Saving Georgia’s Quail

Five years into the BQI, participants see improvement, and sales of a special license plate can keep the program growing.

When my best friend and I were just a couple of years out of college, one of our favorite pastimes, outside of hunting and fishing, was talking to old men. Their stories were timeless. Real-life memories of what life was like in our town when they were young were fascinating, and hunting stories were particularly entertaining. One cold, February day, when  buckets of rain had put a damper on a fishing trip, we dropped in on one of the local gentry. He told us about hunting quail in the field across the road from his house and a few others within walking distance of where we were sitting. “There were always birds in the corner of that field,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it today, would you?”

We weren’t in Albany, Americus, Sylvester or Thomasville. We were in Powder Springs, in suburban Cobb County. Ask just about any old-timer in Georgia and you are likely to hear similar tales. And for people of older generations, the tales weren’t tall ones. They were the truth.

Over the years, however, quail and quail hunters have declined dramatically. According to statistics from the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), in 1966, 135,000 hunters took about 3.3 million birds. By the 2002-2003 season, fewer than 30,000 hunters took 541,922 birds, 70 percent of which were pen reared.

Due primarily to land-use changes, Georgia’s quail population plummetted, but with the help of some landowners and sportsmen who buy a special license plate, the state hopes to make sure you can tell the same stories about beautiful covey rises to your kids and grandkids some day. Through the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI), thousands of acres of farmland have been altered slightly, giving quail safe nesting ground and plenty of food to sustain them through the year. And sportsmen are making the program work through the purchase of a special license plate.

Quail once thrived across Georgia, from the mountains to the coast. But in the 1970s and 80s, there was a precipitous drop in numbers of the bird across the state. In 1999, The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Board and key lawmakers sought to remedy the population reduction by enacting the BQI. The program is an aggressive effort by WRD to return Georgia’s quail population to huntable levels and provide adequate habitat for bobwhites and other species. At the same time, the early-succession growth that is critical to quail survival acts as a filter for runoff, removing sediments from rainwater as it courses across Georgia’s watersheds. Also, the renewed abundance of habitat has brought numbers of songbirds back with it.

During the 1999 legislative session, lawmakers signed a bill that provided funding for the BQI through the sale of a special car license plate. Sportsmen responded by spending millions of dollars. The first tag that went on sale in 2002 brought in just over $1.2 million in revenue. In fiscal year 2004, which ran from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004, a newly designed tag, featuring a deer and a covey of quail, produced $1.6 million.

DNR officials say the spike in sales from FY ‘04 is typical of the first year a tag is introduced. Essentially, because drivers who want to support the initiative have to buy a new license plate, a higher amount of money than normal comes in. Over the next few years, those same drivers only have to buy a tag decal, so sales of the new design will drop before leveling off. The current tag will likely run for five to seven years before being redesigned.

If you bought the new BQI tag, where will your money go? Revenue generated by sales of the tags goes into the state’s general fund according to Georgia code 40-2-49.1. That law also directs the general assembly to appropriate an amount equal to the tag revenue to the BQI. This year’s BQI budget is about $780,000.

Obviously, last year’s tag revenue far excceds the BQI budget. So what about the extra $880,000 or so left over after money is appropriated to BQI? The money goes back to the state’s general fund to be spent on whatever is deemed necessary by the legislature.

According to DNR, some of the extra money from last year’s tag sales will pay back funding for years that BQI was in operation before the tags began selling. Also, because sales of the tag are expected to drop, the budget can’t be increased too soon, leaving the program overextended in the future.

On the other hand, if you purchased a nongame wildlife tag, featuring a bald eagle and an American flag, your money goes into the Wildlife Conservation Fund. That money has been spent on bald eagle surveys, sea turtle nest protection and a host of other programs. Because the money goes into a special fund, whatever isn’t used this year can carry over to the next.

WRD Director Dan Forster says that money appropriated from the general fund can be traced through accounting procedures to see from where it came.  But because it would take a constitutional amendment to add a fund just for the BQI, sportsmen who buy the quail license plate will have to rely on the legislature to direct the money to the right place.

“We’re going to remain vigilant on what came in on tag sales and how much is appropriated,” Forster said. 
No matter what the money situation, WRD biologists and committed landowners are working to reverse the drop in bobwhite numbers, which can mostly be linked to a loss of habitat.

Georgia’s landscape was once a sea of suitable quail habitat. Today, there are small islands of land on which bobwhites can thrive relatively unmolested. When these pockets of habitat are small and located far from one another, quail become more vulnerable to a variety of limiting factors. For example, reduced movement of quail from one area of habitat to another is a problem. In these separated areas, quail are less likely to respond to habitat management.

