Many times over the last few years I have encouraged upland bird hunters not to give up. I bought a new bird dog in summer of 2017. It’s discouraging at times, this year has been particularly so. But I cannot imagine never seeing a good bird dog work a gamey covert again. Seeing that transformation from a dog just looking and searching, to one that is starting to get “birdy,” to one that suddenly freezes like someone is pulling tight an invisible rope that runs through their tail, along their spine and down into their right front foot, their eyes focused to pinpoints, their noses “snuffling,” chests heaving, hind legs shaking. You’d have to have walked those miles through briers, sweating, scratched arms stinging from the salt, eyes blurred from it, yourself with a stomach full of grasshoppers to know what it’s all about. It’s never routine.
We have had multiple quail management successes in Virginia at the individual landowner level, and in some cases in portions of counties. But across much of the state they continue to decline, or hold steady at low densities. In next month’s post I’ll go into detail about how challenging it is to conduct wide-scale quail management in our modern world, while trying to maintain soil, water and air quality (Hint – just about everything that was once bad for wood ducks and bad for the environment, was good for quail).
My quandary as small game project leader for DGIF is in trying to encourage more people to upland bird hunt when many upland bird populations continue to decline. Across America, state wildlife agencies are facing steep declines in hunter numbers. And they are not just driven by lower game populations. Squirrel hunters continue to decline in an era when we have more squirrels than at any time since the Great Depression. Deer populations are at very good levels, yet even deer hunters are declining. And when it comes to upland bird hunters in the Mid-Atlantic region they make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the total. At some point they’ll become what statisticians call “Statistically insignificant.” Clearly, some of this decline is due to changes in society. State agencies are trying to learn more about why people are leaving the sport, and why new hunters are not being attracted to it. The official name for this is R3 – R for Recruit new hunters, R for Retain existing hunters, and R for Reactivate lapsed hunters. Simultaneously, agencies are working hard to support diverse constituencies like bird watchers, hikers, campers, canoeists, kayakers, etc. – diversifying our investment portfolio.
But I’ll stick to upland bird hunter recruitment for the sake of this BLOG. I had a friend and co-worker say to me a few weeks ago “If we don’t do something soon to help bring back bird hunters, they’ll be extinct in 15 years.” That statement troubled me, first because I HAVE been working hard to try to bring back upland birds and their hunters for over 25 years. And second, because I think he’s right. It sent me back to rubbing my forehead and trying to come up with something…a supreme example of the proverbial “grasping at straws?” Maybe. Even though we know hunting is not causing the decline in upland gamebirds – how do we promote the idea of attracting more hunters to pursue declining species? I can explain to most people why we still have upland hunting. I can point out that non-hunted species are declining as much (or more in some cases) than hunted species. I can ask that without hunters who will champion these magnificent upland game birds? But it is harder to explain why we want even more people to hunt them.
Some have suggested extending the quail hunting season in Virginia through February. They argue that one reason folks quit hunting quail was that they felt like they had very little time to do it outside the gun deer season. First, I have lived in the heart of deer country in Southside Virginia for 23 years now. I admit I have had to learn how to hunt with deer hunters, but deer season has never kept me from going upland bird hunting. Even more importantly, studies have shown that late season mortality in quail can be detrimental to the population. Simply stated a hen quail still alive in February is much more likely to make it to nest in April than one starting back in November.
Others have suggested going back to state agency run captive raised upland gamebird release programs. The few states that still run such programs will tell you they are expensive, not cost-efficient and not very effective at recruiting new hunters. Some private landowners are using fall pre-season release programs on their own private preserves to solve this problem for themselves. Kudos to them. But it is expensive and not for everyone. We have a private hunting preserve industry that is available and should be vying for hunters. I believe they could do more collectively to promote their offerings. Industry offers many examples of how competing businesses band together to promote their overall business model.
Some have suggested closing quail season, forgetting about upland bird hunters, focusing on other species that are plentiful and letting things take their natural course. Years ago when I first came to DGIF, a supervisor told me “You need to forget about quail, get these bird hunters to take up squirrel dogs. There’s squirrels everywhere. They still get to hunt with a dog.” I am all for more squirrel hunters and in fact am seeing a slight uptick in folks hunting with squirrel dogs. I will continue to promote that (we are in the middle of a fox squirrel research project – another topic come spring), but not as an alternative to upland bird hunting.
Though I have worried myself sick over this, I don’t have any answers. I can tell you what we plan to try. This year we will be proposing some new training areas for upland bird dogs. One complaint we get quite a bit is that people can’t find a place to train their bird dogs. This is especially true for urban and suburban hunters. Any proposals will go through our normal regulations development process and be out for public comment. We might also consider some type of youth and apprentice hunter quail season. By offering a week or two of extra season only for hunters accompanied by a youth or apprentice hunter, we might get a few new folks into the sport. We might also start promoting the idea of fall pre-season release of captive raised quail on private lands, not so much to recover wild quail, but to supplement quail hunting and encourage habitat development (you can’t have an effective release program without good habitat). These are all just ideas that may or may not pass muster. But we are trying. If you have reasonable ideas, please send them to me.
As for me, I still believe the best way to encourage people to do something is to lead by example. I plan to keep hunting, keep buying bird dogs, dog food, training collars and dog boxes until I am in a pine box of my own. And I plan to keep writing and talking about it and encouraging others to take it up. And our quail team will keep working hard to add to the over 4,500 landowner site visits we have made over the last nine years. There will never be a substitute for great habitat, and in today’s world it takes effort.