Western Quail: Big Country, Big Coveys and Big Conservation Challenges

What quail hunter doesn’t long for days of counting coveys on two hands, struggling to guesstimate how many birds per covey and maybe even working towards a limit. Contrary to reports, the days of such quail hunting aren’t dead, but you may need to re-direct your compass. 
If nesting conditions break right (dictated by precipitation), hunting for western quail species – California quail, Gambel’s quail, scaled quail, Mearns’ quail and Mountain quail – can be outstanding. And even in years with poorer bird numbers, hunters with gumption, tough feet and dog power can typically run into enough coveys to make the long walks across rugged terrain worthwhile. And because much of this hunting is done on large tracts of public land (Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service lands, just to name a few), it’s easy enough to find a place to temporarily call your own.
The rosy picture painted so far may make it seem that all western quail enthusiasts have to do is keep the dog in shape, hit the range and pray for rain, but western quail face a growing number of threats, and, unfortunately, an unequal level of defense. Here are a few examples:


Oil and gas companies continue to be aggressive, as more than 40 million acres for development have been leased in the past 15 years, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. As we’ve seen in parts of North Dakota pheasant and waterfowl country with the recent oil boom, increased energy development can greatly impact wildlife populations.

Public Access to Public Lands

As private development continues in the West and lands are posted and fragmented, it can be more difficult to access public lands. Already in some areas of the west, particularly central Montana, public tracts have become blocked by private land, making it a challenge for sportsmen to access “their” lands. This doesn’t just create a problem for hunters, but wildlife management as well. 
Then there’s the very-real threat, one which has unfortunately been gaining traction, to transfer ownership of federally-owned lands to states. This ill-conceived idea – which does have political and financial support – leads our lands down a slippery slope where they could be sold off to the highest bidder and sportsmen’s access closed off forever. Quail Forever is one of more than 100 hunting, fishing and conservation organizations that have called on national decision-makers to oppose the sale or transfer of America’s 640 million acres of federally-managed lands. You can oppose this seizure effort by signing the coalition petition at Sportsmen’s Access.


Human population growth also stands to put new demands on our water systems, especially in areas like the western United States where water is already a scarce resource for humans and wildlife alike. 
And as big as these challenges are, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is uniting upland hunters and those who care about quail before these big picture threats become their backyard; to be out in front of issues and prevent conservation disasters before they happen; to get rid of the “it can’t happen here” mentality and be preemptive. There were plenty of South Dakota pheasant hunters in 2007 enjoying halcyon days afield and record pheasant numbers with nary a thought of the habitat loss storm to come. If upland habitat can dwindle and bird numbers plunge in a state that bills itself as “The Pheasant Capital,” believe that it can happen anywhere.
Fortunately, Quail Forever - and its unique model where chapters retain control over the funds they raise - is starting to make inroads in the West, with local chapters having formed in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah and Washington, and growing interest at starting additional chapters in those states and expansion to neighboring states. In recent years, existing chapters have provided thousands of man hours building and restoring water guzzlers, building cattle control fences, planting trees and erosion controls, removed non-indigenous plants, providing quail count data. And chapter members have done all this while belonging to a national conservation organization that is fighting for strong conservation policy at state and federal levels.
When Pheasants Forever launched Quail Forever a decade ago, the dramatic and drastic tale of bobwhite quail habitat loss took center stage. But from the beginning, Quail Forever has been dedicated to the conservation of all quail species, bobs to blues, Mountain to Mearns’, California and Gambel’s too.
To more accurately represent this nationwide quail conservation mission, last year Quail Forever slightly altered its logo to include a bird with a top knot. To some, this may seem like a trivial detail hardly worth mentioning, but at Quail Forever, we view it as a significant move to increase our brand awareness further west of the Mississippi. Successful quail conservation will take a more unified effort in the West, more chapters, more members and more funding, and Quail Forever is here to lead the way. It’s a big challenge, but then again, everything is bigger out west. And, we hope, so are the rewards – for you, your bird dogs and future generations.
-Anthony Hauck is Quail Forever’s online editor

Photo credits: Robb Hannawacker via a Flickr CC license; Sarah Swenty/USFWS