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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Panel favors initiatives for quail habitat
QUAIL—OR RATHER the lack of them—has been a topic of concern for decades now.
Sporadic and often fragmented efforts to try to restore wild populations of the once prolific and popular game birds have seen only marginal success.
As National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative director Don McKenzie told a group of outdoor writers in eastern Tennessee recently, Bobwhites are declining everywhere. Songbirds are suffering, too, he added.
The problems began as urban sprawl moved into rural areas, agricultural activities intensified and natural plant succession went unmanaged. McKenzie said experts know how to solve the quail shortage dilemma, but politics and money often hinder the effort. Quail restoration supporters joined forces a few years ago to better coordinate their effort.
Virginia is in its fourth year of a restoration initiative and Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Marc Puckett chairs the National Bobwhite Technical Committee.
“There is a habitat problem,” Puckett said. “When you’ve got a decline in pollinating insects and birds, such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, you need to wake up.”
One glaring problem relates to common pasture management practices. Many pastures are planted with “exotic” grasses, such as fescue, just to feed cattle. The favored alternative is to plant pastures with native warm-season grasses. This not only provides good forage for livestock, it benefits species such as quail, songbirds, grasshoppers and rabbits.
Plus, many native grasses are drought-resistant. A photo taken during last summer’s drought depicted two adjoining farm fields separated by a fence. The fescue side was browned out and dead; the other side, with native grasses, was lush and green.
McKenzie explained that some federal funding actually helps pay for fescue pastures.
The NBCI recommends changing policies to connect federal funding to conservation measures that include making native vegetation and naturally drought-tolerant pastures the default first choice.
North Carolina biologist Mark Jones showed an image of a manicured stand of pine trees abutting a scrupulously clean farm.
“This is where quail go to die,” he said, making the case that the habitat was wholly unforgiving to birds. He then showed a series of photos depicting that same area as the habitat steadily degraded over a 30-year period.
Jones acknowledged that most people manage their land for economic reasons, but added that policy shifts are needed to make it worthwhile for them to manage it in a way that benefits quail and other wildlife.
Virginia has stepped off smartly in this regard. Under a cooperative effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the VDGIF and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, five “Private Lands Wildlife Biologists” were hired to increase assistance to landowners interested in quail management.
These biologists help with quail restoration efforts throughout the state, focusing on six key soil and water conservation districts. They work with interested landowners to promote early successional habitat, develop wildlife habitat management plans and implement Farm Bill programs and Virginia’s Best Management Practices program.
He explained that funding is available in Virginia’s “Quail Focus Districts” to implement BMPs with multi-year contracts and options for extensions.
For example, letting field borders become overgrown and brushy or planting native warm-season grasses and forbs can yield a landowner $250 an acre. The border must be at least 35 feet wide, but can go out to 120 feet.
Simply idling croplands 2 acres and larger and letting them to grow into brood patches for quail and other species can pay $150 an acre per year. Converting 5-acre-minimum fescue hayfields to native grasses and forbs can result in a $350-per-acre contract.
Programs that encourage landowners to create wildlife habitat are also available outside of the quail restoration priority areas.
Puckett outlined the program’s successes and challenges as it begins its fifth year. The private-lands biologists have been busy, making 1,220 site visits and writing 669 plans for habitat creation and maintenance. Approximately 11,500 acres have had quail habitat created or maintained, with many of the landowners receiving financial incentives. Puckett said the aim is to “sew habitats together,” creating what he called a “quail quilt.”
It took about 40 years for the habitat situation to reach its current dire state. Turning it around will also take time. Puckett said some southeastern Virginia counties, such as Sussex, are starting to see improving quail numbers. King & Queen County is steadily piecing parcels of land together into a quail quilt.
For more on the quail restoration effort, see dgif.virginia.gov/quail or bringbackbobwhites.org. Puckett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 434/392-8328, ext. 105.
DUCK BLIND EXTENSION
Hurricane Sandy knocked down many existing waterfowl blinds and prevented some from erecting a blind within the required timeframe. Thanks to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s declaration of a state of emergency, VDGIF has extended the deadline for the construction of stationary blinds for waterfowl hunting east of I–95 to Nov. 15.
This extension applies only to 2013 stationary blind licenses purchased prior to the Oct. 15 deadline, and the blind’s location must be in the same site as indicated on the license.
If the blind license decal has been destroyed, licensees should contact DGIF Customer Service at 866/721-6911 to obtain a duplicate.
For more on waterfowl regulations and blind permits, visit dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/waterfowl.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email at email@example.com.