Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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IL: State’s quail challenges will take team effort

Springfield – A little over a year into it, Illinois’ grasslands
wildlife biologist Mike Wefer is settling into his job.

But he’s got a mighty challenge ahead of him: The state’s upland
game species are in a tenuous condition.

“He’s done a good job so far,” said Dave Howell, a Quail Unlimited
regional director. “He’s really just getting going. He’s still
learning the ropes, but he’s on the right track.”

Howell knows acutely the problems that Wefer faces. Northern
bobwhite quail are in the worst shape among the state’s three major
upland species, including cottontail rabbit and ring-necked
pheasant.

“It’s a tough position to be in,” Howell said. “With quail in
decline for multiple years, to try to help things get turned around
with a limited, restrictive state budget is a huge
challenge.”

But it’s one that Wefer, married with four kids, was happy to take
on.

For one, it got him closer to his roots. Wefer grew up on a farm in
Fayette County.

And there is hope, Wefer said.

“I guess it depends,” Wefer said. “Are we ever going to go back to
the mid-1960s? I don’t see that happening.”

But Wefer said the right land management practices can bring back
quail.

“Where you have the right habitat, there’s plenty of birds,” he
said.

Importantly, research done at SIU has shown that the state’s
genetic pool of bobwhite quail has diversity, which is a good sign.
Oftentimes, when a species is on the verge of becoming endangered,
the gene pool gets small, and inbreeding occurs.

“Our quail are not inbred, and that’s heartening,” Wefer
said.

The biggest problem facing upland game species is the changing
landscape, Wefer said. The smaller, family-owned farms are
disappearing and being taken over by large corporations interested
in growing only a few cash crops.

Those smaller farms typically grew a variety of crops, and there
was a variety of habitat, which better suited upland species.

“The wildlife is not so much of a by-product of the landscape as it
was,” Howell said.

Wefer said that Illinois has added 2 million acres of corn in the
last 20 years.

“That had to come from somewhere,” he said. “A lot of that was loss
of hay, loss of small grains. A lot of that was ideal upland
habitat.”

There’s even less for upland species to eat, as many of these
fields are free of bugs and weeds because of advanced pesticides
and herbicides, Wefer said.

On top of that, the federal government’s farm bill initiatives,
such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which subsidize farms to
keep larger buffers, have done a poor job of managing those buffers
for upland species, which has made many of those acres unsuitable
after a few years. That’s a problem along the edges of agricultural
fields in the state, regardless of whether or not they are in
programs such as CRP.

Both are hopeful that the 2012 version of the Farm Bill won’t be
hacked to death by a Congress that’s wrestling with money and the
national debt ceiling. They’re hoping that there will be mechanisms
to ensure that CRP lands are managed with a combination of
prescribed burns, herbicide treatment and tilling, which brings
back the early succession habitat that upland species need.

Wefer said he has tried hard not to be overwhelmed by the problems
facing Illinois’ upland species, as the lead grasslands biologist
for the state.

Even as the numbers of hunters are in decline, their interests are
more organized than ever before, as conservation organizations such
as Pheasants Forever and Quail Unlimited have taken a role in
preserving the species.

“They’re huge,” Wefer said. “People are skeptical of government. I
can go up to a farmer and ask him to plant buffers, but they won’t
necessarily listen to me. But they might listen to a guy who’s a
member of whatever organization that they see in the coffee shop
every morning.”

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