Lynn Burkhead — TPWD, Quail Forever look for public upland hunting lands

Herald Democrat
A couple of organizations are looking for help from landowners to grow quail hunting.

In the mid-1980s, I parked at the old Katy Golf Course in Denison and grabbed my clubs for a round of nine holes with a friend.

After grabbing the bag of irons and woods, I headed for the tee box. As I did, I reached back and slammed the door of my vehicle.

And much to my surprise, that’s when a small covey of quail decided to burst from the nearby cover, giving me a jolt of adrenaline as I excitedly watched the birds whir away.

Nearly 20 years later, I revisited the same spot. Except this time, the old golf course had been converted into soccer and football practice fields.

As I sat and watched my youngest son Will go through a tackling drill, there were no random flushes of quail, no melodic whistles of bobwhites, no nearby cover to support a covey of birds in the middle of a small Texas town.

So, you’ll understand the irony of all of this as I thought back on these two experiences this past week, along with looking at a social media post from Quail Forever.

Here’s what the QF Facebook post said: “Do you own land in Texas and want to help foster and grow the next generation of Texas upland hunters? Then consider enrolling your property in the new Texas Public Hunting Program.

“This new program is seeking private landowners to lease their land for public hunting opportunities, including quail hunting. With Texas being approximately 97 percent private land, many hunters do not have access to upland hunting opportunities that are vital for continuing the Texas quail hunting tradition. This program will allow landowners to play a role in giving opportunity to that next generation.

“Landowners will enjoy monetary compensation for leasing their land to the state, and the ability to modify the contract to best fit the landowners needs.

“For more information on the Texas Public Hunting Program, contact Quail Forever Coordinating Wildlife Biologist William Burkhead at 903-327-4277 email at wburkhead@quailforever.org, or TPWD Biologist Kyle Thigpen at 979-255- 2761 email at kyle.thigpen@tpwd.gov.”

If one of those names seems a bit familiar, it’s because it’s my youngest son Will, a recent forestry and wildlife management graduate from Stephen F. Austin State University and a recently hired coordinating wildlife biologist with Quail Forever.

In addition to helping the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department put together its 2021 roster of public dove hunting leases in portions of the state, Will is also on the ground floor of helping put together the state’s first effort at leasing private lands for a public upland bird hunting program.

To be sure, it’s an ambitious undertaking in a state where 97-percent of the land falls behind private lock and key. But with several states to the north — including Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska — having exemplary programs of converting private land into public hunting plots, there’s a road map for Texas to follow.

If you want to chase bobwhites in Oklahoma, pheasants in Kansas, and sharptails in Nebraska, buy a hunting license, fill up the truck’s gas tank, drive to the nearest spot, and you’re in the upland bird hunting game.

Here to the south of the Red River, the state of Texas has taken notice and is now attempting to put its own program together.

That the program succeeds is vital, and not just because my youngest son is a part of trying to help put all of this together. The fledgling program noted above is also important because quail — and quail hunters — are in trouble across all of America, Texas included.

Looking through a couple of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine stories in my files, my old friend Steve Lightfoot, now retired from his communications post with TPWD, put the state’s precipitous quail decline into some cold, hard numbers.

In a 2006 story entitled “Quail in Crisis,” Lightfoot wrote that “…about two-thirds of the bobwhite quail populations nationwide have vanished in less than 20 years; from 59 million birds in 1980 to about 20 million in 1999.”

Unfortunately, the news only got worse from there, for in a 2012 story entitled “Quail Quandary,” Lightfoot wrote: “In 1960, 50 years after the epitaphs on quail began to appear, Texas boasted an estimated 321,000 quail hunters and the annual harvest was (9.8 million birds.”

But 50 years later, the bottom had fallen out of both quail numbers and quail hunter numbers according to Lightfoot.

“By 2010, there were fewer than 50,000 quail hunters in Texas and the annual harvest was at a little more than a half-million birds.”

The numbers are even smaller now, thanks to a variety of reasons. And while there are various reasons including eye worms, fire ants, and landowners managing now for whitetails and cattle instead of quail and small game, the fundamental reason that quail are being lost remains the same.

“While a host of factors are probably involved, the fundamental reason for quail population decline is loss of habitat,” says the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension service. “Human development leads to habitat fragmentation, and isolated habitat fragments result in small, isolated quail populations. These small, isolated populations are unable to withstand bad times, and have a greater risk of becoming locally extinct.

While the quail population in Texas has always ridden the coattails of boom-and-bust population cycles — thanks in part to the state’s rain fueled roller coaster as retired Houston Chronicle outdoor writer Shannon Tompkins once wrote — the loss of quail hunters is as serious a problem as the decline in overall bobwhite numbers is.

Why? Because if someday there are few, if any, passionate quail hunters who care about what happens to the diminutive upland bird, that will mean waning numbers of constituents who encourage state and national officials to study, plan, and spend money to help the bobwhite out.

And it’s vital that we have as many people as possible in the fight for the bobwhite, since in many ways it is the “canary in the coal mine” species for many upland birds and many other forms of wildlife too.

As the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension service says, “Stabilizing quail populations, or reversing the decline, will take a coordinated, long-term effort to conserve Texas grasslands. The general public must be informed about the plight of quail in Texas; private and public landowners must be provided with incentives and information to better manage their properties; and we need to band together in cooperatives and partnerships to manage areas of significant size.”

Because if we don’t band together and do what we can to save this magnificent little game bird — or the upland bird hunting traditions that quail have helped support down through the years — all can be lost.

And the saddest thing in the world is the thought of a fine morning without the gentlemanly call of the bobwhite, signaling his place upon the landscape in areas that are still a bit wild.

Including old, rustic golf courses where a hidden covey hides in the nearby brush.

Quite simply, the world isn’t as rich a place without them.