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Southeast Quail Study Group honors wildlife biologist

Stewart
Stan Stewart of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division received special recognition from the Southeast Quail Study Group. Stewart's book, Ecology and Management of the Bobwhite Quail in Alabama, is available for download at www.outdooralabama.com.
From the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

-- As far as tasks at hand, Stan Stewart has a steep hill to climb. The wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division is in charge of the bobwhite quail habitat and restoration projects with the goal of stemming the precipitous slide in the native quail population.

 Despite the difficult chore, Stewart’s work in the field has resulted in prestigious recognition from his peers with the 2009 Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG) Annual Award.

 The SEQSG steering committee presents an award to someone who has been nominated by a fellow member for outstanding contributions to bobwhite restoration.

“I was really surprised for them to give me that recognition,” Stewart said. “There is a lot of outstanding work in that organization, and for them to give me that award is flattering.”

 The quail study group was formed in1995 with the core Southeastern states, primarily with the state agency people and university people doing research. It’s grown to the point that it’s being attended by agencies in states that have quail populations outside the Southeast, as well as federal agencies (U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service) that do habitat work with landowners. Stewart also said the group has attracted more and more university people who are working on all types of grassland bird restoration, not just quail.

 In 2002, a technical committee of the Southeast Quail Study Group created a restoration plan for bobwhites termed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

“That got a lot of national recognition and had a lot of influence on federal programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and various quail-friendly practices being introduced into those programs,” Stewart said. “It’s been expanded to include representatives from all the states where bobwhites are found.”

 Believe it or not, there are even bobwhite quail in Idaho.

 “The bobwhites were introduced into Idaho about 100 years ago,” Stewart said. “In the valleys with farming where it doesn’t get too cold, quail have survived in huntable populations.”

 Stewart, who holds a masters degree in wildlife from Auburn, began his career with ADCNR in 1981 as area wildlife biologist on Covington Wildlife Management Area (now Geneva State Forest). He moved to Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries headquarters in Montgomery in 1990 and became heavily involved in bobwhite quail habitat and restoration work. In 1995 he was appointed to the SEQSG.

 Although there were significant numbers of bobwhites in the Southeast through the early ‘70s, Stewart said the peak quail populations in Alabama would have been around 1900.

 “That was the peak of the patch farming era,” he said. “Quail numbers held up pretty well across the state until the 1940s. That’s when society industrialized and farming industrialized. Since then quail numbers have been going down every decade. Most of the southeastern states had huntable populations until the mid 80s, but the numbers were really going down.”

 Stewart said that in Alabama in 1970 hunters were still taking in excess of two million quail with about 100,000 hunters. By the early to mid ‘80s it was less than half of both harvest and hunter numbers.

 The latest survey from the 2006-2007 season shows 13,000 hunters and a harvest of 260,000 birds. However, pen-raised quail make up an unknown percentage of the harvest.

“For most of the people who are hunting a typical landscape for wild quail they feel like they’ve accomplished something if they find even one covey,” said Stewart, who published Ecology and Management of the Bobwhite Quail in Alabama in 2005 to serve as a guide for landowners interested in restoring quail populations on their property. The publication, which is available for download (www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/Quail.cfm), provides information on quail taxonomy, distribution, history and status, habitat requirements, habitat management, predation and predator management and hunting.

There have been numerous theories about the cause of the quail decline, including fire ants and a lack of predator control.

Stewart said those may be contributing factors, but the main reason is a shift in land-use patterns.

“Those land-use changes have led to extremely poor quail habitat, nesting habitat,” he said. “Eighty percent of the quail are dying every year. If you don’t have good reproduction, the numbers will go down dramatically. There’s just not enough nesting habitat to produce a lot of birds.

“A lot of Alabama landscape that used to be farm land eventually reverted to forest. When it was initially abandoned for farming, for several years there was pretty good quail hunting. You had the cover – weeds, grasses and brushes – that quail use. When it returned to forest land, quail essentially disappeared. One of the things we do in our restoration programs is heavy thinning and timber harvest, as well as prescribed burning. If you do that in the right way you get nesting habitat back in place, birds start occupying the area and rebuild the population. For farm land, you’ve got to take some of that out of farming and put it back into quail habitat – nesting cover, brush patches. When you’re working with those landowners, you concentrate on field edges and corners and places like that.”

Stewart said about the only ideal quail habitat is on the managed plantations. Just about every land-use type you can name is no longer good for quail – timber, pasture, farm and developed areas.

“So if you’re going to have quail on some of those landscapes, you’ve got to work to restore suitable habitat,” he said. “And that’s the big problem. You don’t have a lot of people who want to do that. You’ve got some landowners who have a major interest in hunting quail. Some of them do a great job at it. As a general rule, that’s not what people want, so there’s not much quail habitat.”

However, Stewart said there is a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

 “With a variety of programs like the USDA farm programs there are more wildlife friendly and specifically quail-friendly programs that are available for landowners with farmland and timberland than there’s ever been,” he said. “Some states outside the Southeast are having more success than the core southeastern states. For example, there are some counties in Missouri that had goals in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to restore quail to 1980 levels. There are some counties in Missouri that have actually reached those goals, so there are some successes out there.

 “The private plantations in Alabama are doing a great job. Other than that, there isn’t much else in Alabama. It’s tough for people in any of the southeastern states who are working on quail restoration. To keep trying to turn that picture around is a major undertaking.”

Because quail restoration in the Southeast is such a difficult chore, the quail study group has expanded its scope for a more nationwide picture.

“In quail conservation, one of the things we’re currently in the process of revising in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is to take in more states and input a lot more data into the plan to further enhance and focus quail restoration on a national scale,” Stewart said. “Basically, it’s going to have to be a coordinated effort among a lot of the different players out there. It’s one thing to take a tract of land to get quail back on it, but it’s a whole different matter to achieve quail restoration across a portion of a state or across states. That’s the big task now – broadening that effort.” –David Ranier

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