Photograph by The National Audubon Society
Today we caught up with Texas Parks and Wildlife's John McLaughlin, West Texas Quail Program Leader and stalwart of the Texas Small Game Program. Topics discussed include quail in Texas, public hunting opportunities and how private land owners can make a little cash money by participating in the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program, or GRIP.
It's early October on the South Texas Plains. We scrape along a fence line in knee high grass, hoping to jump mourning dove and do some pop shooting.. a tactic we often resort to when the birds aren't moving. Just last year we narrowly missed a Western Diamond back laid up along this very fence. It would have bit my cousin had a cold spell not blown through that morning. But today is hot. Our boots wearily part the tall grass, and as we approach the shade of a mesquite thicket, leaves and grass explode into such furious an exodus of feathers and wind that it’s almost as if a vacuum is created that sucks the heart out of your chest. Northern bobwhite quail. We almost always kick up a few coveys during the fall dove hunt. The tract we hunt provides great quail habitat, but the same cannot be said across much of the bobwhite's historical range.
A group of forward thinking individuals and organizations are banding together in an attempt to "bring back the bobwhite". This clever mantra coined by the NBCI is the face of their campaign to educate the public at large on GRIP.
It is in this light that I had the pleasure of chatting with John McLaughlin, a wildlife biologist with boots on the ground experience in some of the nation's most iconic ecosystems. Flat out, John knows his shit. Lucky for us Texans, we get to call him ours for awhile. And being that John is an expert on quail in Texas, I had a few questions to bounce off of him...
Matt(M): John, thank you so much for your time today. Can you take a second to talk about your career path and how long have you been working with TPWD, as well as your involvement in the GRIP program?
John(J): Of course. I am originally from New England where I grew up surrounded by northern hardwoods. I received by B.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of New Hampshire in 2009 after which I began my journey out west. I have been fortunate to work as a biologist for many state and federal agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, among others. Most of my career has been spent on upland game bird management, including work with the greater sage-grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and of course, quail. Eventually I decided to return to school where I earned an M.S. degree in Wildlife and Rangeland Science and Management from Texas Tech University in 2016. After a brief hiatus to work with big game species (e.g., elk, bears) in the Pacific Northwest, I returned to Texas to work with TPWD in my current position in the fall of 2017.
The GRIP program, originally started by the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture (a federally funded public-private partnership program), has existed since 2013. Since I have arrived here it has been my charge to help market the program and support local field staff. Above all, my role is to take the foundation that we have with GRIP in central Texas and move it out west.
M: I'm sorry to hear about Tech; I have family that called that place home for awhile. Joking aside, sounds like some really exciting work. Today are there multiple species of quail utilizing habitat within GRIP eligible counties? I am not sure what the range of scaled quail is, but it seems possible there could be remnant populations of these birds out towards Real and Edwards counties.
J: Yes, in our western focal counties (i.e., Val Verde, Edwards, Kinney) we have populations of scaled quail which overlap our work area. Notably, Edwards county is one few known refuges for Montezuma, or Mearns’ quail. One of our lesser known quail species, Montezuma quail have more distinct habitat requirements than bobs or scaled quail, preferring the higher elevations of mountainous terrain. Bobwhites have the most to gain through GRIP, but we are certainly interested in areas where scaled quail or Mearns’ quail could benefit from this program.
I think it is important to point out that the primary purpose of the GRIP program is to provide habitat for grassland birds from all walks (e.g., eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, painted bunting), including northern bobwhite. We don’t think of bobwhite as a distinctly grassland bird species, as they require some level of woody cover, but practices that benefit those other species are often beneficial for quail.
M: The geographic area GRIP covers is quite large; that map sort of makes you go holy s***, we’re talking the arid & rugged heart of the Texas hill country all the way to post oak savannah, rolling prairie and the south Texas plains. I think cactus laden brush country is sort of easy for people to imagine, but how are bobwhites utilizing these varying habitats?
J: One of the reasons folks are so amazed by quail is their ability to inhabit landscapes which look so vastly different. To your point, we find bobwhites in the remnant longleaf pine forests of East Texas, the grasslands of the Rolling Plains, and the prairies of the Gulf Coast. This variability in habitat is what we in the quail world refer to as “slack”, suggesting that while the core tenants of bobwhite habitat remain the same, there is a wide range of conditions within that framework that will support sustainable populations.
For quail, the availability of suitable herbaceous (nesting) and woody (escape, loafing, roosting) cover across space (over the landscape) and time (throughout the year) is paramount. The plant species which constitute these cover types change across the state but the structure, which is critical, remains the same. Quail might interact slightly differently with site specific vegetation, but they use the habitat in the same manner. The species of native, warm season bunchgrass used for nesting may change across regions but the size and structure, about the size of a basketball and knee/thigh high, remains consistent. The species of woody cover may change across regions but the structure and distance between that cover, dense at the base and ~150-200 feet, remains consistent. Again, “slack”.
M: Do people have ideas of what bobwhite populations were, pre European contact, in terms of numbers and geographic range? And what are we down to now?
