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Illinois hunting and fishing

A female northern bobwhite holds tight this summer in a grassy field edge in southern Sangamon County. Efforts to restore populations of bobwhites will likely take decades. Photo by Chris Young.

Turkey federation joins efforts to bring back bobwhites

September 28, 2012 at 07:19 AM

The State Journal-Register

Bobwhite conservation efforts are getting a lift from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

The NWTF has agreed to lend its organizational muscle and habitat restoration experience to efforts to bring back the Northern bobwhite, commonly referred to as quail.

The NWTF announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding last week with the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a consortium of 25 state wildlife agencies working to restore populations of northern bobwhites.

Bobwhite numbers have been dropping precipitously in recent decades. And as grassland birds like bobwhites decline, so do the number of hunters.

No states in the bobwhite range showed increases since 1966, and the bird with the signature “Bob White” call dropped as much as 9 percent annually over that period.

Many fear the loss of bobwhite hunting altogether when the generation that recalls the heyday of exploding coveys of quail ages out of the sport.

Thomas Dailey, assistant director of the bobwhite initiative, based at the University of Tennessee, said both organizations have common goals.

“The NWTF has an excellent track record establishing wildlife habitat,” Dailey said. “So we are going to overlay our priority areas to try to identify eight areas for major projects.”

The bobwhite initiative has only a handful of employees working to coordinate efforts of state agencies and conservation groups.

“The NWTF has staff in each state, and over half of their funds each year are allocated for habitat restoration,” Dailey said.

The turkey federation will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. The bobwhite initiative just turned 10 years old.

‘A long-term deal’

Both organizations know the restoration of bobwhites will be a multi-year, and perhaps multi-generational project.

Brent Lawrence, director of communications for the NWTF, said the number of wild turkeys nationwide dwindled to about 30,000 in the early 1900s. Today, that number has grown to 7 million.

Lawrence said habitat restoration and management benefit a wide array of wildlife.

“When you are helping turkeys, you are helping everything from quail to deer to rabbits and squirrels,” he said. “Our goal is to conduct eight projects per year to help not only quail and turkeys but also non-game wildlife like grassland birds.”

“Quail respond to proper timber management,” said Mike Wefer, Illinois Department of Natural Resources agriculture and grassland wildlife program manager. “NWTF can encourage some good timber practices.”

That means keeping woodlands open so at least some sunlight can penetrate to allow for plant growth on the forest floor. Sunlight also is needed for nut-bearing trees such as oaks to sprout and grow.

“Good quail habitat is also good nesting habitat for turkeys, so there is good overlap there.”

The bobwhite initiative is encouraging states to undertake large, landscape-scale projects to show landowners the kinds of results that can be expected.

“We are pressing for quail focus areas,” said Donald McKenzie, director of the bobwhite initiative. “We don’t want to spread limited resources too thin.”

He said establishment of well-designed focus areas demonstrate success early on in the process and can instill hope.

Wefer said a Tazewell County project covering about 1,000 acres has shown good results for bobwhites, grasshopper sparrows and Eastern meadowlarks.

“Another positive area in Montgomery County includes about 1,000 acres of quail habitat and they are seeing good numbers,” he said.

Wefer said conservation programs like State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) are helping landowners restore wildlife habitat.

He said a proposal to expand the program into new areas is awaiting approval from the Farm Service Agency.

The decline of the bobwhite is a land use problem, Wefer said.

“If people were farming the way they were in the 1940s you wouldn’t need us,” he said. “But today fields are bigger and equipment is bigger. Where we used to have a patchwork of corn, milo, oats, wheat and pasture, now we have corn and sometimes beans.”

Pastures have been converted to cropland or grown up in trees.

The restoration of the wild turkey took decades, and quail hunters know it won’t be an easy fix.

“Our quail restoration program will be measured in decades,” Dailey said. “This is a long-term deal.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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