Saving a Texas rite of passage, one ranch at a time

Posted Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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In Texas, quail equals money.

It’s “the sexy wildlife species,” as one rancher put it.

Hunters love to bag the small ground-dwelling birds. Ranchers are eager to attract them.

But the quail population has declined precipitously along with the grasslands that make up their native range — victims of lost habitat, overgrazing, drought and changing farm practices.

Alarmed, the Texas Legislature appropriated $4 million in 2013 for quail research by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and $2 million for studies of the bobwhite quail by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Kelly Reyna is already digging in.

Two years ago, Reyna, executive director of UNT Quail, a new research and landowner extension program, envisioned cobbling together enough landowners to form a 50,000-acre corridor where the prized but increasingly scarce game bird can thrive.

“I thought if I could just get three or four ranchers, it would be enough to take me through to retirement,” said Reyna, 41, a Flower Mound native who has raised $500,000 for the research program at the University of North Texas and hopes to attract $1.5 million more.

He figured it might take years to persuade enough ranchers to participate in a plan to reverse decades of habitat destruction.

But Reyna’s sales pitch was unique: Grazing cattle, squeezing a living out of a ranch and sustaining bobwhites were all part of the equation.

And his phone started ringing.

Plenty of landowners, as it turned out, were intrigued by the idea of a quail restoration effort that tapped the synergy among habitat, wildlife and livestock.

Reyna has signed up 47 landowners with 565,000 acres, or about 882 square miles. He’s in discussions with ranchers who own an additional 100,000 acres.

“It has been amazing. It has gotten really big, really fast,” he said.

Ultimately, Reyna envisions a sprawling North Texas Quail Corridor of 2.2 million acres, stretching from Archer County in West Texas up through Clay, Montague and Cooke counties along the Red River and down through seven counties, including a sliver of Tarrant, that form the western and southern boundaries of the Metroplex.

A viable population of 50,000 quail requires 200,000 to 500,000 acres of linked habitat, Reyna noted.

“That’s a big enough number of birds that they can survive a drought or other threats. That’s the point of the North Texas corridor. If we can connect these properties, we can build that,” he said.

At the same time, UNT Quail is researching how heat and drought affect the reproduction of the bobwhite quail as well as its embryonic health and juvenile survival.

The program is also investigating the role of disease, pests and parasites on fragmented populations.

Its researchers are trapping birds and reintroducing them to areas from which they had vanished, as well as monitoring the progress of pen-raised quail released in the wild.

Siren call of the outdoors

The corridor project’s rapid growth is rooted in economics, Reyna said.

“The one key is that most of these people have to make a living off the land with their cattle,” he said. “What previous researchers had done was advise them to pull their cattle, and they said that’s not conducive to this ranch life we are living.

“What I said was that there is a way for both of those things to happen. It’s about rotating your cattle and giving the land a rest and creating a healthy ecosystem with cattle still grazing there.

“And they are for that.”

The first landowners to join were Deborah Clark and Emry Birdwell, who own a 14,000-acre ranch in Clay County, near Wichita Falls.

“It has been amazing what Kelly has done with this plan,” Clark said. “It’s the song he’s singing, the fact that he’s marrying what the property owner wants with the outcome on his ranch with the wildlife.

“Quail sell themselves; they are the sexy wildlife species out there.”

Clark and her husband recently invited neighbors to a meeting with Reyna; members of the initiative now border three sides of their ranch.

All told, there are about 300,000 acres — about the size of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the state’s largest — committed to the Clay County Corridor, Reyna said.

Each ranch receives a habitat evaluation and recommendations, cost-share and tax information, annual monitoring of the quail population, field-day opportunities for students and an annual ranch report before the hunting season.

The enthusiasm has been gratifying for a guy who came to quail via a winding path.

Reyna spent six years in the Navy, including more than two working on a nuclear submarine. He came up for air, and education, at the University of Texas at Dallas before returning to another enclosure of sorts — spending six years as a software engineer in a windowless office.

