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Virginia's top quail crusador passionate about bringing back Bob
Courtesy of Marc Puckett
Marc Puckett is leading Virginia's quail recovery efforts.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Deer are abundant. Flocks of turkeys can be seen chasing grasshoppers in meadows along the Interstate. Bear have multiplied and moved into new areas. Canada geese fill the sky and leave droppings on golf greens. Elk are being restored. Coyotes are commonplace. Some people report they have seen a mountain lion.
Missing in this resurging parade of wildlife is the bobwhite quail. Its numbers, according to one Virginia survey, have been declining approximately 4-percent annually, to the point that the distinctly country call of this bird no longer is heard on warm spring mornings. Disappearing even quicker than quail are quail hunters, their numbers plummeting more than 90 percent since 1970. That has meant lost revenue for rural localities.
Thousands of dollars are being pumped into the restoration of quail, not with the hope of returning them to the levels author Havilah Babcock enjoyed in the 1940s, but at least to how they were in 1980.
In February, Quail Unlimited, the oldest and largest advocacy group of the bobwhite, announced it had folded. That started some people wondering if quail management efforts in general are going poorly.
It seemed a good time for me to address questions to Marc Puckett, the biologist who heads the quail restoration program in Virginia for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Puckett also is a leader in National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a representation of 25 states dedicated to quail recovery.
"Success admittedly is limited at this point, but the alternative is to give up," said Puckett.
You aren't around Puckett long before you see his undying passion and determination. He is a quail crusader.
"I have dedicated over 20 years of my life to the struggle to recover quail and all early succession wildlife," he said. "I rack my brain every day trying to find new answers and I never claim to know it all."
Here's how Puckett addressed my questions:
Q. Did you see the demise of Quail Unlimited as an indication that the quail restoration program is going poorly?
A. No, not at all. I don't want to minimize Quail Unlimited. They had many thousands of dedicated members who fought hard. But I will tell anyone within earshot, no single entity will bring back quail. Fortunately, numerous entities are involved now, Quail Forever, the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, the Quail Coalition and more recently the National Wild Turkey Federation. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is trying to pull together all entities interested in quail into a cohesive national team, very similar to how the waterfowl community and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought their team together.
Q. Quail Forever is working to solicit members from defunct Quail Unlimited. Do you think it can take up the slack?
A. I think Quail Forever has a good business model. They are part of Pheasants Forever, which of course is huge in the mid-west, so that is a strength long term. They have a lot of clout and the ability to lobby in Washington, which is where enormous gains could be made for all wildlife via changes to federal farm bill programs.
Q. Are you happy with where the quail restoration program is at this point, considering the time, money and effort that has been put into it?
A. I am. Our five private lands wildlife biologists only have been on the ground for a little over three years. They are the heart of the initiative. We have established about 11,500 acres of habitat, 5,200 of that within our target counties. Have we restored quail county-wide? No, but we have seen some areas that are trending in the right direction. Our goal is to demonstrate success and hope it breeds more success. This follows the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative model (www.bringbackbobwhites.org).
Q. It is going to take time, isn't it?
A. Folks tend to think deer, turkey, ducks, geese and bears came back over night, or in a few short years. You and I both know it took 75 years for these recoveries to happen. Why do people think quail recovery will occur in three years or five years? It won't. If we don't have the guts for a long fight, they won't recover at all.
And don't forget, habitat desirable for quail benefits so many other species, field sparrows, towhees, prairie warblers, pollinating insects, rabbits, deer and more. Success can't be measured strictly in terms of quail.
UPCOMING: Part II. Quail restoration always in need of believers and workers
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