(Part II of a two-part story on the decline of small game in Tennessee and what sportsmen can do to help escort the return of these great resources.
Being a third generation quail hunter myself, I’ve shared the emotional disappointment of losing a sport that was once so popular here in the South. The present generation of sportsmen has little idea of what it was like to follow a bird dog or pack of beagles all day in the field. An era when small game and habitat were abundant has vanished.
It’s a complex series of problems that got us where we are today and it appears it will take a complex series of solutions to right the wrongs and changes that lead to the present day scenario. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Present day wildlife managers and programs have been slow to respond to rapidly changing situations. History seems to show, in many cases, they closed the gate after the horse got out.
Developers and private landowners have scraped the countryside where coveys once thrived and farmers have had to adapt to survive in a challenging market.
Yet there is hope and below are some steps being taken to address the problems. Here’s hoping we can all work together to reestablish small game. )
Have you missed the sweet serenade of these Dixie delights? Bobwhites, that is, whose two syllable whistle seems to say everything is alright across the countryside.
What about the sound of baying beagles as they push a cottontail from the overgrown ditch bank through the briar patch and out behind the old dilapidated barn, leaning in the wind as a testament of seasonal survival?
You’re not by yourself if you answered a resounding “yes”.
Today in Tennessee bird dogs and beagles are almost a vanishing species as are those who followed in their footsteps. Gone are the days of family traditions where pride of ownership and breeding were part of the recognition among outdoorsmen for bloodlines of setters, pointers, and beagle hounds. The few that remain are but a trickle of what was existed yesteryear.
Modern day hunters boast about the number of deer and the increasing size of racks. Others swap stories of spring turkey success and how the flocks have increased.
Before the deer browsed heavily and the turkeys gobbled everywhere there was small game here. It was a time in the Volunteer State when coveys of quail were abundant and rabbits ran the back roads with more regularity than a rural mail carrier.
Fast forward from the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s to today and you’ll see dramatic changes in the landscape, farming practices, and overall habitat loss. Hunting opportunities have drastically declined for small game enthusiasts as the ever present “no trespassing” sign seems to occupy every fence post, gate, or tree.
Is there a future left for small game? Can this great southern tradition be revitalized in today’s word of fast change farming from fence to fence? Clearing up the thickets for more tillable acreage it what many have had to do to survive in the changing world of agriculture. Can’t blame the farmer for adapting. What can the little guy do to help make a big change in the devastating loss?
From coyotes and other predators to agricultural applications of pesticides and habitat loss, everyone seems to have a theory how quail and rabbits reached their present day dilemma.
With emphasis on quail, I posed a grocery list of questions and obtained some of the following answers:
“I know it is hard for many landowners to understand, but to put it plainly, the reason for the quail decline is a loss of habitat and degradation of habitat, period. It is not hawks. It is not coyotes. It is not pesticides. The problem is a lack of suitable cover,” says Dr. Craig Harper, Associate Professor and Wildlife Specialist at the University of Tennessee’s Extension Service of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries.
“Habitat loss has affected quail as much as degradation of habitat. Wal-Mart shopping centers and housing developments will never hold quail again. Drive around Tennessee. Do you see any quail habitat? It's hard to find. Fields of tall fescue and Bermuda grass simply do not support quail. Never have, never will,” continued Harper when asked how we got where we are today.
“This includes pastures as well as hayfields. Large-scale farming does
not provide quail habitat, unless adequate cover is provided around field
borders and with terraces retained in quality cover. Again, perennial
cool-season grasses and Bermuda grass are not suitable. Closed-canopied
woods do not support quail. Never have, never
Why didn’t wildlife programs on the state and federal level better address the decline through programs like Conservation Reserve Programs in years past?
Harper says wildlife programs have only learned of the critical habitat limitations for quail in the past 10 years. Specifically, how you can have excellent quail habitat on a relatively small property, but no real increase in quail numbers.
“What we have learned is that what is present on the surrounding one thousand (1,000) acres is a real limitation for a local population. Without considerable immigration and emigration, populations can be isolated (both geographically and genetically) and become stagnant. It is also in these circumstances where predators are often blamed for the loss of quail where habitat is good. We don't need to worry about predation. With adequate cover, PREDATION CAN BE CONTROLLED, EVEN IF PREDATORS CANNOT. The problem is, few landowners understand what quality cover is,” continued Harper.
“Tennessee is developing more detailed plans for addressing the statewide needs of quail within the framework of existing Joint Ventures and other bird conservation plans. Quail needs have stimulated our collaboration with NRCS to hire more biologists to deliver plans and programs to landowners. We have a cooperative relationship with many Quail Unlimited chapters to assist in promoting habitat for quail and a number of chapters are active in assisting the department with improving habitat on wildlife management areas,” says TWRA’s Small Game Coordinator Roger Applegate.
If habitat is the big problem then why have such places as Ames Plantation, considered to be quail heaven and home of the National Field Trials located in west Tennessee’s Grand Junction and under the umbrella of UT’s management, still suffered quail loss?
“Habitat quality for quail at Ames decreased dramatically through the
1980's and 1990's. Aerial maps show a general maturation of the property,
with too little forest management and too little use of prescribed fire.”
“So, political pressure made the staff at Ames consider releasing pen-raised birds, EVEN THOUGH THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE WILD QUAIL PER ACRE on the property! They now release pen-raised birds every October and more than 95% of them are dead within a year.”
Here’s a summary of what UT’s Dr. Craig Harper says need to happen:
(1) Quail can easily respond where habitat improvements are made and
where they are not isolated. People need to think of managing quail much
as they would for quality deer. Don't worry about managing quail on 100
acres. Think about forming landowner cooperatives and managing for quail
on 1000 acres or more. An island of quality habitat in a sea of
closed-canopied woods, pastures, hayfields, clean farming, parking lots
and houses is not going to produce many birds.
Few people realize this. Unfortunately, way too many people
think planting food plots is the answer for quail. That is simply not
true. If cover limitations are met, food is not a problem.
Instead of giving away seed, organizations need to be giving away herbicides to kill non-native grasses and information on how to manage fields with fire and how to thin their forests and manage them appropriately.
(Steve McCadams, like his father and grandfather, hunted quail in west Tennessee until the late 1970’s. He’s taking steps to help small game and encourages his readers to do likewise.)
Steve McCadams is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing area. He has also contributed many outdoor oriented articles to various national publications.
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