"Some of those fields are still in fescue. And those are acres that are lost to quail."
McKenzie wants the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to lead the way in calling for more conservation-friendly practices on CRP fields such as the planting of native grasses.
But he is aware of the challenges. Commodity prices currently are high, and with many CRP contracts coming up for renewal, many farmers are tempted to put their land back into production.
Still, CRP land-rental prices are more competitive than they have been, McKenzie said. And some landowners are taking a long-term look at the situation, realizing that commodity prices eventually will fluctuate.
The NBCI has done exhaustive research on the 25 states comprising the core range of the bobwhite quail. It has surveyed 600 million acres of land in the range and has designated 195 million of those as priority landscapes where quail and grasslands conservation have a relatively high potential for success.
If habitat management goals were to be fully implemented, it could add more than 55 million bobwhites to the nationwide population, the group said.
"We've determined that weather and habitat are at the top of the list when it comes to the quail population," said Tom Dailey, former quail biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and now a member of the NBCI. "We can't do anything about the weather. But we can have an impact on the habitat.
"And that's where the future of quail management lies."
Dailey is excited that the new bobwhite initiative will streamline those habitat strategies. The plan will prescribe specific management practices necessary to help states reach bobwhite population goals. It also will identify specific keys to success, such as the planting of quail-friendly vegetation, such as native grasses and wildflowers.
Modern technology will play a part. A massive database will help biologists analyze habitat problems and prospects at the landowner, county or state level and plan projects for the greatest return on the investment.
"We have to get people excited about the quail again," McKenzie said. "We have to show them there still is hope.
"We'll never get back to where we once were. But I think we can still improve things quite a bit from where we are now."
THE QUAIL'S PLIGHT
NATIONAL: Bobwhite quail were once abundant on farms, grasslands and woody areas in 30 states. But populations have declined at an average of 3 percent annually since 1966.
LOST HOMES: There were about 210 million acres of cropland that was suitable habitat for quail 30 to 40 years ago, according to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Now, much of that habitat has been lost because of changing agricultural practices.
(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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