The BQI is a volunteer program through which landowners, called cooperators, work with WRD to implement practices on their farms that will help enhance the quail population. Landowners who wish to participate in the BQI receive technical assistance from WRD and put together a  proposal. Each proposal is then scored on a competitive system that takes into account each individual practice a cooperator plans to implement. The more practices a landowner is willing to try, the higher they will score when funding decisions are made. The highest-scoring proposals are funded first, and funding continues to the next highest until the money runs out.

Landowners in 15 Georgia counties are eligible for BQI incentive payments. The counties in the program, which include Bleckley, Bulloch, Burke, Colquitt, Crisp, Dodge, Dougherty, Emanuel, Jenkins, Laurens, Lee, Mitchell,  Screven, Sumter and Terrell, were selected because of a prevalence of row-crop agriculture, soils that are conducive to habitat management and a sample size and distribution that accurately represents Georgia’s farm landscape.
At first, 20 counties were selected, but budget cuts meant some counties were left out of the BQI’s current setup.
The counties in which landowners can get BQI funding are broken into three regions. Such a setup makes the program easy for WRD to implement, because experts from field offices in Albany, East Dublin, Waynesboro and Forsyth are within an easy drive of all paid cooperators.

To qualify for BQI incentive payments, a landowner’s property must be in one of the 15 counties, must be at least 50 contiguous acres, must include commercial row-crop agriculture or must be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program Longleaf Pine Conservation Priority Area.

Cooperators encourage early-succession growth through very easy-to-implement methods. Most commonly, farmers start BQI areas by winter disking. When the area is tilled, it regrows naturally, leaving plenty of good cover and nutrients for quail. Farmers have worked to regrow field borders during the program, allowing natural vegetation to grow in the areas surrounding a field. The WRD asks landowners involved in the program to include field borders, field corners and fallow areas of one to 10 acres. The more the habitat types are connected, the better off birds will be. Also, pine stands bordering agricultural fields or fallow areas should be burned every few years to allow some of the understoryplants to regenerate.

Last year, 90 people submitted proposals for financial incentives that scored above the minimum quality rating required for entry into the program. Due to budget restrictions, less than a third of those landowners were selected to receive funding.

“A lot of people want to take part in the Bobwhite Quail Initiative,” said Reggie Thackston, senior WRD biologist and BQI Coordinator. “The limiting factor is, there is only so much funding to go around.  While we get a lot of really great proposals each year, we can’t take them all.”

He estimated that WRD is currently able to fund only about 20 percent of the cooperators who want to participate in the program.

As Georgia has grown, farming practices changed, with landowners removing field borders from around their crops, old hedgerows grew into deciduous stands of hardwoods and some rural areas developed, with land giving way to concrete and brick.

Reggie grew up in Powder Springs himself, and he says that not too many years ago, hunters could find wild birds in just about any part of the state. “My family lived in Cobb and Paulding and we killed a lot of quail in those counties,” Reggie said.

Reggie said quail need what he calls a “landscape-level change in habitat” to come back to the status they enjoyed decades ago. Simply put, the push is on to get farmers to make slight changes to their practices in an effort to create big gains in quail numbers. So far, the effort is well received. Between 2001 and 2003, a total of 142 landowners signed on for BQI incentives, enrolling 289 crop fields and 94 pine stands. The group established 407 miles of field borders, hedgerows and filterstrips, positively impacting nearly 21,000 acres. WRD estimates that over the life of the initiative, some 600,000 acres have been impacted in some way by the BQI.

To ensure the program is implemented, lands under the BQI are checked each summer for compliance. If the landowner is working within the parameters of the practices agreed upon by himself and the state, he receives incentive money. Funding contracts are for three years.

WRD biologist Joy Bornhoeft, who oversees the southwest BQI region, agrees that money is a key issue. In 2003, there were 31 funded cooperators in the seven counties making up the southwest region. Increased incentive payments for wider field borders and conservation tillage practices meant some landowners scored higher on the ranking system. Because of a lack of funding, only the eight highest scoring proposals were taken, even though a record number of landowners applied for the program.

“Almost everybody who didn’t get in last year put forth a proposal for 2005. We just can’t pay everybody,” Joy said.
In the meantime, the state’s ongoing budget pinch has severely limited monitoring of the BQI’s success. In the first two years of the program, the WRD worked with University of Georgia professor Dr. John Carroll to study the impact of the initiative. But when the time came to choose between funding more habitat improvement or monitoring the success of previously started projects, Reggie elected to go with growth. “We know that if you add habitat in the right amounts and distributions, the quail will flourish,” he said.

