Arizona biologists struggle to save dying breed of quail

Arizona biologists struggle to save dying breed of quail

Arizona biologists struggle to save dying breed of quail

Written by Ron Dungan
Published by The Republic |
Thu Dec 19, 2013 9:07 AM
© The Republic

BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – Ann Witman remembers finding dead quail in the pens.

They were no ordinary quail – they were endangered masked bobwhites, a species native to Mexico and southern Arizona. Witman’s job was to raise them from eggs, and it wasn’t easy.

“The first year I got here, I had a lot of birds die,” she said.

Witman, a bioscience technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is part of a team of biologists working to restore the birds to their native habitat. But as the refuge improves its ability to raise quail, sightings in the wild have fallen sharply.

The future of the masked bobwhite looks bleak. Biologists have spent millions of dollars trying to bring the cinnamon-colored birds back in the past four decades — Witman has been at it for about 10 years — but drought, habitat loss, genetics, predators and other factors have taken their toll. A recent survey in Mexico did not turn up any birds, and a scholarly report based on that survey said the masked bobwhite may be “functionally extinct.”

“They could very well be extinct in the wild,” said Randy Babb, an author of the study.

Witman, who started with the agency as a volunteer working on bird surveys, wondered what killed the birds in the pens. She called her sister, a bird specialist at the San Diego Zoo. They decided that storing bird food in outdoor sheds probably reduced its nutritional value. Witman moved the bags indoors, but that didn’t solve the problem.

Biologists have changed feed, rearing techniques, release methods and habitat in an attempt to grow healthier, stronger birds. Refuge Manager Sally Gall, who started working at Buenos Aires 20 years ago, said the refuge is “producing a more wild bird that has more energy,” but raising birds that can survive in the wild is a different challenge.

Captive-raised birds don’t have the natural instinct to find food, evade predators or raise their young. The agency has released thousands of birds in the 117,465-acre refuge about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, and sometimes fits them with radio collars to track their movement. The collars have been found in hawk nests.

“It’s been a struggle,” Gall said.

Typically, captive-breeding programs are multiagency efforts that can tap into the expertise of zoologists, nutritionists and other experts. Buenos Aires has not been able to create such a team, although it is starting to work with the Phoenix Zoo, Gall said. Fish and Wildlife biologists are not giving up, but they may be running out of time.

Longtime employees speak highly of the agency’s mission. They seem less optimistic about the masked bobwhite’s chances of survival.

“They’ve been at it a while, and they’re not as gung-ho as they were when they walked in the door,” wildlife refuge biologist Ann Chenevert-Steffler said, but “they care about the species.” Chenevert-Steffler, who came to Buenos Aires in June, said the staff has learned a lot about the masked bobwhite and is learning more.

“I’m trying to re-energize everybody,” she said. “I’m not very good at giving up.”

Masked bobwhites were never common in the United States. The only population was found in southern Arizona. By the early 1900s, the birds had been pushed into Mexico by overgrazing — “they were pretty much gone as soon as they were discovered,” Babb said. By the mid-1930s, the population in Mexico was struggling, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Masked Bobwhite Recovery Plan. A few attempts to increase the birds’ numbers failed. The species was thought to be extinct by 1950.

A population of birds was discovered in Mexico 14 years later. That population became the basis for a captive-breeding program at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

The premise of the breeding program was simple. Hatch birds from eggs. Raise them in cages. Release them into the wild. Let nature take over.

But raising birds in cages “created a bird that’s adapted to captivity, so it loses its wildness,” Gall said.

The refuge has a large population of hawks, which prey on quail. And then there’s the drought. It takes a tough, instinctive bird to survive such conditions, and once the wildness is bred out of a bird, it’s tough to get it back.

The Fish and Wildlife Service bought Buenos Aires Ranch in 1985 to create a refuge and help restore the species. The breeding operation was transferred to the refuge about a decade later.

Over the years, biologists have tried a number of strategies. Pairing chicks with a parent, so that they bond as a family unit. Harassment by trained hawks or dogs. Less human contact. Hard releases, in which birds are simply turned out into the wild. Soft releases, in which they are kept protected in a cage, which is opened after about a week and the birds can leave.

About 22,000 masked bobwhites have been released in the refuge over the years. At one point, the U.S. population was estimated to be about 500 birds in the wild, but Gall said that probably was too high. Today, biologists don’t even want to guess how many are out there. Perhaps none.

“Each year it seems like there’s a sighting,” Gall said, “or someone’s heard them, but there’s just not a lot of numbers.”

More recently, the refuge has decided to send birds to a breeding facility at Africam Safari, a wildlife zoo near Puebla, Mexico.

Researchers have assumed that cattle were to blame for the masked bobwhite’s demise. Gall is quick to note that overgrazing, not the mere presence of cattle, is the problem.

“The bobwhite continued in Mexico for many, many years with grazing,” she said.

When the Buenos Aires refuge was established, cattle were removed and local ranchers howled in protest. Critics said the refuge has been a waste of good grazing land and tax dollars.

“It was the center of a very polarized and contentious debate. And you had to be sort of for it or against it,” said Nathan F. Sayre, author of “Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest.”

“It was one of the best ranches in Arizona,” said Jim Chilton, whose ranch shares 17 miles of fence with the refuge. “It was a wonderful, beautiful productive ranch. It produced more than a million dollars of revenue a year.”

A century of ranching brought changes to the region, such as more mesquite trees, which make good perches for hawks and owls.

But one researcher, Stephen Russell of the University of Arizona, pointed out that the refuge is on the northern edge of the bobwhite’s range and thought the habitat might be too changed to support the birds. Fire suppression may have altered the landscape as well.

“The rest of the environmentalist community didn’t want to hear it,” Sayre said. They thought that removing cattle from the range would be enough to restore habitat.

Babb pointed out that much of the refuge is just above 3,500 feet in elevation. Masked bobwhites thrive in elevations lower than that.

Refuge managers thought they would be able to restore the quail and move on to other things, Sayre said, but “the masked bobwhite turned out to be really hard.”

As ranching expanded in Mexico, the number of birds there declined, but researchers believe the bird’s chances are better there.

“There’s actually quite a bit of habitat in Mexico, but the birds appear to be gone from it,” Babb said.

He and three other researchers flew over locations where the birds had been found in the past, noted the best habitat and marked it with a GPS. Then they visited these places on the ground and, with the help of a couple of bird dogs, looked for quail.

The fact that they found none doesn’t mean there are none left, he said. But there probably aren’t many, which means that the refuge has an elevated role in the birds’ future.

“I’m a perennial optimist,” Babb said. “It’s a big fault of mine. I’m one of those people that hates to think we would lose anything.”

Over the years, criticism has mellowed and the refuge has become part of the community, said Richard Conway of Arivaca, a community on the east edge of the refuge.

“The refuge has worked really hard with the ranchers,” said Conway, a past president of Friends of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

Conway called Witman “the woman who keeps those birds alive.”

The refuge’s annual budget of $1.8 million covers salaries, visitor services, law enforcement, maintenance, biology, vehicles, the masked bobwhites’ captive-rearing facility, pens, hatchers, incubators, food and other items.

Since the refuge was established, other threatened or endangered species have come under its care, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher, Pima pineapple cactus, Chiricahua leopard frog, jaguar, lesser long-nosed bat and Kearney’s blue star, which is an herb.

The bobwhite remains the focus, for now.

For all anyone knows, the only ones in existence live in cages.

“What’s the cutoff?” Gall said. “If there isn’t success, how long do you go?”

“Those may be the last masked bobwhites anywhere,” Babb said. “What do we do? Do we give up? I’d like to think not.”

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