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Habitat protection is goal of quail research ranch

This little bobwhite, the Old Man told me, was a gentleman, and you had to approach him as gentleman to gentleman. You had to cherish him and look after him and make him very important in his own right, because there weren’t many of him and he was worthy of respectful shooting. Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy (1953)

In West Texas, anonymous donors have so much respect for the bobwhite quail that they’ve given him his own ranch, a 4,700-acre spread just northwest of Roby.

On this ranch, quail take precedence over cattle, deer, or any other enterprise that typical West Texas ranches would favor.

“ ”Our goal is to make this the best quail habitat it can be,” says Dale Rollins, Texas Extension wildlife specialist at San Angelo. He has studied the bobwhite quail for more than 20 years, learning about habitat and habits and looking for ways to reverse population declines that have plagued the small game bird through most of its southern range.

“Texas is the last stronghold for wild bobwhite in the United States,” Rollins says.

Wild quail populations have declined significantly in East Texas over the past few years, and Rollins hopes to use the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch to identify best management practices for maintaining populations on working ranches and other viable holdings.

The research property, formerly the W.T. Martin Ranch, changed ownership last fall and was made available to the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation for long-term quail habitat research.

“This is a beautiful piece of property,” Rollins says. “Former owners took good care of it and it has a lot of quail.”

Rick Snipes, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, says the property will allow Rollins and others interested in preserving quail and the tradition of quail hunting to understand more about the birds and possibly reverse the “boom and bust” population dynamics.

“We see this ranch as something of a research facility and a demonstration laboratory. We hope to learn how best to manage a quail population.”

“We want to preserve the legacy of quail and quail hunting through the 21st Century and beyond,” Rollins says. “The demand for quail hunting property is tremendous.” He says a tract of 3,000 to 5,000 acres with quail and good habitat is a valuable piece of real estate.

Quail population decline across the country came primarily from habitat loss, he says. “Changing land uses in East Texas has had an effect. West Texas has undergone fewer changes, and that’s an advantage. But we don’t want to be blindsided by habitat loss or something like avian influenza.”

He says landowners have three factors that affect quail populations. “They can control two of those,” he says.

Weather is the first, and the one beyond control. “The other two are brush management and stocking rate. Ranchers have to optimize the quail and cattle ratio.”

On the research ranch, “Quail will be king,” Rollins says. “We’ll sculpture the landscape for them. Cattle and other enterprises will be down the priority list.”

That focus marks a departure from how most ranchers view their property. “Typically, ranchers are purely agriculture-focused,” Snipes says. “They depend on commodities for their livelihoods. We hope (to use the research ranch) to help some landowners transition to a system that incorporates recreation, including hunting, into management. They may learn to take a bigger part of their income from recreational dollars.”

The research ranch had a small cattle herd when it was first turned over to the foundation. “We don’t have cattle now,’ Rollins says. “But we’ll reintroduce a small herd, primarily for vegetation control. Stocking rate will be lower than typical and it will be flexible.

“We’ll tweak grazing to help with prickly pear management, for instance. We know prickly pear is an important component for quail nesting, but West Texas cattlemen don’t like it and want to get rid of as much as possible. It’s important for quail populations, though.”

He says too much prickly pear limits hunting. “We’ll do some partial burns, small plots of 20 to 40 acres, and cattle will graze prickly pear on those areas.”

He says the usual method of prickly pear control, burning and herbicide application, may not work in a system that maximizes quail habitat. Herbicides, he says, remove good weeds that quail favor. Cattlemen usually want to get rid of those weeds, so, “We have to minimize the trade-offs,” Rollins says.

He says early work on the ranch includes a quail census. “We’re in an exploratory phase now, and one thing we hope to do is research ways to count quail.”

They’re using helicopter surveys and have set up listening posts. “Students listen for quail whistling to help determine populations. For the first 12 to 18 months we’ll collect baseline data and look at four or five quail counting techniques.”

They’ve already banded some quail and have small radio collars on others so they can identify where they range. “We want to see how valuable Conservation Reserve Program land is to quail habitat,” Rollins says.

Hunting on the ranch will be permitted but limited and at “the discretion of the foundation director. We’ll use hunting for fundraising, for public relations, and for educational opportunities for youth. We want to preserve the passion, the economics, and the tradition of quail hunting.” Involving youth in the effort is a crucial means of carrying on the tradition, he says.

Rollins says the foundation is fortunate to have use of this property. “I’ve been on a lot of ranches, sometimes to evaluate value to prospective buyers, and if I see one with 70 percent of its space usable for quail, I suggest the potential buyer get out his checkbook. This property has 85 percent to 90 percent usable space for quail. And Mr. Martin did an excellent job of managing the ranch for quail.”

Rollins says the ranch will provide educational opportunities for ranchers who want to learn more about improving quail habitat on their land. “We also have an open house scheduled for the general public May 11.”

Snipes says quail habitat offers more than an economic opportunity to property owners. “Small towns in West Texas are dying,” he says. “With the right kind of land, a rancher can net $10 to $12 per acre from quail hunting leases.”

Those hunters often travel from urban areas and need food, lodging, and other items while they’re hunting. A 1999 survey of Quail Unlimited shows members average spending $10,354 annually to hunt quail, and a good chunk of that stays in the destination counties.

“We want to use this facility to help make sure quail hunting does not slip away from us,” Rollins says.

Figure it this way, the Old Man said. A covey of quail is a member of your family. You treat it right, and it stays there with you for all the years you live. It works in and around your garden, and it eats the bugs and it whistles every evening and cheers you up. It keeps your dogs happy, because they’ve got something to play with; and when you shoot it, you shoot just so many, and then you don’t shoot any more that year, because you got to leave some birds to breed you a new covey for next year… The little fellow doesn’t weigh but about five ounces, but every ounce of him is pure class. Ruark

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