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.
"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.