J: We have no way of knowing the number of bobwhites in Texas pre-European contact, rather we can only speak in terms of trends across time and the contraction of their geographic range. Even today, we can only estimate population size. The Breeding Bird Survey, administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, suggests a 3.5% annual decline in bobwhite abundance nationwide and a 1.8% decline in Texas during 1966-2015; the rate of the decline has accelerated over the last decade. Texas Parks and Wildlife conducts roadside counts each August to look at quail population trends by ecoregion, allowing us to compare annual surveys with long-term means (Quail Forecast).
In Texas, we are on the western edge of the bobwhite’s range. Historically bobwhite occurred from East Texas to the eastern Trans-Pecos and north through the Panhandle. The western extent of their range is mostly likely limited by precipitation, the northern extent by cold weather. Today, bobs are extirpated from most of the Piney Woods, Post Oak Savannah, and Blackland Prairie regions. This decline is primarily the result of habitat loss (e.g., encroaching woody vegetation, dense canopy cover, invasive grasses), land conversion (i.e., intensive agriculture), and the expansion of urban areas.
M: You mentioned over 40 different conservation partners involved with GRIP. Any others, in addition to Quail Forever, that people have heard of or you care to mention?
J: Of course: American Bird Conservancy, National Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Texas, USDA – Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Texas Wildlife Association, to name a few.
M: How do you approach private landowners, and what is a typical response/working relationship like with these folks? I understand they are so important to the success of the project and, really, conservation in general.
J: Yes, incredibly important. As a state that is over 95% privately owned, working with private landowners is essential to fulfilling our mission. We rely heavily on our district staff, at the county level, to develop and foster those relationships. Sometimes we approach landowners who are strategically positioned within a focal area, or sometimes those landowners approach us for technical guidance on their properties. We primarily work with agricultural producers, recreational landowners, and other who simply want to improve the quality of their land for altruistic reasons.
Responses vary widely. Some folks welcome the expertise and want to partner with us as much possible. Others are resistant to change and view working with the state cautiously, which we can understand. There is an expression that goes, “we’re from the government and we’re here to help,” which I think elicits the gamut of emotions for folks. For us, it’s important not to act as the sole agency approaching landowners and providing input. We know wildlife and rangeland management but rely on folks like the National Grazing Lands Coalition to help us develop grazing plans, NRCS and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension to help assess rangeland quality, and universities to conduct wildlife/rangeland research to benefit landowners old and new. It is important for all parties be a conservation team; easier said than done. But working with landowners is above all about relationships, and without the patience to develop them, any relationship is tentative at best.
M: Generally speaking (or as technical as you want to get lol) what are some general land practices or techniques people can implement to turn their acreage into suitable quail habitat?
J: Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of modern day wildlife conservation, wrote in his momentous book Game Management (1933), “The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it – axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun…”, and went on to write, “Few biological arts (wildlife/habitat management) depend on as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as this one. It is still in the stage where each practitioner must create his own skill rather than absorb that of others.” Today, those two quotes hold just as true.
We use a combination of the axe, plow, cow, and fire to manipulate habitat. Axe would refer to brush management, which primarily consists of the removal of encroaching woody vegetation (e.g., mesquite, juniper trees, prickly pear, yaupon). This can be done by hand (e.g., chainsaw), with larger equipment (e.g., excavators), and/or in combination with herbicides. Removal/thinning of these species allows for herbaceous cover to take root.
Plow refers to native reseeding. As rangelands have become degraded and/or converted to “improved” grasses (introduced grasses for livestock), there is a need to reseed areas and restore ecosystem function.
Cow refers to managing what are referred to as stocking rates (# of cows/acre) and developing prescribed grazing plans, which simultaneously protects rangeland health and improves the quantity and quality of available forage.
Fire refers to the use of prescribed fire. Fires are a natural part of our ecosystems and despite the obvious horrors of recent western fires we so often see on the news, fires are beneficial and necessary for rangeland health. There is a great book by Dr. Fidel Hernández and Dr. Fred Guthery entitled, Beef, Brush, and Bobwhite: Quail Management in Cattle Country, which is an excellent resource for any landowner looking to implement the above practices to benefit quail populations. And true to the second quote, what works in one ecoregion may not work in another; management needs to be tailored to the site.
Finally, is the gun. Despite commercial hunting in our past, since Leopold’s time hunters have become some of our most staunch conservationists. Today, as you may well know, the sale of hunting and fishing licenses is the primary source of funding for many state wildlife agencies. Too much to go into here, but hunting is a cornerstone of modern day wildlife conservation. We market this message through GRIP.
Miles Cooper's (Insta: @southtexasmiles) Irish Setter, Sheldon, in full point on a covey in Texas' Wild Horse Desert
M: How synonymous is “suitable quail habitat” with just plain old healthy habitat for all kinds of native critters?
