Only time will tell if this winter marks the beginning of a turnaround for quail in Texas, or if this is just another disappointing false start.
The first test for some hunters will come as early as Saturday when the statewide season opens.
Better, if not great, conditions are cause for quail hunter optimism, but it better be tempered. Summer rains left some portions of the state stretching from South Texas into the Cross Timbers greener than they have been in years, but on the next ranch east or west there is little doubt that drought continues its hold on Texas and the state’s wildlife.
Some of the more enthusiastic landowners are hoping for a better-than-average year. The more realistic ones are calling for quail numbers to be just slightly better than a year ago. In some cases, possibly worse.
This year’s Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s roadside count wasn’t exactly a declaration of good times ahead. Poor carryover of mature birds for several years has left very little brood stock. In many cases it was left up to grandmother birds to produce young again this summer. Bad range conditions in the spring in most of the major quail regions did not help.
The result was dismal counts in the major quail regions around the state, most below last year and certainly way off the long-term average. The Rolling Plains count dipped from 3.5 in 2012 to 2.9 and is only about 15 percent of the LTA. South Texas dropped from 7.9 to 6 and is about a third of its long-term average. Only the Trans Pecos region of the major quail areas saw a bump, up from 6.3 to 8.4, but is still only half of the long-term average count.
However, biologists, landowners and hunters say the state’s counts may not project an accurate picture for everywhere, especially in light of the summer rains that dropped more than six inches of rain in some cases.
“I don’t think the quail survey is fine scale enough to pick up what appears to be significant gains in some counties or portions of certain counties,” said Robert Perez, TPWD’s quail program leader. “There have certainly been numerous reports of good reproductive efforts with multiple age classes in both South Texas and the Rolling Plains.”
Even on ranches where numbers are improved, biologists recommend moderation when it comes to hunting. Quail guru Dale Rollins of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch has said hunters shouldn’t be afraid to run their dogs and take a few birds, but he added limits shouldn’t be the determining factor of a good hunt.
Knowing some ranches have improved quail numbers, but are still a long way from boom conditions, he suggests limiting hunts to two hens per bag. He said hunters can shoot males, but it is a difficult game that includes concentration and being a good shot.
On those ranches where numbers are improved this year, it should be looked at more as the first wrung on the tall ladder of recovery. A complete turnaround could take three years, and that is dependent on the weather.
“If we continue to have a moist winter, this could very well be the beginning of recovery in these areas. Of course another wide window of nesting opportunities this coming spring-summer is what is really needed to make significant gains,” Perez said. He added that bobwhites are more likely to recover faster than scaled quail in the state.
Outside of the recent decline caused by extended drought conditions, Texas quail have been in decline for 20 years. Only three times since 1994 have quail numbers in the Rolling Plains approached the long-term average. In South Texas, where in good years quail could reproduce almost year-round, counts have been below the long-term average nine of the last 10 years and 15 out of the last 20.
There are numerous efforts underway to find a cause. Researchers from Texas Tech, Texas A&M, the University of North Texas and the privately funded Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch are studying the problem.
Probable causes have included the lack of rain, changing habitat, aflatoxin in corn put out for deer and eaten by quail and an increase in parasites caused by stress conditions.
Earlier this year the Texas Legislature approved the spending of $6 million in the coming two years for research and habitat enhancement. Some of that funding comes from the state’s Upland Game Bird stamp.
Quail season remains open through Feb. 23. Under better conditions the daily bag limit is 15, but with bird numbers down the reality is hunters tend to bring in much fewer.
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