OK: Wildlife Commissioners discuss Oklahoma quail research

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation continues to
stay at the forefront of upland game bird research efforts intended
to benefit important species like the bobwhite quail and lesser
prairie chicken.

At its Nov. 7 meeting, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation
Commission heard a presentation from Alan Peoples, chief of
wildlife for the Wildlife Department, regarding ongoing upland game
bird research efforts in the state. After record heat and drought,
the Wildlife Department’s October roadside quail survey index
decreased 37 percent from 2010, which was already down from the
21-year average. Facing a gradual downward range-wide decline in
quail populations, biologists have been working on research
initiatives to learn more about what factors affect quail
mortality.

As part of the initiative, the Wildlife Department is working with
the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, Texas A&M, Texas
A&M-Kingsville and Texas Tech universities on a project called
Operation Idiopathic Decline. Wildlife Department biologists are
trapping quail and sending biological samples to Texas Tech
University where researchers are investigating the potential impact
of disease, parasitism, pesticides, toxins and contaminants on
quail. Additionally, the Wildlife Department is starting an upland
game bird initiative on Oklahoma’s Packsaddle and Beaver River
wildlife management areas that will provide extensive information
that could lead to improvements in the quail population and quail
habitat management.

“We’re in the process of finalizing a contract with Oklahoma State
University to conduct bobwhite quail research over the course of
the next six years totaling several million dollars,” Peoples
said.

The Department also continues to closely monitor the lesser prairie
chicken in northwest Oklahoma. Collectively – between the Wildlife
Department, other state and federal agencies, conservation
organizations and business industries – over $40 million has been
spent on or committed to associated habitat management efforts that
benefit the lesser prairie chicken. Peoples said he believes the
efforts are proving successful, citing evidence from surveys
conducted by the Sutton Avian Research Center that indicate the
presence of more prairie chicken leks, or breeding areas, than in
previous surveys. Future efforts will include the use of surveys,
interstate working groups in partnership with other states, and
continued partnerships with the Sutton Avian Research Center and
OSU on future research efforts.

In other business, the Commission was updated on the status of the
Grand Lake paddlefish fishery. Coming up on its sixth year of
operation, the Paddlefish Research and Processing program stationed
near Twin Bridges State Park in northeast Oklahoma helps collect
important data to assist biologists in managing the unique fish
population.

Paddlefish are large, native fish that eat tiny plankton and are
caught by snagging. Every spring large numbers of paddlefish move
upstream out of lakes into rivers and tributaries to spawn. It is
during this time that anglers have the most success catching them,
and the Department’s Paddlefish Research and Processing Center is
open for anglers to have their fish cleaned and processed for free
in exchange for biological data from the fish and, if female, any
eggs present. The Department directs funds derived from the sale of
the paddlefish eggs back into the resource through projects that
improve fishing access, educate anglers and help manage
paddlefish.

Dr. Dennis Scarnecchia, a paddlefish expert from the University of
Idaho who has been consulting with Wildlife Department biologists
on the state’s paddlefish program since 2004, delivered a
presentation to the Commission that explained the significance of
the research in sustaining the fishery.

Through angler support and participation, the popular paddlefish
program is providing the Wildlife Department with significant data
that otherwise would not have been possible to obtain.

“The key result of our work so far has been the identification of
the 1999 year class as the dominant one contributing to the fishery
each year,” Scarnecchia said.

Since male fish take six to seven years to mature to breeding age
and females closer to eight or nine years, the 1999 class must be
managed to support the fishery until the next significant age class
matures to breeding age and begins spawning.

In addition to lending insight into important age class
information, research has revealed data that led to fishing
regulation changes in 2010. The changes, which included the
implementation of catch-and-release days and restricting fishing in
certain spawning areas, were designed to effectively reduce the
total harvest and help sustain the world class fishing
opportunities provided by Oklahoma paddlefish.

Because of the Paddlefish Research and Processing Center, Wildlife
Department biologists know more than ever before about this unique
population of fish. Proper management will ensure sustained
populations of fish and excellent fishing for the future.

The Commission also heard a presentation from Barry Bolton, chief
of fisheries for the Wildlife Department, on how the summer’s heat
and drought have affected stream flows and fish in rivers across
the state. Two fish kills were confirmed in 2011 at the Lower
Illinois River, where water shortages and insufficient stream flow
are threatening the river’s year-round trout fishery. Bolton said
recent repairs to Tenkiller Dam have stopped a leak that had
previously been keeping the fishery supplied with ample water and
flow, and other water supplies from the lake that had previously
been available have depleted. Bolton said the only realistic
long-term solution is reallocation of water from Tenkiller
Lake.

