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Quail restoration

Bringing back the wildlife habitat by Rex Nelson | September 29, 2019 at 2:00 a.m.

The coffee, laced with chicory, is strong, just the way Miles Goggans likes it.

We're seated in the kitchen of Goggans' hunting camp near Star City. These pine woods in south Arkansas are filled with deer camps. But it's not hunting season, and the discussion doesn't center on deer.

We're instead talking about quail--the Northern bobwhite to be exact. To say that my father was obsessed with quail hunting would be an understatement. We always kept at least two bird dogs at our house. All day Saturday along with Sunday afternoons after church were spent quail hunting during the winter season when I was a boy.

Reports in the early 1950s by famed Arkansas Game & Fish Commission biologist Trusten Holder noted that there were significant bobwhite populations in all 75 Arkansas counties. The quail population peaked in 1971. I would have been 12 years old then and hunting with my father every chance I got.

According to an AGFC document titled Bringing Back the Bobwhite: "The Arkansas landscape that was so suitable for quail habitat then, much like that in neighboring states, began to change dramatically. ... The reason for population decline, according to researchers, was obvious: While decline in the state's quail population can be attributed to weather, parasites, disease, increased chemical usage, fire ants, predation and other factors, the most detrimental cause has been the loss of habitat as a result of land-use changes.

"Unlike the Arkansas landscape before 1960, the state has become devoid of fields or field borders composed of shrubby thickets or weedy crop fields and pastures. Most of these once-diverse fields have been converted to fescue or Bermuda grass, which are too thick to allow beneficial seed-producing plants to grow or provide adequate bare ground for quail to maneuver.

"The AGFC has embarked on a level of quail restoration not seen at the agency in decades. With the assistance of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, the AGFC has chosen seven focal landscapes to begin this project. Financial assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service have been made available through the Working Lands for Wildlife Program to help landowners turn parcels of land into quail habitat. The AGFC, in partnership with Quail Forever and with matching funds from the NRCS, will devote more personnel to the focal landscapes across the state with an emphasis on quail habitat restoration and land-use management."

Goggans, a prominent lobbyist on agricultural issues, is among a pioneering group of Arkansas landowners who are devoted to quail restoration. A sustainable quail population requires a minimum of 1,500 acres. While most Arkansas landowners don't have that much acreage, the hope of people like Goggans is that neighbors will come together to enroll in the various state and federal programs that are designed to bring quail back.

Goggans and I became friends in the 1980s when we were in our 20s and living in Washington, D.C. We attended the Kentucky Derby together in 1988. I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, and he was a congressional staffer. We shared a love of our home state of Arkansas and its natural assets.

Knowing of my quail-hunting past, Goggans has invited me to his camp for the day to see what's going on. We're joined by Austin Klais of Monticello, one of the Quail Forever wildlife biologists on the front lines of the current effort.

Klais, who grew up west of Little Rock at Ferndale, has been working in this area of southeast Arkansas for two years. In his first year on the job, he enrolled 10,800 acres in quail restoration efforts. Biologists funded by the NRCS, the AGFC and Quail Forever are scattered across the state. Most are housed in U.S. Department of Agriculture offices.

"There are a lot of wildlife management programs available to private landowners," Klais says as we sip coffee. "I deal with at least 10 programs from five agencies. The programs you enroll in are going to vary widely depending on where you are in the state. But the goal is the same."

Goggans describes the wildlife biologists, most of whom are young and passionate like Klais, as "crucial to this effort. There are a number of pieces to the quail restoration puzzle, and these are the guys who know how to put that puzzle together. Even though I've long worked on agricultural issues, I wouldn't have known about some of these programs unless Austin had made me aware of them."

Klais earned a degree in wildlife biology from Arkansas Tech University at Russellville in 2015 and spent two years working as an environmental consultant before accepting his current job.

Goggans serves on the Arkansas Pollution Control & Ecology Commission. He said a fellow member of the commission, Chris Colclasure, made him aware of the quail restoration effort and put him in touch with Klais.

"Austin came out here one day, and he was ready to help," Goggans says. "We rode around the property, and he started making suggestions. I later enrolled this land in the federal Conservation Stewardship Program."

The program, administered by NRCS, provides technical and financial assistance to row-crop farmers, livestock producers and forest owners to enhance wildlife habitat while adopting conservation practices that reduce energy use, enhance water quality and improve soil health. Goggans, who made a five-year commitment, has allowed controlled burns on about 150 acres of pine forests and has done considerable thinning.

"Now I get excited when I see wildflowers coming up and butterflies flying around," he says. "It used to be that I would only get excited when I saw a wild turkey or a big deer."

We see that wild turkey as we ride a four-wheeler around the property. We don't hear quail whistling, but Goggans remains hopeful.

