Buffers aiding quail habitats

Springfield — At about the same time a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the bobwhite quail population is declining significantly, word from a national quail group raved that new practices are actually increasing the populations.

Both entities are actually correct.

Confused? Well, it’s a matter of perspective.

The USFWS survey used the annual Breeding Bird Survey, combined with data gathered through the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, to determine that quail and another of other popular birds have experienced steep declines in recent years. Described as the “first ever comprehensive report on bird populations in the United States,” the data shows that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are “endangered, threatened or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats.”

On the bright side, the report pointed to the work of conservation groups that have worked to restore habitat, in effect reversing previous declines in many species of waterfowl. Basically, the waterfowl examples are meant to offer hope that it is not too late to take action to save declining populations of quail.

Meanwhile, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative recently came out with a report indicating that certain USDA programs have helped bobwhite populations. The study concluded that Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds, referred to as Conservation Practice 33 (CP33), added an average of 1.52 bobwhites to the fall population for every acre of native grassland in buffers.

“This study clearly demonstrates that substantial, measurable wildlife benefits can be achieved through strategically implemented conservation practices on working agricultural lands where much of the potential quail habitat exists,” NBCI Director Don McKenzie said in a press release announcing the study. “Furthermore, it shows how a relatively small change in primary land use – 5 percent — at little or no cost to landowners can have a disproportionately positive impact on bobwhite populations in some regions.”

The USDA Farm Service Agency implemented the Habitat for Upland Birds practice as part of their Continuous Conservation Reserve Program in 2004, initially allocating 250,000 acres in 35 states for 10 years of active management. Essentially, CP33 offers landowners incentives for establishing 30 to 120-foot-wide buffers of diverse native grasses and forbs along the edges of crop fields to provide habitat for bobwhites and other grassland birds.

CP33 was the first USDA conservation reserve practice designed specifically to help meet recovery objectives of a large-scale conservation initiative, as well as the first and only USDA practice for which USDA requires monitoring to actually measure conservation impacts.

State fish and wildlife agencies, private conservation organizations and universities in 14 states collaborated with Dr. Wes Burger at Mississippi State University to monitor differences in bobwhite and upland songbird densities and buffer vegetation characteristics on nearly 600 buffered fields and an equal number of “non-buffered” fields from 2006-11. Researchers observed 50-110 percent greater fall bobwhite covey densities on CP33 fields across all states.

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