Aug. 23, 2012 - The once common bobwhite quail has traditionally had a hard time with agriculture. Beginning early in the 20th Century, populations have been displaced or destroyed as vast swaths of land were plowed or grazed in response to cotton or beef prices. The heat wave and drought of last year dealt another setback to a popular game bird that continues to see its numbers decline.
Cattle didn't do too well in the state last year either as numbers dropped to their lowest point since 1952. The question on some people's minds is whether or not cows and quail are compatible; can land be manage for both or does a choice have to be made? The topic has been covered at work shops, field days and seminars across the state, most recently on the Circle Ranch near Van Horn where drought is a more or less the norm.
Dale Rollins, a wildlife specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, spoke to the crowd at Van Horn and previous to that at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association summer meeting. Taking a quote from Aldo Leopold as his starting point, his message to both groups was that habitat can be restored by creatively using the same tools that destroyed it in the first place -- the axe, plow, cow, fire and gun.
"Many tools are double-edged," he said. "Whether they're used to wield destruction or benefits is a lesson any student of wildlife should ponder."
At the seminar in Van Horn, Rollins joined with retired NRCS biologist Steve Nelle, Circle Ranch owner Chris Gill and others for a workshop sponsored by Holistic Management International called "Cows and Quail."
Peggy Cole, project manager for HMI in Texas, said the theme was chosen because of the iconic nature of both species. "One is an iconic symbol for livestock and the other is an iconic symbol for wildlife," she said. "As land managers, we can influence all of these species."
Rollins sees managing land for both species as another on the list of things that are easier said than done. He said conservative management is called for especially in a desert environment like Van Horn. "First, do no harm," he said. "In the desert it's easy to mess up, and mistakes are hard to correct."
Diversity, he said, is the key for both livestock and wildlife. Diversity is more important than grass production for those managing land for livestock and wildlife simultaneously, but it's important to keep grass when it does grow. Evaluating the needs of cows and quail requires looking at the situation from "under the brim of a camouflage cowboy hat" to determine if the grass is fodder, fuel, mulch or nesting habitat.
"Grass produced one year may be the only nest cover or fawning cover available for the next year and maybe the year after that," he said. "If you're interested in wildlife, you will not be able to maximize livestock production without sacrificing at least some wildlife potential."
In other words, the two can co-exist, but you won't get the maximum potential for either if you manage for both instead of focusing on one or the other. He said the most succinct summarization of the conflict was expressed by a South Texas quail hunting outfitter who said, "When they take your lease check and buy round bales, you know you're in trouble."
In Van Horn, Rollins spoke to a group of 40 or so people who are at least as interested in quail and wildlife as they are in cattle. That wasn't necessarily the case at the TSCRA meeting, he said. He said some ranchers hoped he would try to dissuade landowners from deferring grazing leases to enhance their wildlife. He said the situation changes from year to year and from region to region.
"The case for grazing as a tool for managing habitat was strong in 2010 but weak in 2011," Rollins said. "Drought accentuates the pinch points between grazing and wildlife. Even within a year, the argument is stronger for some species and locales than others.
"For example, grazing is more amenable for 'richer' environments, which in this context means more forgiving. The role of grazing to enhance quail habitat is more critical in Victoria than in Van Horn as you go from a 45-inch rainfall zone to a 14-inch zone. Deep soils and sandy soils are more forgiving than shallow rocky sites."
Lower stocking rates and better range conditions are recommended for arid or less productive sites, Rollins said. Some species require more cover than others, and the savvy landowner will know those species and "sculpt" his brush to leave tall bunch grasses for nesting, forbs for food and brushy cover for protection from raptors.
Rollins said he also recommends "uderstocking" with fewer animals than conventional wisdom dictates. "If the NRCS recommended stocking rate is 40 acres per animal unit, you might want to understock to the level of an animal per 60 acres. Such conservative stocking rates offer higher gains per head with less risk than heavier stocking rates," he said.
Cole said the workshop at Circle Ranch was well received and that HMI is planning at least a couple more "Cows and Quail" programs in other parts of the state and in other states. Funds have been made available to HMI and to the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative for such educational programs.
"We're looking for ranches that are managed holistically to hold the programs," she said. "There is a lot of interest in this because some people have seen quail disappear in their part of the state. We can help by planning for and managing for a diversity of plants and animals."
For more information visit the Rolling Plains Quail Research Center website at quailresearch.org; the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute website at ckwri.tamuk.edu; and the HMI website at holisticmanagement.org.