Monarch push likely benefits Illinois’ quail

Springfield —  Quail hunting participation in Illinois dropped by a third last season and total harvest slid by nearly half, but there’s an unfamiliar flutter of hope for upland bird hunters and managers across the state.

That flutter is being created by a butterfly.

Indeed, all the attention being paid to monarch butterflies – DNR conducted a monarch survey and hosted a butterfly summit this summer – could eventually help quail and pheasants and, to a lesser extent, even rabbits.

Stan McTaggart, DNR’s upland wildlife program manager, pointed to the monarch initiative while talking about the annual status report on Illinois’ upland game.

“What’s good for monarchs is good for upland birds,” McTaggart said, noting that plans to improve monarch habitat include not only milkweed but also pollinator plants. “There aren’t many bright spots when it comes to upland game in Illinois, but this is one.”

As for that upland status report, it contained more of the same. DNR estimated that 7,665 hunters harvested 29,674 quail in the 2015-16 season – 32 and 46 percent decreases, respectively. Quail hunters averaged 0.52 quail per day, a 38 percent decrease.

In the 2016 status report, McTaggart notes that from the 1950s through the 1970s more than 150,000 hunters harvested over 2 million quail per year in Illinois.

“Due primarily to changes in land use and farming practices, this game bird that had been such an abundant by-product of the agricultural landscape in the early part of the 20th century began a dramatic decline in the mid 1970s,” he explained.

By 1990, there were 84,000 hunters harvesting 937,000 birds. When the year 2000 rolled around, there were only 40,500 quail hunters harvesting 271,500 birds. The number have continued to decline.

The monarch initiative offers hope, McTaggart pointed out, as does the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill and the potential for many farmers to return some land to CRP. New precision agriculture methods that identify pieces of cropland that are not profitable also could help increase CRP acreage.

Upland season outlook

What should hunters expect from the 2016-17 quail, pheasant and rabbit seasons, which opened statewide on Nov. 5?

DNR’s quail and pheasant counts had mixed results. The counts, which feature biologists on routes two times annually during the spring and summer, are a good indicator of the bird populations. The first run is completed during the peak breeding window for pheasants (May 10 to June 10) and the second run is completed during the peak of quail breeding (June 10 to July 10).

This year, observers recorded an average of 0.48 quail per stop during the surveys (a 13 percent decrease from 2015). Quail were recorded at 24 percent of stops, down 6 percent.

As always, the key to a successful 2016-17 quail season is finding high-quality habitat, McTaggart added.

Finding birds will be tough.

“With a lower harvest in 2015-16 and fewer birds observed on the annual surveys, it appears that quail populations have declined yet again,” he said. “The most productive quail regions in the state this year seem to be central and west-central Illinois. Quail numbers in southern Illinois are struggling after several years of above-average rains and late winter storms that brought ice and snow cover.”

It seems redundant, McTaggart admitted, but “Establishing quality quail habitat or managing existing habitat is more important than ever for the future of quail and quail hunting,” he said.

Pheasants

Last season, an estimated 13,835 hunters (11 percent decrease) harvested 24,765 pheasants (40 percent decrease). Hunters averaged 0.55 pheasants per day, an 8 percent decrease.

During the 2016 road counts, DNR observers recorded an average of 0.38 pheasants per stop on the 70 survey routes (3 percent increase). Pheasants were recorded at 21 percent of the stops on the routes (15 percent increase).

So the number of pheasants counted and the number of stops where pheasants were seen or heard in 2016 were higher than the numbers from 2015.

“Despite the heavy rains, a pheasant study being conducted in east-central Illinois highlights the importance of having high-quality habitat to encourage recruitment into the pheasant population,” McTaggart said. “Nesting effort, nest success and brood survival on some of the state-owned Pheasant Habitat Areas and other, high-quality private grasslands was still good.”

Rabbits

An estimated 23,586 hunters (down 32 percent) harvested 113,399 rabbits (down 16 percent). Rabbit hunters averaged 0.87 rabbits per trip (up 10 percent) in the 2015-16 hunting season.

The road-kill index, which is calculated by tracking the number of road-killed rabbits counted in June and July per thousand miles traveled by observers, was up a bit.

This year’s road-kill index was 4 percent higher than 2015 with 1.66 rabbits per 1,000 miles traveled.

“Statewide trends show that rabbit numbers are roughly the same as last year’s levels, so in areas with good habitat, hunters should find good numbers of rabbits,” McTaggart said. “Even though the data show a lower harvest last season, several biologists and hunters in different parts of the state have mentioned that rabbit numbers appeared to be higher than previous years in localized areas. It is also noteworthy that the number of rabbits per day was up slightly for hunters last season, and the number of hunters was down.”

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