If You Restore It, They Will Come by Jonathan O’Dell
Published via Qauil Forever Magazine Fall 2014
I’ve often referred to scaled quail (or blues or cotton tops, depending on where you’re from) as the quail bridge between the bobwhite lands to the east and the top-knotted lands of the west. They fill the gap as the only arid grasslands quail from the rolling plains of Texas and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. But in recent history we’ve seen the reach of this bridge species on both sides of the Chihuahua Desert slowly slipping backwards.
An aerial view of the East McQuiggan area on year after restoration work. Note the increased grass component where scaled quail can nest and brood. Photo by John Barcorn.
On the western front in southeastern Arizona, the historic grasslands have been invaded by woody species such as whitethorn acacia and creosote. But the worst offender has been non-native invasive mesquite trees. In general, the mesquite reduces the amount of annual and perennial forbs and grass cover important to the life cycle of scaled quail. These trees also provide perches for raptors and hiding cover for quail predators. Couple this with drought conditions we’ve been experiencing and the cards appear stacked against the scalies. But this story doesn’t begin with quail. Actually it starts with pronghorn.
In 2008, local Conservation Officer John Bacorn grew concerned about the decline of pronghorn in his district. His concerns were shared by the regional habitat program and members of the Arizona Antelope Foundation. Together they rallied local, state, federal and non-governmental folks with an interest in restoring the once rich grasslands of southern Arizona. So in February the following year, they brought all of these people together to form the Southeast Arizona Grasslands Workgroup (or SEAGrass for short). While pronghorn were the focal species, they recognized a multi-species approach would result in a more resilient system and a better overall habitat. This is where the quail come in.
In February of 2011, I was promoted to the small game biologist position with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. My first charge was to connect with SEAGrass and figure out how to get scaled quail into the mix. It was a natural fit as many of the factors limiting pronghorn and a host of other species were also limiting scaled quail. This area had already been identified in the Western Quail Management Plan and aligned with its management objectives and recommendations. As easy as it sounds, the best I could offer was input and advice. Landscape-scale grassland restoration is not done by any one person. And at that time I was one of only a few thinking about quail. That was until January 2012.
Then, Quail Forever’s Western Regional Director Sam Lawry and Regional Representative Bob Hix and I helped start two new Quail Forever chapters. Brad Olson and Scott McClenahan volunteered to lead the Valley of the Sun Chapter and Jacob Young, David Brown, and Linda Pfister took the helm of the Southern Arizona Chapter. There was now a small army of quail enthusiasts bringing their voice to advocate for quail habitat work in Arizona.
The second hurdle in large scale grassland restoration is that it takes more than people; it takes money too. If you’ve ever been a part of a new and growing QF Chapter, then you know building funds takes time. Enter a responsive Arizona Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.
First, the AGFC embarked on a plan to provide a better and easier customer experience by simplifying its hunting and fishing license structure. In doing so, it created three special, dedicated fund accounts designed specifically to improve hunter recruitment and retention, land access and habitat. All worthy causes to be sure, but the habitat account was something we could use for grassland work. Score!
Second, Americans have been buying guns and ammunition in record numbers. All these items are taxed at 11% as part of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 ( or Pittman-Robertson Act, as it is sometimes called). State wildlife agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) are receiving record amounts to fund work for wildlife. As such, our leadership decided to spend some of this money to fund mule deer and what else? You guessed it. Scaled quail habitat work!
Mechanical grubbing of non-native mesquite trees reduces avain predator perches and increases forbs and grass cover essential to scaled quail. Photo by John Barcorn.
We call it the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Initiative. Working and partnering with the aforementioned groups, we will add over $600,000 to the grassland restoration efforts currently underway in Southeastern Arizona over the next three years. The major focus is in the northern portions of Sulphur Springs Valley. Most of this will entail the mechanical removal (grubbing) of mesquite trees and burning the carcasses on site.
There are many benefits to grubbing compared to other removal methods. First, grubbing allows us to selectively remove mesquite trees and leave more beneficial plants like yucca. Scaled quail in this area use yucca as hiding and nesting cover. Second, previous studies on chemical treatments have shown that there may be a 5-to 7-year lag time before treatments benefit scaled quail. Grubbing allows native grasses, forbs and shrubs to start regenerating as soon as the next rainfall. Third, burning the carcasses in place quickly returns much needed nutrients to the soil.
While we can’t control the desert rains, the forecast is looking a little better for scaled quail every day on this side of the bridge.