Finally, there’s hope for quail and the people who hunt them

Bobwhite-quail populations are declining long-term, but favorable weather last year resulted in a blip on the chart. The quail’s plight will be featured in a national show at Bartle Hall this week.
Bobwhite-quail populations are declining long-term, but favorable weather last year resulted in a blip on the chart. The quail’s plight will be featured in a national show at Bartle Hall this week. Special to The Star

Jeff Prendergast remembers one short hunting trip last fall when he became convinced that there is indeed hope for the bobwhite quail.

“My Lab and I and a friend went out in north-central Kansas for a short hunt,” said Prendergast, who is an upland-gamebird biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “We were out for only two hours but we flushed seven coveys.

“Not too long ago, I put in a lot more time to find less birds than that. It shows how quickly the quail can come back.”

Don’t get Prendergast wrong. The quail aren’t back to the days of the early 1980s, when hunters shot more than 3 million birds during one season in Kansas. That will probably never happen again, Prendergast said, because of major shifts in land use and wholesale losses in wildlife habitat.

But such hunts and Wildlife, Parks and Tourism surveys indicate that these are exciting times in Kansas, long recognized as one of the top quail-hunting states in the nation. After several years in which the state followed the national trend of alarming drops in harvest totals and hunter numbers, near-ideal weather and nesting conditions brought the bobwhites back … at least for the time being.

The comeback started in the 2014-2015 season, when hunters were encouraged by the increased numbers of quail they found. That set the stage for 2015, when Wildlife, Parks and Tourism roadside counts found the statewide population index to be up 50 percent.

Final harvest figures for the 2015-2016 season haven’t been tabulated yet, but Prendergast anticipates they will be up — enough to provide hope in an otherwise gloomy era for the quail.

“People had been saying, ‘The quail are gone. There’s no use hunting them anymore,’ ” said Prendergast, who will be one of the speakers in the first-ever Quail Summit at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic at Bartle Hall this week.

“But this past year showed that their populations can explode; that they can bounce back quickly. It will never be like it used to be. But I think this gives us hope for the future.”

The Kansas boom was mostly due to near-ideal weather after several years of drought, particularly in the western part of the state. Even during that dry spell, Prendergast said, quail populations grew slowly in the eastern part of Kansas.

Whether 2015 was an aberration or a true sign that quail are coming back remains to be seen. The biggest battle to be fought is the long-term loss of habitat. Where small farms bordered by brushy fence rows and hedge rows once stood, there are now large farms with little cover visible.

Modern agricultural practices have eliminated many of the weeds that quail thrive on. Clean farming has been the bane of upland bird hunting.

But a rising trend toward urging conservation practices that can be implemented without landowners having to sacrifice profit is improving the landscape for quail, one chunk of land at a time.

Quail experts from across the nation will get together Saturday at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic to discuss the hope — and the battles that lie ahead — in the fight to bring the quail back. Talks by nationally known authorities are scheduled from 9:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

Quail Forever, a national organization based in Minnesota, is leading that fight. Along with its sister organization, Pheasants Forever, the non-profit group has been a leader in the fight to preserve and restore upland-gamebird habitat. Fundraisers generate money to help fund those habitat programs, then the local chapters that earned that money decide where it is put to use.

Pheasants Forever was formed in 1982 when a group of hunters noticed the correlation between upland habitat loss and declining pheasant populations, and they founded a non-profit organization dedicated to habitat conservation. Quail Forever was created in 2005 in response to rapid declines in quail numbers.

Today, the sister organizations sport 145,000 members and more than 700 chapters nationally.

The Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic is the groups’ showcase event — a celebration of all things bird hunting. Hunters from across the nation attend and are greeted with displays and demonstrations ranging from bird-dog training to wild-game cooking to booths manned by the leading hunting equipment manufacturers in the country.

But this event is about much more than fun and games. Biologists, wildlife authorities and hunters share ideas on how to bring the pheasants and quail back. This year’s event will highlight the quail, a gamebird that has seen large declines in the last two decades especially.

Ideal weather can interrupt those declines and bring the birds back temporarily. But an increase in habitat can increase the carrying capacity of the land, thus providing more birds to start with when weather conditions such as drought strike again.

“We have to build on this momentum,” Prendergast said. “People are getting excited about quail again, and we have to show them the value of getting involved with these conservation projects.”

Bill White, who is in charge of the private lands section for the Missouri Department of Conservation, agrees.

The agency he works for has established Quail Focus areas across Missouri — areas where blocks of willing landowners agree to get together to implement wildlife habitat projects with the help of the Department of Conservation.

“We’re seeing big jumps in quail number in those focus areas,” White said. “We’ve done surveys, and they show that we have three to four times as many quail in those areas as we do on the nearby land outside those focus areas.”

Those habitat projects serve as proof that the quail can be brought back from the edge of disaster, said Robert Perez, upland gamebird project leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“Some hunters are looking for a quick fix,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. This is a habitat issue. We’re dealing with wholesale changes in land use over the years. It’s going to take a lot of work and cooperation to bring the birds back.

“We won’t ever get back to where we once were. But at least there’s some hope. Through these habitat programs, we can keep the quail hunting heritage alive.”

Brent Frazee: 816-234-4319, @fishboybrent

National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic

WHAT: Sponsored by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, this event is an annual celebration of upland gamebird hunting. It rotates from city to city in the pheasant- and quail-hunting range and generally draws crowd of 20,000 or more. It is widely attended by members of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, but it is also open to the public.

WHEN/WHERE: Friday through Sunday at Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City.

SHOW HOURS: 1 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

EVERYONE LOVES A PARADE: Yeah, you’ve been to a lot of parades. But have you ever been to a bird-dog parade? Each Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic starts with a ceremonial parade of 30-plus bird-dog breeds. It will take place from 12:15 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. Friday before the doors to the show officially open.

WHAT TO EXPECT: There will displays and exhibits, including representatives from leading manufacturers, guides and outfitters, wildlife and conservation organizations, wild-cooking demonstrations, dog-training seminars and activities for children.

LANDOWNER HABITAT HELP DESK: Landowners can consult with wildlife biologists on how to better mange their land for pheasants, quail and other wildlife. Through the wonders of modern technology, the experts can call up a specific tract of land on a computer and provide landowners with advice.

QUAIL SUMMIT: From 9:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Saturday, biologists will participate in the event’s first-ever Quail Summit. The series of talks will focus on why quail populations are declining and what can be done to halt that drop.

TICKETS: Daily admission tickets will cost $10; buy one, get one free. There will be an additional charge for the Bird Hunter’s Banquet on Friday night and the National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic Banquet on Saturday night.