Additionally, fish kills occurred along a 100-mile stretch of the
Red River extending to the west end of Texoma Lake, as well as at
Jack Fork Creek below Sardis Lake. Water scientists with the
Oklahoma Department of Environment Quality and Environmental
Protection Agency are still working to determine the exact cause of
the fish kill along the Red River, which occurred in July and
included significant numbers of large fish such as blue catfish,
smallmouth buffalo and largemouth buffalo.

At Jack Fork Creek, a mussel kill was confirmed after summer
temperatures and lack of water releases from Sardis Dam resulted in
flows of less than one cubic foot per second. While most fish were
able to swim downstream to safety, widespread mussel mortality
occurred. Among the species of mussels that were killed is the
state and federally endangered Ouachita rock pocketbook. Bolton
discussed solutions and resolutions to the issues and said the
Wildlife Department is working diligently to address water and
stream flow issues affecting the state’s wildlife.

Additionally, the Commission heard a presentation provided by Buck
Ray, environmental biologist for the Wildlife Department, and Damon
Springer, aquatic resource education coordinator for the Wildlife
Department, on how mitigation is administered in Oklahoma for
damages to natural resources. Natural Resource Damage Assessments,
or NRDAs, are created by federal legislation through the
Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act
with the goal of compensating the public for damages to natural
resources. One recent case in Oklahoma includes damages to a
12-acre site along the Canadian River as a result of motor fuel
refinement processes on the site. The site consists of mixed
wetlands and riparian zones, but because of it unique landlocked
location, mitigation funds will be used along the same watershed at
the Wildlife Department’s Arcadia Conservation Education Area.
Projects include various habitat enhancements like invasive
vegetation and tree control and wildlife and habitat educational
tools such as the development of a trail and curriculum for area
schools. The total mitigation, including various joint settlements
and funding, includes almost $309,000.

The Commission addressed several other agenda items at its November
meeting, including the following:

* A donation of $2,500 from the Indian Territory Quail Forever
Chapter was accepted for the Wildlife Department’s Shotgun Training
and Education Program (STEP). The donation was presented by Terry
Free, ITQF Chapter member, and will be used to purchase gun
security lockers for STEP trailers.

* Steve Tully, wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources
Conservation Service, was recognized by the Department and the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service for his outstanding contributions to
wetland conservation in Oklahoma. Recognitions were presented by
Alan Stacey, senior wetland development biologist for the
Department, and John Hendrix with the USFWS.

* The certified annual financial and audit report was presented by
auditing firm Finley and Cook, LLC. The Department has an
independent audit of the financial records and federal aid records
of the agency. The FY2011 audit found no findings, and the auditors
complimented the agency on its staff and internal controls.

* The actuarial firm, Buck Consultants, presented the FY2011
Actuarial Valuation Report for the Department’s retirement plan.
The funded ratio of the plan dropped from 81.5 percent last year to
78.1 percent this year. The decrease is mainly contributed to the
change that was made last year to decrease the investment rate of
return assumption from 7.5 percent to 7 percent.

* An update was provided on the legislative task force on
endangered species and economic development. The task force has met
three times and is currently focused on planning and organizing
initiatives for conserving the lesser prairie chicken.

* Tenure awards were presented to David Smith, game warden
stationed in Kiowa Co., for 25 years of service to the Department;
Tom Cartwright, District 4 lieutenant game warden stationed in
Hughes Co., for 25 years; Tracy Daniel, District 8 law enforcement
chief stationed in Kay Co., for 30 years; James Champeau, District
5 law enforcement chief stationed in Logan Co., for 30 years; Keith
Green, paddlefish program coordinator, for 30 years; and Robert
Fleenor, law enforcement chief, for 35 years.

The Wildlife Conservation Commission is the eight-member governing
board of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The
Wildlife Commission establishes state hunting and fishing
regulations, sets policy for the Wildlife Department and indirectly
oversees all state fish and wildlife conservation activities.
Commission members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by
the Senate.

The next scheduled Commission meeting is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 5, at
the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation headquarters
(auditorium), located at the southwest corner of 18th and North
Lincoln, Oklahoma City.

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