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Giving with a glad heart…why we help another state restore their bobwhite population.

“Andrew and Mary Jo of the Pennsylvania Game Commission radioing a Ft. Barfoot Quail”

Photo by Brandon Martin

            After blogging for over 13 years now, I struggle at times thinking of a topic. But sometimes they come to me inspired by work we are doing. This edition is about our recent efforts to help another state restore their wild bobwhite quail population. I want to state up front; I am NOT the guru on the topic of quail translocation, and this article is not meant to be the end all on this subject. It is meant to give some background on how we got here and why. The comments we have received on this project have been overwhelmingly positive. But there have also been a few legitimate questions raised. Those I will try to answer. And while we in our profession pride ourselves on science…we are human, too. There are often very good emotional reasons for doing what we do.

            I do not recall the exact date, but at some point, a few years ago the Pennsylvania Game Commission declared that they believed wild bobwhite quail no longer existed in their state. Having worked on restoring and maintaining quail populations now for over 30 years, that notice struck a nerve in me. I wondered how I would feel if I ever had to make that declaration in Virginia. Fortunately, in substantial portions of Virginia, we still have good numbers of wild bobwhite quail. Several of my avid quail hunters (of which there are few) have had seasons recently that have been better than any in 30 years. And reports of a modest recovery of quail is occurring in a few areas. There are still many areas where they are not doing good in our state, but we are in no danger of having them extirpated throughout the state.

            In 2017 I was asked to come to Pennsylvania to look at Letterkenny Army Depot (LEAD). The area had been selected as Pennsylvania’s quail recovery focal area, or anchor property. I was encouraged that Pennsylvania had not given up on quail recovery. The area was a new setting for me, and I did not immediately know what to recommend. It took a bit of thinking, but I did provide them some recommendations (and made some new friends, too). The staff at LEAD knew they needed multiple opinions and an eventual consensus on whether the property was adequate for their purposes of establishing a source population from which their staff could help repopulate other areas in Pennsylvania (or maybe even help another state one day).

            A who’s who of quail managers and scientists eventually visited and offered evaluations of the LEAD habitat. Those included staff from: Tall Timbers Research Station and the University of Georgia (who have pioneered quail translocation), Iowa DNR, Kentucky DNR, the National Bobwhite and Grasslands Committee, Quail Forever, and more – I am sure I am missing a few (my apologies because this is done from my aging memory, and I have never tried to keep comprehensive notes on this). And of course, this was all led by the Pennsylvania Game Commission staff’s own experts.

            Time flew faster than a flushing quail covey and this past summer…six years after I first visited LEAD, Pennsylvania hosted the National Bobwhite and Grasslands Technical Committee meeting in Harrisburg. The highlight of the meeting was our field tour of LEAD…now transformed by several years of intense habitat management by their amazing staff. The amount of work done was staggering. The area was now a contiguous 3,000 acre early successional habitat playground for multiple species…minus bobwhite quail. Those states who had previously agreed to provide Pennsylvania wild bobwhite quail all agreed the area was more than suitable.

            Prior to that meeting, Virginia DWR staff had already begun working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission staff to plan our first trapping and translocation effort slated for winter of this year. Note that ours was one of three entities supplying quail, with the bulk coming from private properties managed by Tall Timbers Research Station further south. I will not ramble long here but want to say the staff from the Pennsylvania Game Commission led this effort and were superbly organized and a true pleasure to work with. As were our friends at Ft. Barfoot, Virginia, who had also agreed to help in this effort with full approval by their base commander. I am proud to say multiple entities in Virginia aided in the effort, none more important than the Ft. Barfoot staff, but all adding significantly to the success. On the ground personnel here in addition to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Ft. Barfoot staff included biologists from the Virginia DWR, the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech (our private lands biologists), and Quail Forever. And, even before this process began, a Ft. Barfoot avid quail hunter harvested quail for the disease testing required before translocation could begin. We appreciate the support of Ft. Barfoot’s quail hunters.

            While most of our feedback has been positive, we also received a legitimate question from one person who asked, “Why do we send our quail to Pennsylvania when we have plenty of places in Virginia that could use them?” Over the course of my career, I have seen how quail translocation protocol has evolved. It is based on sound science gathered from multiple efforts over the last decade. The first premise is that wild quail are precious and should not be sent willy nilly to every property who thinks they have a good place for them. Science shows that a minimum of 1,500 contiguous acres of good quail habitat is needed to sustain an isolated population (like the one at LEAD) through time, and more than that is even better. In Virginia, at least east of our Blue Ridge Mountains, I know of no properties of this size that are well managed for quail that do not have quail already. West of the Blue Ridge it is much more dire. We have never ruled out the translocation of wild quail in Virginia, but we have resisted calls to move them to smaller isolated properties where their success would not be guaranteed. As science and methods develop, it may someday be shown that smaller properties (800 acres, 500 acres? We do not know) might have merit. This kind of research is expensive and is being done by entities much better at it than us. In the meantime, our private lands wildlife biologists have made site visits to over 6,000 of Virginia’s properties to advise them on how to better manage their habitats for quail and to assist them in finding funds to do so. This is what we are good at and on significant portions of Virginia’s landscape it yields results in many cases.

            Back to our efforts for Pennsylvania, I was raised that when asked for help, if the cause was just and the request sincere, to do all I can to help. I also believe in “giving generously with a glad heart.” Another belief in our profession is like that in the field of medicine – “1st do no harm.” We weighed the pros and cons of helping in this effort and we could see no cons. The number of quail we hope to provide Pennsylvania will in no way adversely affect the population on Ft. Barfoot. But those few quail may contribute significantly to genetic diversity in Pennsylvania’s founding population. Beyond the quail recovery itself, the team building, and comradery developed between all involved will yield dividends for decades to come. Lasting relationships are often forged in the fire of adversity. It is not often in a biologist’s career that they are allowed the privilege of being a part of a species recovery in an entire state. And I for one feel blessed that our Virginia team is part of this one.

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.