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Restoring bobwhite quail is the greatest conservation challenge of our time, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission seems to be taking it seriously.

Last week, the commission put together a meeting between members of its wildlife management staff and some prominent quail hunters and enthusiasts. That group included Judge Bill Wilson, retired Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Jack Holt, Dr. John Wilson, Dr. Mack Moore, Roger Harness and Rex Nelson.

Ford Overton and Andrew Parker of Little Rock, and Ken Reeves of Harrison represented the commission.

Reeves is an avid bird hunter who laments the demise of the bobwhite quail in the Ozarks. Overton is not a bird hunter, but many of his friends are. They have bent his ears about the erosion of what was once a rich quail hunting tradition.

Keeping that tradition alive requires abundant wild bobwhites, and that requires abundant native grassland habitat.

Clifton Jackson is the AGFC’s quail biologist, probably the one no-win position in the agency.

“It’s kind of like the football coach,” Jackson said. “If you don’t show some results, they start looking for somebody else to do it pretty quick.”

His challenge is to show results with virtually no funding, limited public habitat and no sincere support from the administration or the commission.

Now, the commission and administration at least sound interested in helping the coach get some victories. Their success depends on the fans.

The public might not want to hear it or even believe it, but we are the key to making it work.

Ted Zawislak, the commission’s private lands coordinator, briefed the group on the challenges he faces in selling quail conservation to the public.

A prime opportunity in Northwest Arkansas is the National Park Service returning the Pea Ridge National Battlefield to its 1860s configuration, restoring the old checkerboard field pattern that used to define rural Arkansas.

Quail do best with large expanses of such habitat, but they can thrive with smaller pockets of habitat that are close together.

To that end, the AGFC invited everyone that owns land adjacent to the battlefield to a meeting where detailed cost-share, labor-share and equipment-share opportunities were explained for anyone interested in converting some land to native grassland.

Only a few showed up.

Pea Ridge is the best opportunity to show progress, but Overton said the biologists should not let the cool reception discourage them. They were encouraged to develop other quail focal areas in all areas of the state. If Pea Ridge fails, it should not drag down the entire effort, he said.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t succeed, either, because the private lands staff has an answer for every objection a landowner might raise.

If cost is a barrier, the AGFC has cost-share programs. If you don’t have the proper equipment, the AGFC can furnish equipment. If you don’t know what seeds to plant or where to get them, the AGFC can provide them. If lack of manpower to do the work is an issue, the AGFC can supply that, too.

“There’s no excuse for this not to work,” Overton said.

Zawislak said that there is absolutely no downside to restoring quail.

“I’ve heard people say they don’t like deer, but I’ve never heard a single person say he doesn’t like quail,” Zawislak said.

“Not everything you do for deer is good for quail, but everything you do for quail is good for deer,” he said.

The late Joe Mosby, longtime outdoor editor at the Arkansas Gazette, used to say that Arkansas is our habitat. Arkansas sportsmen and bird enthusiasts deserve a world where native wildlife like bobwhite quail can thrive.

It’s not so much about hunting as it is putting a drastically altered landscape back to rights as much as possible. Quail, meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissels, orioles, scissortailed flycatchers and other birds that were once so prominent in our rural areas are indicators of doing things right.

“We’ve done a great job with deer, and we’ve done a great job with bears,” Overton said. “We’ve done a great job with elk, and we’ve done a great job with ducks. Quail is the test of our time, and it would be tragic to let this rich tradition die out.”

This edition of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission gets it. If inertia thwarts its energy, this opportunity might not come again in our lifetimes.

Print Headline: Commission on mission to bring bobwhites back

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