Quail Habitat Restoration Becoming a Priority in Arkansas

Efforts are underway to restore northern bobwhites, all but disappeared in state

Wednesday, June 12, 2017

By Mark Carter

Efforts are afoot in Arkansas to restore the state's population of northern bobwhite quail, all but disappeared over the last few decades.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Conservation Service said it would provide more than $600,000 through its Working Lands for Wildlife program to help landowners in 20 counties improve habitat.

Now, Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are teaming to create an open habitat for quail on the northern shore of DeGray Lake.

“The ultimate goal for this project is to restore much needed habitat that can be utilized by quail, turkey, deer, songbirds, reptiles and many other organisms,” said Marcus Asher, quail program coordinator for AGFC. “Open woodland characteristics will be established that will create widely spaced trees and open canopies that encourage plenty of understory vegetation used for cover and foraging.” 

Quail Forever has helped with Arkansas restoration efforts as well. Earlier this year, it issued a 25-month, $74,750 grant to AGFC to fund a wildlife biologist position focused on quail restoration efforts. And in May, the state announced the creation of a Quail Forever specialty license plate that will begin circulation in December.

The DeGray Lake project, meanwhile, will serve to educate the public about quail habitat and how it can be created using prescribed burning, thinning and planting native vegetation, according to AGFC. Project officials don't expect bobwhite calls to fill the west central Arkansas skies right away, but the effort represents more evidence of the state's commitment.

A female northern bobwhite. (AGFC)

“It won’t happen overnight,” said Tommy Finley, associate professor of biology at HSU. “It will probably take five years to get close to where we want it. And it has to be maintained."

But Arkansas hunters are relishing the chance to one day hunt bobs in-state again. They can still be found in Arkansas, but are rare. Bobwhite quail numbers declined by about 60 percent across the Southeast over the last 30 years of the 20th century, and Arkansas saw its numbers dip by as much as 90 percent by the year 2000.

In 2015, AGFC issued a Strategic Quail Management Plan to help bring the birds back.

The NRCS grant will pay landowners $36 per acre for prescribed burnings, more than they typically would receive for a hunting lease. Burnings allow for more sunlight penetration in wooded areas and help grow key grasses that make up quail habitat. Plus, NRCS has committed to helping build permanent firebreaks, which help landowners with future burns.

Jim Baker, Arkansas biologist for NRCS, said burns should occur every three years to help dormant seeds sprout. He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the grant will entail $400,000 for upland habitat part and $230,000 for a program to provide habitat for pollinators in the same 20 counties.

This fall, HSU students in a new wildlife academic track are expected to be heavily involved in the quail habitat project.

“The quail restoration effort will have to be embraced by private landowners as well as public agencies if we are to succeed,” Asher said. “Universities can help us bridge the gap with landowners as well as the next generation of conservationists and show real-world examples of good habitat without causing too much impact on other land-use objectives.”