 2002 and blazed new ground in quail management. But a new and improved version announced last week at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Kansas City has gone even further in formulating strategies to rescue the quail.

"This is all about giving the quail a national presence," McKenzie said. "We need to get states to make quail a conservation priority.

"But we need to have some synergy there. We need to develop range-wide strategies for dealing with the problem, not just on a state-by-state basis.

"If we can have a unified voice — and have unified ways of dealing with problems — I think we can get a lot done."

Wildlife managers have already proved that programs to restore favorable habitat can bring the quail back, McKenzie said. "We're masters at dealing with the problem at a grass-roots level," he said.

The problem, he said, is that success stories are isolated. A couple of farms here, a couple of farms there.

For the habitat work to have an impact on the quail population, it has to be more far-reaching, McKenzie said.

"We need to have large chunks of land where habitat restoration has brought the quail back," he said. "Success breeds success.

"Other farmers hear about it, and it creates excitement."

The key to making that happen? To provide farmers with the incentive to do that habitat work.

The quail's plight is tied to dollars and cents. Once, it thrived because there were small farms with small fields bordered by the brush and fence rows where bobwhites can thrive.

But as agriculture became more refined, that cover was removed and the ground was put into crops. Herbicides eliminated weedy cover and clean farming forced the quail out.

To get farmers to reverse that trend and leave living places for the quail will take major changes in federal farm bill practices, McKenzie said.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) compensates farmers for idling marginal land. And in recent years, there have been incentives to get farmers to do conservation work such as the planting of grassy buffers. But there is still much work to be done, McKenzie said.

"People, politics and money — that's the key to quail management," McKenzie said. "The sad reality is that when CRP was first implemented, the quail was ignored.

"Farmers were allowed to plant those CRP fields with grasses such as fescue that are actually detrimental to quail. So instead of gaining new wildlife habitat, we lost it.

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