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By Gary Garth
Special to The Courier-Journal

Ask John Morgan about Kentucky's quail numbers and you'll get an honest, if unexpected, answer.

"I don't know," said Morgan, the upland game specialist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "Anyone who hears a specific number should be skeptical. That indicates that we know how many birds are out there, and we don't. You can't go out and count quail."

One thing he can calculate — somewhat — is the amount of vital habitat available to the birds.

"We have built management plans for more than 1.5million acres," Morgan said. "Those are plans, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they've all been developed into managed habitat."

He knows there is nowhere close to 1.5million acres of quality bird habitat.

"The problem is pretty simple," he said. "Habitat is the problem, but it's not a simple fix."

The bobwhite quail was the premier game bird throughout the Southeast before several factors combined to bring on hard times.

Land usage shifted. Urban areas began expanding, gobbling up farmland and wildlife habitat in the process. Thanks in part to more efficient farming equipment and methods, rural property not converted into subdivisions and shopping malls was subjected to cultivation from fence row to fence row.

Farmers certainly weren't to blame. They were simply trying to make a living.

Quail are ground nesters and highly susceptible to predators and weather. For nesting and brood-rearing cover they need warm-season grasses: clumpy, almost scrub-type vegetation once common throughout central and western Kentucky. Those grasses have been systemically replaced by fescue, a short, thickly matted cool-season grass ideal for erosion control but worthless as cover for ground-nesting game.

As quail numbers dwindled, hunters complained. But eventually their numbers plummeted, too.

Game managers struggled for years to reverse this trend but saw little success. Kentucky and its neighbors have successfully restored populations of deer, turkey and other game, but quail are different. Habitat management for the birds is intense and ongoing.

Complicating the issue is the state's shortage of public land. It's difficult to manage small pockets of habitat for quail, especially in wildlife management areas where hunting pressure is heavy. Even moderate hunting can overtax a handful of coveys.

"Most of our WMAs have done work replacing fescue with warm-season grasses," Morgan said. "But the hunting pressure is so high on those areas that it's hard to see a growth in quail densities."

The Peabody Wildlife Management Area in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties is one exception. The 78,000-acre area has been subject to intense habitat work in recent years and is one of the few public tracts in the state that harbors decent quail numbers.

Morgan works with an odd blend of enthusiasm and frustration, the latter mainly from a chronic shortage of manpower and money. He watches hunter numbers slide and quail struggle to regain a foothold in piecemeal habitat.

The news isn't all bad, however. Quail are making something of a comeback, thanks in large part to federal and state incentive programs that have prompted landowners and farmers to try habitat-friendly practices.

The current federal Farm Bill allots more than $20million to habitat programs in Kentucky, Morgan said. The Conservation Reserve Program basically pays landowners to take marginal cropland out of production.

"There's a lot of money out there, and people are taking advantage of it," Morgan said.

Other help is available. Kentucky is one of 22 states participating in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a loosely knit, cooperative effort among state, federal and academic offices and private conservation organizations such as Quail Unlimited. The initiative has no individual funding but works through CRP and other existing programs.

Among its goals is to return habitat and quail numbers to 1980 levels. Getting back to the glory days of the 1950s and '60s is unrealistic, Morgan said, and even hitting 1980 levels has been a challenge. Kentucky does have 300,000 more acres in the CRP program than in 1980, and in the last five years 175,000 acres have been converted to warm-season grasses through Farm Bill funding.

"Are the birds better off now than in 1980?" Morgan said. "No. We're making progress. Just putting in warm-season grasses is a step in the right direction, but those lands have to be managed."

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