Texas Rising

e75ad7d2-9c7f-45c6-afbd-3651767d165b By Ted Gartner

 
“There are really just two seasons in Texas: droughts and in-between droughts,” the grizzled, sweaty ranch hand said to his buddy sitting across the booth. His worn-out pardner replied with little more than a grunt and a slurp of sweet tea. I chuckled to myself as I paid the Allsup’s cashier for my ice-cold bottle of Topo Chico.
 
Soon, I was back on Highway 6, on my way to the Texas Statewide Quail Symposium, which was held last August in Abilene. It was an assembly of some 250 esteemed academic and wildlife department researchers, large and small landowners, and die-hard bird hunters - all conservationists who were focused on reversing the decline of quail in what’s considered to be the last stronghold of these wild birds.
 
As I drove west, the old cowpoke’s words rattled around in my head. Mile after mile, the Rolling Plains ranchland that was so green just three months ago was showing the telltale signs of an area that was slipping into a not-so-uncommon late summer drought.
 
Without question, in Lone Star State quail country, rainfall is the single biggest factor separating a banner bobwhite year from fair or dismal. Until we learn how to make the skies open up, Texas ultimately is at the mercy of Mother Nature, who often wears a black hat in this western tableau.
 
So if rain is such a limiting factor in Texas quail production, then is it even worth bothering with habitat improvements? Absolutely. In fact, probably more so in the Lone Star State than almost anywhere else.
 

The QF Story

 
That’s where Quail Forever comes riding into the picture, wearing a decidedly white hat. A relative newcomer to Texas, the first QF chapter was established in 2014, which was borne out of a legacy Houston-area Pheasants Forever chapter that was admittedly nowhere near pheasant country. In just a few short years, there are now 17 (and counting) active chapters, and they’re already making a big impact.
 
Recently, the chapters presented a donation of $25,000 in locally-raised money to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. That money will be matched three to one with Pittman-Robertson funds, providing a total of $100,000 for upland game bird habitat projects on state wildlife management areas. Quail Forever biologists will collaborate with their state counterparts, and chapter volunteers can donate their own sweat equity to these projects.
 
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is a major partner of Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever. Together, they impact thousands of acres through the Farm Bill Biologist program. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever also contribute funds to TPWD as leverage for match dollars to be used for habitat work on public lands, such as one of 47 Wildlife Management Areas that TPWD maintains. In 2019, $100,000 was spent for habitat improvements on public lands through the partnership.
 

It’s All About Habitat and Partnerships 

 
“Well-managed quail habitat ‘sets the table’ for a successful quail hatch,” says Dustin McNabb, Quail Forever’s regional representative in Texas. “All things being equal, good cover will produce more birds than marginal or poor cover in the same geographic area.”
 
“Furthermore, excellent quail habitat will more than likely provide a buffer in those years where we don’t get much in the way of rain. You still might have a lousy crop of birds, but they probably won’t be as lousy as your neighbor who doesn’t manage his habitat,” explains McNabb.
 
Of course, like every other PF/QF chapter, members are practicing “R3” - the national effort to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters in Texas. Of course, the best way to ensure a healthy population of hunters (and the engagement and resources they bring to conservation) is to safeguard a healthy quail population through abundant habitat.
 
QF also works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the largest private lands management organization in Texas.
 
“We help provide wildlife boots-on-the-ground that are embedded in local county field offices to impact considerable acreages with wildlife friendly land management practices are enacted every day,” explains McNabb. “Individual landowners benefit from the technical and monetary assistance provided through this partnership to help achieve their wildlife and production-oriented goals on their own property.”
 
Quail Forever has also partnered with the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture (OPJV) in Texas. The OPJV is a regional partnership of government and non-governmental organizations, established to coordinate strategies that benefit a variety of avian species at a regional level, while leveraging partner dollars to make it happen. Other Joint Venture conservation programs have been wildly successful in restoring waterfowl populations, and the OPJV hopes to recreate that success with grassland birds.
 
“The Joint Ventures are probably the least known, but most effective conservation partnerships in terms of maximizing habitat dollars,” explains OPJV coordinator James Giocomo. “In the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, we’re able to match 10 dollars or more for every dollar spent - and landowners must contribute at least half the cost of any habitat restoration project.”
 
OPJV is also providing support for two new Quail Forever coordinating wildlife biologists that assist landowners in implementing early successional habitat projects for the benefit of quail and other wildlife as part of the state’s Farm Bill Biologist Partnership. Because more than 95% of land in Texas is owned privately, landowner buy-in is critical.
 
Another complicating factor in Texas is the state’s prolific ranching and oil and gas industries - which have not been historically aligned with successful quail habitat management. But McNabb says those attitudes are changing.
 
“Ranchers are starting to understand that if their land is good for the bird, it’s good for the herd. Quail are at the foundation of good habitat, and other species, including cattle, can benefit as well.” explains McNabb. “We’re also starting to talk to oil and gas companies about working to restore habitat once exploration and construction have been completed on a property.”
 

A Growing Movement

 
In fact, enthusiasm for habitat conservation and restoration is no longer contained to the Rolling Plains and South Texas quail strongholds. Michael Baird owns 650 acres of land in Red River County. That’s hundreds of miles east of anything that could be considered good quail country today. But Baird remembers a time - 30 or 40 years ago - when he regularly hunted birds there. Now, he’s working to bring the birds back.
 
“The number one thing Quail Forever has done is legitimize my efforts. Their biologists have given me hope that restoring quail in this part of Texas is not a lost cause,” Baird told me. “They have been an invaluable resource by giving me specific habitat recommendations. Even better, my neighbors have taken notice and are working to implement similar improvements.”
 
“Our area gets 50 inches of rain a year. If we can get enough acres of viable quail habitat and they’re able to gain a foothold, the boom-and-bust drought cycle should be less of a factor in this part of Texas,” Baird added.
 
At breakfast during the symposium, I serendipitously sat down next to Dale Prochaska, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regional director who oversees a wide swath of quail country. Over sunny-side-up eggs and bacon (I’m sure he had something much healthier), we made small talk and discussed conservation. What he said encouraged me.
 
“I think we’re in the ‘golden age’ of modern habitat conservation, quite honestly. Sure, there’s a lot of work to be done, but the amount of support, cooperation, and research that we have going on in Texas right now is really encouraging,” said Prochaska.
 
What I found at the Statewide Symposium was a surprising amount of cooperation among conservation organizations, private landowners, industry, and the State of Texas to preserve and restore this beloved gamebird. Texas, it seems, is big enough for all of them.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. To get a subscription, join Quail Forever today