TPW Commission looks to science for solution to quail woes

Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Texas quail hunters should not expect substantive changes for the 2012-13 season after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission urged biologists to intensify quail conservation efforts, while minimizing the use of regulations as a means to address declining bobwhite populations.

Photo © Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

“We don’t see regulations as a defining tool to deal with the bigger, long term issues facing quail in Texas,” said commission Chairman T. Dan Friedkin. “Quail conservation is a critically important issue and one that the department will continue to emphasize and invest resources in, but it’s not a simple regulatory issue.”

The chairman did not rule out the possibility of a regionally-zoned approach to quail seasons based on scientific justifications. The commission will discuss a proposed framework for the 2012-13 quail season at its May 23 public hearing and following the public comment period, render a final decision in August.

The commission signal to forego any major restructuring of the quail season for this year comes after careful deliberation of scientific studies and input from some of the nation’s renowned bobwhite researchers. These scientists met in Austin recently to discuss the relationship between harvest regulations and population trends for quail. The group concluded that harvest regulations have little effect on quail population trends overall and that quail have been in decline over the long term due to losses in the quantity and quality of suitable habitat.

“Hunting did not cause quail declines,” Robert Perez, upland game bird program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told commissioners. “Responding to annual variation in quail abundance gives the impression that populations can be influenced by regulatory changes when, in fact, weather and habitat are the driving forces.”

The commission directed TPWD staff to redouble habitat management efforts using proven strategies and to continue to support habitat-based research. Specifically, TPWD should direct resources to development of focus areas that demonstrate successful quail restoration. These approaches are all part of TPWD’s Upland Game Bird Strategic Plan which lays the groundwork for ongoing and future game bird conservation and management.

A focus area is generally larger than a county but smaller than an ecoregion with a boundary determined by opportunity, habitat potential and landowner and partner interest and participation. An example of a focus area is the Wildlife Habitat Federation site in South Central Texas where prairie grassland habitat restoration has been under way since 2004. Other potential sites have been identified through the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, a multi-state, federal conservation partnership focused on priority grassland birds.

A recent survey of states within the bobwhite range reported an interest in enhancing population monitoring efforts at the “focus area” scale, to measure the impacts of habitat manipulation and develop models that can be reproduced in other areas with restoration potential. This is becoming the national model for bobwhite quail conservation.

“Bobwhites respond to habitat improvements when they occur at a scale that can support a viable population,” Perez noted. “When neighbors work together along with partners, quail can begin to recover. We need to demonstrate and document success at the focus area scale and encourage more folks to help old bob.”

Much of the research and demonstration site work with bobwhite in Texas is funded with money generated by the Upland Game Bird Stamp program and matching grants through the federal Wildlife Restoration Program, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The funds allow TPWD’s wildlife biologists to offer many services, including technical guidance to private landowners, surveys and research for development of hunting regulations, operation and management of Wildlife Management Areas in Texas, and research to develop techniques for managing wildlife populations and wildlife.

By law, Wildlife Restoration funding is limited to wildlife management, related public use, and hunter education. Funds collected from federal excise taxes paid by manufacturers –an 11 percent  excise tax on sporting rifles, shotguns, ammunition, and archery equipment and a 10 percent tax on handguns- are distributed to states based on number of hunters and land area. Texas receives the maximum distribution allowable under the program, about $17.6 million in 2011.

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