"We have to change the mindset here in Arkansas," he says. "We need to stop mowing land simply to keep it maintained and instead allow wildflowers and native grasses to thrive."

Klais explains his mission as "taking properties that aren't being properly utilized and converting them into wildlife habitat. You have to target certain areas and then stick with it year after year."

Goggans' property has been in his family since the 1850s. Like most land in south Arkansas, it once was used for raising cotton, but later was converted from row-crop agriculture into a pine plantation.

"I like to sit out here and picture what this will look like 20 years from now," Goggans says. "I've planted trees that I will never sit under and shoot a turkey, but somebody will. I dream of the day when we sit on the porch and listen to the quail whistle."

Klais says he has "been blown away" by the interest shown by landowners in this part of the state.

"People are excited when they hear that I'm working to bring quail back," he says. "They share with me their memories from childhood. They might not be quail hunters, but they want to hear those birds whistling again."

After our ride on the four-wheeler, Goggans serves us wild turkey salad for lunch. We talk about how quail restoration efforts can also benefit turkey and other wildlife.

The quail habitat restoration efforts even benefit pollinators such as monarch butterflies, honeybees, moths, wasps, flies, beetles, ants, bats and hummingbirds. The most recent Farm Bill approved by Congress mandated that Agriculture Department conservation programs be used to restore and maintain pollinator habitats.

The value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated at $18.9 billion annually. Almost 75 percent of flowering plants rely on pollinators for reproduction. Ideal pollinator habitat must have native flowers with lots of colors, shapes and heights that bloom throughout the growing season. Monarch numbers have increased significantly during the past year and are at the highest level since 2007.

"We just have to get people used to these controlled burns," Klais says. "We also need to help them come to the realization that you can manage your land for wildlife and still make money off it."

The efforts of eight Quail Forever biologists across the state are complemented by a state coordinator and a pollinator coordinator. Those 10 professionals also have worked to establish Quail Forever chapters.

The organization, which has more than 170 chapters in 32 states, allows local chapters to determine how to use the funds that are raised. More than 90 percent of those funds go toward advocacy, habitat and youth programs. Quail Forever has participated in 14,400 habitat programs nationally since 2005 and impacted more than 900,000 acres.

Goggans and Klais have started a southeast Arkansas chapter. What's known as the Cane Creek Chapter held its annual banquet Sept. 21 at Monticello Country Club. On Aug. 24, volunteers met at Lake Monticello to treat targeted areas on about 30 acres near the lake.

Private lands programs administered by the state include Acres for Wildlife, the Forest Stewardship Program, the Habitat Establishment Equipment Loan Program, the Landowner Assistance Program, Learn to Burn, the Prescribed Burning Program and the Tree Shrub Seedlings initiative. Along with the Conservation Stewardship Program in which Goggans is enrolled, federal programs include agricultural conservation easements, wetland reserve easements, the Conservation Reserve Program and even a pollinators initiative.

In addition to the Quail Forever biologists across the state, there are AGFC private lands biologists based at Calico Rock, Monticello, Eureka Springs, Mayflower, Batesville, Jonesboro, Fort Smith, Little Rock, Brinkley and Hope.

In a recent AGFC article about the private lands program, Randy Zellers wrote: "Some Arkansas landowners aim to restore part of their acreage to experience quail or turkey hunting they may have enjoyed decades ago. Other landowners, though, may not be focused on hunting. They may just plan to dispense with non-native grasses and Chinese privet dominating their land and turn those acres over to native plants more conducive to wildlife--not just quail or turkey but the all-important pollinators and what is termed watchable wildlife.

"The AGFC's private lands biologists can help with all that. Clint Johnson of Mayflower, one of the AGFC's nine private lands biologists, says a landowner can request any kind of plan to restore acres that will benefit wildlife and nature. There are federal grants available that may help defray the cost."

Research has proved that stocking quail won't work. Neighboring states, however, have shown that quail populations can be restored by land-use changes. Arkansas will never return to the way land was used in the first half of the 20th century, but changes in smaller acreages can make a difference. With adequate cover, a pair of quail can produce up to three broods each season.

Brood-rearing areas are made up of weedy species such as pokeweed and ragweed along with native wildflowers like partridge pea, milkweed and native sunflowers. Nearby brushy land is needed for escape cover. Quail roost in sparse vegetation that's one to three feet tall and composed of grasses and bare ground. When winter arrives, quail seek woody vegetation more frequently. Those are among the things Goggans has learned from Klais.

"I haven't heard a quail whistle out here yet," Goggans says. "But I know that day is coming."

Photo by John Deering
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quail hunting illustration.

Editorial on 09/29/2019

Print Headline: Quail restoration


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