Landowners should start planning now for spring projects that will increase habitat for northern bobwhites and other native Illinois wildlife. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.
Illinois gains habitat specialists
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
The chicks were so small they were barely noticeable underfoot.
Only the slight rustling of matted prairie grass and some muffled peeps kept the hiking boot suspended above the ground in midstep.
For a moment they were visible, running in a single-file line between clumps of grass. Their mother followed close behind.
In an instant they disappeared back into the protective, waving arms of the tall grass at Long Branch State Nature Preserve near Havana.
Long Branch has what a lot of Illinois does not: habitat for birds such as the Northern bobwhite (better known as quail to upland bird hunters).
Hunters know that for more coveys of quail to rise, there have to be more scenes like the one above during the nesting season.
For landowners hoping to improve wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities, resources are out there, and more help is on the way.
Boots on the ground
On Monday, five new farm program biologists start work around Illinois — their salaries and office space provided by a unique partnership between state and federal governments, non-profit groups and fees paid by hunters.
Their job will be to help connect landowners with programs to help them maximize wildlife habitat opportunities on their property.
New biologists will be based in the vicinity of Lincoln, Champaign, Effingham, Fairfield and Salem.
“Part of their focus will be the SAFE areas (State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement) and Natural Resources Conservation Service programs like WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program),” says Aaron Kuehl, conservation director for Illinois Pheasants Forever. “Anything to help us put wildlife habitat on the ground.”
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant is covering 50 percent of the expense. NRCS is donating office space and in-kind services.
Kuehl says matching funds come from state pheasant and habitat stamp funds plus contributions from Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chapters.
“We’re pretty excited,” he says. “We’ll probably blow through our CP-33 acres in no time.”
CP-33 is a component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program targeted to develop buffer zones that serve as habitat for bobwhites and other upland wildlife.
“It’s just a matter of promoting it to the right people.”
Driving down the highway, potential habitat projects can be spotted everywhere.
“That’s what I do,” says Mel Gajewski of Scheller. “I’m constantly looking at the fields.”
Gajewski is habitat coordinator for Illinois Quail Unlimited, now working in conjunction with the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation. Quail Unlimited has been going through financial and organizational upheaval, and the Illinois chapter now is aligned with the new federation started by a former QU president.
Gajewski says one of the most important issues is the continuation of efforts to convert fields of fescue and brome grass to native prairie grass.
“A CRP field that has been planted in fescue or brome has almost zero benefit to wildlife,” he says. “We can offer a cost-share to help landowners convert these acres.”
Self-interested hunters who would like to see quail numbers rebound in Illinois ultimately will boost all kinds of wildlife.
“Habitat is the key for wildlife to rebound,” he says. “Anytime you are doing habitat for quail, you are helping every other species, including deer, turkey, pheasant, rabbit and many others.”
Gajewski says Illinois Quail Unlimited has a prairie-grass seed program and clover seed program that pays 75 percent of the cost of seed.
“We have a limited number of acres available to landowners through that program,” he says.
A wildlife habitat project that can be started right away is edge feathering.
Gajewski says Illinois Quail Unlimited will pay a portion of the cost of thinning woodland edgesand creating transition zones that species such as deer, turkey and quail prefer.
Trees cut are left where they fall.
“It’s chop and drop,” he says. “The machine creates instant habitat.”
Gajewski works mostly in central and southern Illinois, but his responsibilities encompass the entire state. He can be reached at 618-663-7423 or 618-625-6538.
Turn the dirt
In many cases, wildlife biologists and conservationists know what has to happen, but the stumbling block is finding dollars to pay the bills and muscle to get the work done.
“It’s the No. 1 challenge for wildlife habitat,” says Craig Alderman, head of the new Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation.
“We’ve got a good idea of what it takes to get (habitat) back, but it is the hands-on sweat equity that is needed,” he says.
First, landowners have to be convinced to let conservationists go to work on their woodland and field edges.
In Illinois, particularly, woodlands have to be opened up so sunlight can reach the forest floor. Without the sun, oaks and other nut-bearing trees can’t grow, and other understory plants and shrubs drop out.
The good news is that woodlands tend to respond quickly.
“It doesn’t take long,” Alderman says. “If there are populations present, they come back pretty quickly and the landowners are pleased.”
The new federation has chapters in eight states including Illinois.
“First, put the money on the ground and turn the dirt,” he says. “Sometimes you get too big and you lose focus about what your members and chapters are all about.
“And they are about turning the dirt.”
The federation is on the Web at http://www.quwf.net.
“It’s hard to think about (spring habitat projects) with snow on the ground,” Kuehl says with a laugh.
“But we’ve got a bunch of partnerships with the pheasant and habitat stamp funds, plus other grant programs including the Grassland Enhancement Restoration Initiative,” he says.
The latter is for landowners who wish to improve wildlife habitat but don’t have the acreage to qualify for farm-bill programs like CRP.
Another cost-share program is BONUS, or Buffer Our Natural UplandS.
This program is for landowners living near existing state areas — such as pheasant habitat areas. These landowners are offered incentive payments to add private projects that serve to enhance those nearby.
Another is Max CRP.
Landowners putting in at least 20-acre blocks of CRP or establishing CP-33 buffers up to 120 feet wide can qualify for an extra $50 per acre.