By Mark Coleman
For several decades beginning in the 1940s, South Carolina was a destination for bobwhite hunters in the same way that south Texas and southern Georgia are today. Like many states, however, South Carolina watched for years as wild quail populations declined in spite of numerous attempts to reverse the trend and by the mid-80s, populations were in trouble. Hunters were going elsewhere and locals were selling their bird dogs. By 2014, after almost 20 years of efforts to reverse the trend, biologists and hunters alike were asking the same question: What’s the secret to bringing back the whistle?
What didn’t work
Prior to 2014, quail habitat work wasn’t completely nonexistent in South Carolina. For years people improved a patch of land here and there. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources made improvements on several of its wildlife management areas and worked with a few other organizations to upgrade pieces of public land scattered about the state.
Perhaps the most successful work was done by a small group of organizations in an area of the Sumter National Forest known as Indian Creek. Led by SCDNR biologist Judy Barnes, the group included the US Forest Service, NRCS, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Clemson Extension, the SC Forestry Commission and a local soil and water conservation district. Over a period of months this group thinned timber stands and began burning the areas on a repeated basis.
Quail numbers improved, but this was, like most other projects, a relatively isolated effort. Bobwhites are a landscape-scale species, meaning they need more than a few islands of habitat in order to thrive. ‘Landscape scale’ can refer to more than geography, however, as the combined work of multiple agencies at Indian Creek showed the potential of a group effort.
The partnership that turned the tide
As you may have guessed, 2014 was a juncture for quail in South Carolina. In December of that year, representatives of 25 organizations, both government and non-profit, sat down to explore how they could pool their resources to restore wild bobwhite populations.
Alvin Taylor, Director of the SCDNR, says “We formed the SC Quail Council because we knew we needed a lot of partners to be effective in implementing the SC Bobwhite Initiative (SCBI). By combining land (federal, state and private), expertise, funding, and direct relationships with landowners, the organizations felt they had the tools necessary to build quail habitat on a scale large enough to truly have an impact."
The starting point
A logical place to start was the site of the previous work in Sumter National Forest. Everyone agreed that a vital component was a biologist who could coordinate the work of the partners and “fill in the holes” between the public habitat by helping landowners transform their properties.
Tim Caughran, Quail Forever’s Director of Field Operations, notes that “the Indian Creek area has federal, state, and private land, and Quail Forever has a farm bill biologist program that shows landowners how to do the work.”
The next step would be using the partnership to make this biologist position happen.
Scott Ray of the US Forest Service wrote the cost-share challenge grant for the biologist position and his agency, along with Quail Forever, contributed funding. The SC Department of Natural Resources donated equipment and it wasn’t long before a Quail Forever farm bill biologist was on the ground in the focus area.
So what exactly does a farm bill biologist do? This position quickly evolved into a true coordinator for the region, advising the Forest Service on the best ways to manage the land for quail, showing landowners how to transform their property into bobwhite-friendly spaces, even writing grants to raise money for the work being done.
Kyle Lunsford, the QF biologist doing all of this and more says, “I write management plans for landowners, show them how to use cost-share programs to pay for the work, give presentations to students and professional groups, even provide tips online through social media.”
The question facing the SCBI and similar efforts in other states is how do you take today’s successes and build on them? What is the next step in seeing landscape-scale results?
The greatest opportunity
Success in coming years depends on bolstering the member organizations of the SCBI by gaining a critical mass of support from individuals. Engaging them and leveraging their talents, enthusiasm, and in many cases their hands, allows habitat work to spread far beyond the boundaries of public land and return bobwhites to the farms and fields where they once flourished.
Just because you don’t own a big tract of land or have deep pockets doesn’t mean you can’t contribute in a big way. Tim Caughran points out that volunteer hours are tremendously helpful in securing grants.
“In many cases, we are able to use volunteer hours and gifts-in-kind as matching funds for grants," says Caughran. "Someone who’s willing to work on a habitat project can contribute just as much as someone who writes a check. People who help with whistle counts, help plant brood-rearing areas on public land, help distribute seed, all of this helps us put more biologists in the field and get more habitat work done.”
Chapters do both public and private land habitat work. They are, according to Caughran, “invested in communities.”
Tim Long, President of the Lowcountry QF Chapter in SC, echoes this sentiment. “Public land should be more of an “adopt a highway” approach in the backyards of each chapter," he says. "Nearly everyone has a local wildlife management area or other state or federal land. Volunteers should adopt these lands and push for quail habitat.”
Long’s chapter walks the walk, doing work such as planting brood patches in the Francis Marion National Forest and persuading USFS staff to burn in ways that are beneficial to quail and other species. While the Francis Marion area narrowly missed out on being one of the initial focus areas for the SCBI, Long says, “We aren’t waiting. We’re driving it at our level and getting the much-needed support from the top to ensure our efforts are now part of the USFS forest plan.”
In yet another sign of progress, Hunter Morton, a graduate student at Clemson University, recently organized the first Quail Forever college chapter in the state.
“The great concept about the Clemson chapter is that we are able to incorporate students as well as community indIviduals," says Morton. "This gives us a diverse group to branch out into activities and programs. For example, the chapter will be helping Tall Timbers with their covey counts and fall field day. There are events that many working adults are unable to participate in, but students, because of flexible schedules, are able to experience. We are hoping to implement programs that will engage our students and community and provide the initial hook for people to participate in the quail restoration.”
“Quail Forever is one of those key partners as they can bring forward much of the grass roots support for quail habitat restoration- not just bird hunters but also folks who simply have an appreciation for bobwhite quail and enjoy seeing and hearing them,” says Director Taylor of the SCDNR. “We look forward to more QF chapters getting organized in the state to help us with this huge conservation challenge.”
Landscape-scale changes require landscape-scale effort, combining diverse people and organizations spread across many points on the map, and QF is uniquely positioned to play a major role in bringing back the whistle in South Carolina.