“I’m not stuck in an office anymore,” he said, as his cellphone trilled with the bobwhite quail’s distinctive whistling call.

He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Tarleton State University, followed by a master’s in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M and, finally, a doctorate in biology-developmental physiology from North Texas.

“I get 20 calls a day,” he said last week while visiting another participant, the Bear Creek Ranch in Parker County.

The ranch is part of the Dixon Water Foundation, which manages four Texas ranches focused on education, outreach and research.

Even in the third year of a drought, the 2,000-acre ranch is covered in a thick blanket of native grasses, kept healthy by rotating cattle and sheep between pastures, foreman Danny Parker said.

“If it’s good cattle habitat, it’s good quail habitat. One thing helps the other. If you come in here and overgraze this thing down, you are not going to have any birds,” Parker said.

Clark and Birdwell bought their Clay County ranch in 2005 and have managed their herd of 3,000 cattle with wildlife in mind.

“We’ve been doing quail monitoring for a while,” Clark said. “We also do intensely managed grazing, where we move the cattle every day, sometimes multiple times a day.

“We’re listening to Kelly. Together with UNT Quail, I believe we’re learning about the impact of this type of grazing. We’re rotating frequently, but now we are doing it in an even more targeted way.”

It’s too soon to declare victory, but Clay County ranchers are detecting a “bobwhite, bobwhite” call of success, Clark said.

“We are all hearing more quail in the spring and even through the summer.”

A precipitous plunge

The quail population has dropped by an estimated 80 percent over the past 40 years, according to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a University of Tennessee-based consortium.

Also plunging is quail hunting in Texas, a cultural touchstone for generations and a once-potent economic engine in rural areas.

In 1960, more than 320,000 hunters bagged 98 million birds. Forty years later, fewer than 50,000 hunters remained, and the harvest was around a half-million, according to the Parks and Wildlife Department.

Quail are big business, and the loss has stung.

Quail hunters can spend more than $8,000 each annually, according to a study by Reyna and experts at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“If you can bring back the hunting heritage of bobwhite quail in Texas, you can win as governor,” Reyna said.

The dollar signs aren’t lost on pragmatic ranchers.

“Most of the guys that want to get them back, want them back for hunting. It’s just like deer hunting in the Hill Country; the ranchers make just as much off hunting as they do running cows,” said Parker, the Bear Creek Ranch foreman.

Sherman Wyman, an avid hunter who owns a 2,000-acre ranch in Clay County, is lucky to have a quail population, although it’s only a fraction of what once flitted around his land.

He and Reyna have introduced pen-raised quail wearing electronic collars to see how they integrate with wild birds.

“For the most part, the ranchers here have an appetite and interest in promoting the quail population back to the historical standard,” he said. “Kelly gets all the credit. He brought us all together.”

More research dollars

Quail season opened Saturday in Texas and runs through Feb. 23. The outlook, as usual in recent years, is below average.

But experts hope the research funding will reverse the trend.

“We’re putting $4 million on the ground in the next two years, and those funds are going to be for projects like the UNT corridor,” said Robert Perez, who leads the state’s upland (nonwater) game bird program. “Those are the boots on the ground for trying to get incentives for landowners to do things differently.”

Ranchers are asked to manage their grasslands to create the perfect quail habitat: thick clumps of bunch grass for nesting, a profusion of seeding plants for food, and stands of short brush to offer protection from predators and provide “loafing” areas.

The North Texas Quail Corridor is similar to three programs underway in Texas, including the Western Navarro Bobwhite Restoration Initiative between Hillsboro and Corsicana, Perez said.

A key part of Reyna’s UNT Quail research is its focus on measurement, Perez said.

Two graduate assistants and 16 undergraduate volunteers conduct surveys in the spring and fall at each property.

“They are listening to birds to establish a base line. That is missing from a lot of programs. We need to be able to measure it and collect data,” Perez said

“That’s key because you’ll have something years down the road to say how it worked, where it worked and where it didn’t work, and you learn from that.

“The birds tell you where you have been successful.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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