“What happened to all the quail?”
That’s a question that’s been asked many times over across Oklahoma during the past decade and more. Many myths, scenarios, equations, anecdotes, and reasons have received attention as to why quail numbers are much lower compared to “the good old days,” but, ultimately, quail require suitable habitat to survive and persist. Without it quail may be absent altogether. With it quail numbers can vary from low to high. When suitable habitat, especially great habitat, is combined with consecutive years of ideal weather, quail numbers can “boom” as was the case in western Oklahoma during the great quail year of 2016. Fortunately, land managers looking for proof that quail numbers can rebound as a result of an aggressive habitat approach need to look no further than the quail restoration success story on the Pushmataha Wildlife Management Area.
For years, the habitat on the Pushmataha WMA struggled to produce quality numbers of northern bobwhite. Coveys were present where pockets of suitable habitat held strong as a result of the frequent burn regime on the WMA, but, by in large, Pushmataha WMA just wasn’t a quail hunting destination. In addition, consecutive years of ideal reproductive-season weather did little to rebound quail numbers because suitable habitat was so limited. While white-tailed deer numbers can hold strong when forests dominate the landscape, forests and quail are not an ideal match. That was the problem with Pushmataha WMA – too much forest and not enough useable space for quail.
Things all began to change on Pushmataha WMA when, in 2008, an aggressive restoration effort was initiated to reduce the abundant and often dense forest cover into a mix of pine-oak and oak savannah habitat. Forest management research plots present on the WMA provided the blueprint of what needed to be done, and those small-scale plots were taken to the landscape level.
In all, more than 12,000 acres of the WMA received some level of well-planned but aggressive tree-thinning treatment. This effort, combined with frequent burning, transformed the WMA from one dominated by dense tree cover to one where the trees were scattered and grasses and “weeds” were abundant. Quail numbers began to increase almost immediately once the tree thinning started and hunters were quick to notice.
In short, breeding bird survey data from the WMA estimated three coveys were present for every 1,000 acres prior to the tree thinning (approximately one quail for every 29 acres). By 2017, the number of coveys had increased to 21 for every 1,000 acres (approximately one quail for every four acres). That’s a seven fold increase in less than a decade. It shows that suitable habitat does matter, especially for quail.
Truly, the habitat management completed on Pushmataha WMA may not be applicable to all land managers across the state, but quail lovers seeing far more trees than quail on land they hunt and manage can be inspired by the example Pushmataha WMA has demonstrated. Partnering up with adjacent landowners and taking advantage of technical assistance and cost-share programs across the state is a good way to get started for all who are eager to take action.