Carroll’s graduate students had  worked on two groups of farms: those enrolled in the program (treated) and some that had no BQI improvements (control). The students walked BQI areas and observed the number of quail present and even listened for calling birds early in the morning. While 75 percent of control farms showed a stable or declining population of quail, those under BQI practices showed promising results. On the treated group of farms, more than 70 percent of quail populations were stable or increasing. On the BQI farms, students documented a 30 percent increase in the number of sparrows using the habitat. In fact, the LeConte’s, the white crowned and the grasshopper sparrows were observed on these properties only after the BQI practices were established.

“Those type of studies tell us nothing of population densities, but they do give us an accurate gauge of occurrence,” Reggie said.

If a landowner follows the technical advice of a wildlife biologist, he should have quail habitat coming back. So, is BQI working? The encouraging thing for Georgia quail hunters is: yes, it is. Though the BQI has only been in operation for five growing seasons, the results are already apparent. In fact, because early-succession growth occurs in the first year, it is not uncommon to see improvements after only a short period. “The first year, we see a response. in the second and third years, the results are very good,” Reggie said.

Robert Youmans of Emanuel County has been managing his farm for quail for several years. Once he got involved with the BQI, he says his knowledge of the bird increased dramatically and his ability to help them expand has increased as well.

Robert uses a variety of techniques to help his quail populations, including allowing his field borders and some field corners to grow at least 60-feet wide. In addition, in his pine plantations, Robert leaves out two rows of trees right in the middle to plant stands of bi-color. At the ends of his fields, Robert grows some oak trees and fruit trees including pears, apples and Japanese persimmon. He plants small plots of brown-top millet and grain sorghum as supplemental foods for his quail and leaves any field under 10 acres fallow. “I have seven or eight fields that I just leave alone every year,” Robert said.

Robert has been involved in the BQI for three years and says he knows the program is working because he sees the result on his own property. “I have seen more quail in the past two years than I saw the 10 years before that,” Robert said.

Buck Marchinton, BQI biologist at Di-Lane WMA in Burke County, says many of the landowners he is working with have had good results from their work to restore habitat. “I had one guy that thought it wasn’t working until he jumped a covey of birds in one of his field borders, and now he’s pretty happy with it,” Buck said.

BQI landowners have worked hard to bring quail on their property back to huntable levels. Walter Degenhardt, a Waynesboro attorney, is an avid quail hunter who has his farm enrolled in the BQI. Walter allows some of his fields to grow unplanted each year. In addition, he softens his field borders by thinning trees, burning and disking edges. The growth on the edges of woodlots gives his birds a place to nest and provides cover as they move and feed.

“I already thinned some pines, and I’ll burn this winter,” Walter said.

Walter’s work has made better habitat for what was already a strong population of quail. Walter reports seeing nesting pairs and juvenile birds on every area of his farm that is under BQI practices.

Several BQI landowners have used their success in quail management to give an opportunity to young sportsmen. During the 2003-2004 season, three youth-adult quota quail hunts were held on BQI farms. This season, there will be nine. And even though the youngsters might not kill many birds, they have a ball watching dogs work and taking part in a great hunting tradition.

Everybody gets involved in the hunts, with WRD workers giving of their own time to run the hunts, and sometimes even employing the services of their own dogs.

Walter held one of the hunts on his farm last year. “I’m always in favor of getting children involved in the outdoors,” he said.

Now there is a movement afoot to educate cooperators—even those who don’t hunt very often—that quail can be a viable cash crop, just like cotton, peanuts or soybeans.

Farmers who have quail habitat could stand to make extra money off their land. Farmers often have trouble growing crops where field edges give way to timber. Because the edges are full of quail habitat, and hopefully birds, the landowners could lease quail-hunting rights to hunters who might otherwise have to go to plantations.

Reggie is encouraged by the first five years of the BQI. However, he knows that when it comes to restoring an early-succession species, there is no definitive time when the work is over. Because land naturally evolves and grows out of suitable habitat, it must be set back every few years. Periodic disking keeps broomsedge growing in tight clumps, providing birds with cover. And stands of trees must be thinned and burned to allow understory favorable to quail to produce.

Reggie points out that the program is not predicated upon reaching a certain population density. Instead, he is focused on the long term. And the quail.

“With this type of program, you can’t ever reach a point where you stop,” Reggie said.

Sportsmen hope there will always be quail to hunt in Georgia. Thanks to the efforts of wildlife experts and landowners, there very well may be.

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