J: Very synonymous. We feel strongly that if we implement habitat restoration practices that benefit bobwhites we will also be affecting wildlife from all walks. Improving rangeland health benefits grassland birds, large herbivores, small mammals, and many other species. There is always give and take, but we feel the net benefit outweighs any species that may be marginalized by certain habitat work. These practices also enhance the quantity and quality of rangeland for cattle producers and serve to improve the resiliency of the land during periods of environmental stress (i.e., drought). We often say what’s good for quail is good for cows.
M: Are there species that quail are wholly reliant upon, that if gone would really hammer the populations? Similar to sage brush with sage grouse?
J: Not really, bobwhites are not considered an obligate species per say, as with sage-grouse and sagebrush. Regarding diet, theirs is diverse, and they are not dependent on any one species, although some plants do play more prominent roles than others.
M: By your estimation, what have been the most significant factors in the decline of bobwhite populations, in order of significance?
J: The most important factor contributing to the decline of bobwhites is habitat loss and fragmentation. Changes in land use, particularly those associated with our agricultural and timber industries, as well the expansion of urban areas have resulted in the loss of millions of acres of habitat. The Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute has a great project looking at land trends in Texas which help us visualize this change. As we lose habitat and reduce connectivity among land tracts, other factors can have a more pronounced effect on quail populations (think predators, climactic conditions, disease, inability to find a mate). These secondary, or proximate, factors are what often get talked about above and beyond habitat, as things like predators and disease are tangible concepts to which we can relate; habitat is more abstruse, and therefore more difficult to conceptualize and discuss.
M: How hard are predator populations on quail nests/coveys, and which have you found to be hardest on the quail?
J: As with any wildlife species, predators are a natural part of the system and their presence on the landscape amongst normal, healthy quail populations is not of concern. Importantly, quail have built in safeguards to counteract the effects of nest loss including laying large clutches sizes (~11-13 on average) and the ability to re-nest up to 4x in a good year.
Quail in general are most susceptible to raptors (e.g., northern harrier), while nests are depredated by coyotes, skunks, raccoons, snakes, and opossums, among others. The “hardest” predators vary by region. For example, coyotes in South Texas play an important role whereas armadillos in South Georgia figure prominently.
M: You mentioned drought or extreme cold can be very impactful on quail populations from year to year. Have you witnessed this first hand during your time in the field?
J: If habitat is the ultimate cause of the bobwhite decline, precipitation is the ultimate factor regulating the annual boom-bust cycle exhibited by bobwhites in Texas. Research suggests up to 90% of the annual variation in bobwhite populations can be attributed to the frequency and intensity of rainfall. So yes, drought plays an important role. And we witnessed it just this year (100+ days without rain in the Panhandle). During drought conditions we are unable to grow the grasses and forbs which are essential for nesting bobwhites. Without spring greens, forbs, and insects to provide energy and protein, females are unable to physiologically prepare their bodies for nesting. Additionally, without vigorous native, warm-season bunchgrasses growth, there are a lack of suitable nesting substrates. Early season nesting has the greatest ability to contribute to fall populations so this period (May-June) is critical. In severe droughts, females may forgo nesting altogether.
Extreme cold & severe winter weather events can also affect survival, and though not as important as drought in Texas, can cause local die-offs. We witnessed this play out in the Panhandle in 2014. After receiving ~12 inches of snow over two days, with sustained temperatures below freezing, we observed birds dying from exposure.
M: What does success through GRIP look like to you and the partners?
J: The GRIP program has affected over 70,000 acres of grassland habitat and over a million dollars of conservation practices on the ground; it is important that we convey these numbers to our constituents. But the true measure of success is whether these landowners take what we have started with them and continue to implement those practices on their own. Even if we had tens, or hundreds of millions of dollars, we will never have enough money to impact the acreage necessary to arrest the quail decline. And ultimately, we wouldn’t want that, because it wouldn’t be sustainable. We want to affect the culture, change minds when it comes to conservation, and show that wildlife conservation and productive land use (e.g., cattle ranching) can work in tandem and can persist into the future.
How to Participate in GRIP
Private landowners interested in participating should contact their locally assigned OPJV contact, found here, OR reach out to their local Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist, found here. A proposal will be prepared and submitted with assistance from OPJV partner staff, and if requirements are met, landowners receive payment at a predetermined rate per acre upon completion of the work. Completion of the work must be verified of course, but at this point direct payment is made to the landowner.
Texas Public Quail Hunts
I would be remiss if I didn't mention there are public hunting opportunities for bobwhite quail in Texas. TPWD offers day passes on a first come first serve basis in the Chaparral WMA beginning in late October. For more details on Texas public hunting for quail, visit this website.
I want to thank John for taking the time to chat about the GRIP program, and quail in general. And, thanks to all of you for reading; I hope some of you find this information useful!
| Grassland Restoration Incentive Project | GRIP | Northern Bobwhite Quail | Habitat Restoration | Conservation | Texas Quail Hunting | Texas Public Hunts | Texas Hunting | Houston Hunting | Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture | Texas Parks and Wildlife | TPWD |
I am a passionate outdoorsman with over 25 years of hunting and fishing experience across the state of TX.