Scott County First in Nation To Meet Quail Habitat Goals
JEFFERSON CITY-Scott County, Mo., seems an unlikely place to lead the nation in bobwhite quail restoration. Perched on the northern edge of the Mississippi Embayment, the county is a panorama of 160-acre center-pivot irrigation plots. Yet this area of intensive agriculture recently received a national award for quail conservation.
At an April 9 ceremony in Jefferson City, Quail Unlimited presented its National Group Achievement Award to Scott County’s farm and conservation community at the Missouri Quail and Grassland Bird Leadership Council Meeting. The council is a group of concerned citizens and conservation leaders who have played a critical role in guiding the Missouri Department of Conservation’s effort to restore quail and grassland bird habitat on private and public lands.
The achievement in Scott County seem almost miraculous to those familiar with both Missouri’s Bootheel region and bobwhite quail’s habitat needs. One conservationist says the feat resulted from a fortuitous convergence of conservation programs.
Larry Heggemann, a private land conservationist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), came on the scene just as Scott County’s quail restoration efforts were getting in full swing. In 2002, 22 southeastern states developed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), a multi-state effort to restore quail through the development of quail habitat. NBCI contains habitat and quail population goals for the United States. A team of Missouri conservation partners then took the information in the NBCI and developed county-by-county habitat goals. Scott County was the first county in the nation to reach those habitat and quail population goals. Several other Missouri Counties are not far behind. The leadership council has fully supported these efforts.
“It was kind of like the perfect storm,” Heggeman recalls. “We had CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program) available. The Conservation Department had a pilot program going on down here and then CSP (Conservation Security Program) came in with a pilot program, too. All three were focused on getting more quail habitat on the ground. They paid good incentives, which encouraged landowners who have poor, sandy ground to put their land into those programs.”
Patrick Hulshof was one of those landowners. Hulshof, 33, went into farming with his father six years ago. He had a degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri and was eager to try innovative farming practices in central Scott County, north of Sikeston.
Patrick was intrigued when local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services workers offered him a way to improve his bottom line. They helped him get cost-share payments through the Special Area Land Treatment (SALT) Program, sponsored by the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District to upgrade irrigation equipment and improve the efficiency of fertilizer application. Later he enrolled more acreage in the USDA’s Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), which paid a share of costs to plant soil cover crops.
Then, in 2005, the Conservation Security Program became available in Scott County. This program gave farmers financial incentives and technical assistance for planting cover strips around crop fields to stop soil erosion, improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat. With conservation management plans already in place and a history of partnership with state and federal agencies, Hulshof was perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity, too.
In all, Hulshof has approximately 450 acres of switchgrass, unharvested grains and food plots under conservation incentive programs. Most of that acreage is in the corners of center-pivot irrigation fields, where 20 to 24 acres are not reached by irrigation water.
“We tried to farm it, but it just doesn’t work out,” Hulshof said. “We would need a really good year to compete with what was inside the circles. Some years we would do good and the next one we wouldn’t. Having it in CSP is kind of a guarantee.”
Along with guaranteed profitability, the Hulshofs got something that had been missing from their farm for a long time, good quail habitat.
Hulshof views his partnerships with soil- and wildlife-conservation agencies as a way to do things he likes but otherwise couldn’t afford.
“It allowed us to expand things we always wanted to do but never had the money to do, like leaving strips of grain unharvested for wildlife. We always had to feed our families first, so we harvested everything we had. When CSP came along, it gave us an incentive to leave some out there. That’s when the quail really took off.
“Three or four years ago there were no quail. You never saw one. You didn’t even look for them. Nobody around here had bird dogs. It was a non-issue. Now the quail have gone from zero to where they are just everywhere. If you’ve got a couple of good dogs and three or four hunters, you can get your limit on a half-day hunt.
Hulshof says he is not the only person who has noticed the upsurge in quail numbers.
“I suddenly realize I have a lot more relatives and friends than I used to have. Everybody is always stopping by to hunt. I am not a big hunter. I got my hunting license last year for probably the first time in five years. I don’t know a lot about quail and what they do and why they do it, I just know I like seeing them out there.”
Bill White, private land programs supervisor for the MDC, says the USDA staff in Scott County worked hard at finding landowners who could benefit from CSP and CP33, a facet of CRP that encourages landowners to set aside field edges for wildlife. Their efforts led to one of the largest CP33 enrollments in Missouri. He said post-enrollment surveys have documented a five-fold increase in quail coveys on the CP33 sites in Southeast Missouri.
“Hunter surveys report an average of over one covey of quail found per hour of hunting during the 2007 season,” said White. “That is the best bobwhite hunting by some accounts in over 20 years. Even in the heyday of quail hunting in the 1940s through the 1960s, hunter surveys report about five coveys in eight hours of hunting.”
The appeal of the bobwhite quail extends beyond the local area and beyond the farming and hunting communities. Missy Marshall, director of the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce, says her office gets calls from people coming into the area to hunt and fish, and she has noticed an increase in inquiries by hunters and hunting groups.
“The fact that we now have increased quail and turkey populations is drawing hunters at different times of year than we are used to seeing,” said Marshall. “We always have been known for dove hunting, but just in the last couple of years we are getting known for something else, which is great.”
Marshall measures the increase in quail numbers by the number of people she sees wearing hunting attire.
“They are easy to pick out at a gas station or a restaurant,” says Marshall. “For a chamber of commerce director, that’s great. When I see them out and about, I think ‘revenue.’ Any community would be happy to have that kind of economic impact, especially right now. We hope that quail population just multiplies like crazy.”
Hulshof says he thinks a majority of Scott County farmers are involved in some kind of state or federal conservation program. Local USDA and MDC professionals make it easy by providing planning and support for wildlife practices.
“All I’ve done is execute a plan they laid out. They did the maps; they do ll the paperwork. If I go to them and tell them what I want, they will come back to me in a couple of weeks and say, ‘Here’s what you do. You plant your seed here and you need to do this and you need to do that.’”
Hulshof is convinced that Missouri is in for a major quail renaissance, as more farmers discover for themselves what a difference federal farm bill programs and incentive offered by the MDC can make for wildlife and their bottom lines.
For more information about wildlife conservation cost-share programs, contact the nearest USDA or MDC office. More information about Missouri’s effort to restore northern bobwhite quail is available at www.qu.org/seqsg/nbci/nbci.cfm.