Bobwhite quail will get some additional love this year from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Jim Baker, the Arkansas biologist for the NRCS, said the agency will offer more than $600,000 for landowners to provide quail-friendly wildlife habitat in 20 counties this year.
The grant comes through the NRCS's Working Lands for Wildlife program, which encourages farmers and ranchers to improve or create habitat for "at risk" species.
Baker said the NRCS will provide about $400,000 for upland habitat part of the program, but another $230,000 will be available through a different program to provide habitat for pollinators in the same 20 counties.
"It will include a similar list of practices, but it includes planting for native pollinators," Baker said. "Pollinator habitat and quail habitat are very similar. That's a good way to get a little more bang for the buck. They are essentially the same things, like a hand in the glove."
The program will pay for landowners to conduct prescribed burning and thin timber so that sunlight can reach the ground and encourage the growth of native grasses, forbs and legumes. It also will encourage landowners to plant native grasses.
Also, the NRCS will help landowners develop plans to conduct these activities on short- and long-term bases.
The NRCS will pay landowners $36 per acre burned. That's considerably more per acre than a standard hunting lease. With the initial burn, the NRCS will build permanent firebreaks so landowners may conduct additional burns at a substantially lower cost.
Ideally, upland habitat should be burned once every three years, Baker said. That allows the natural seed bank that's lying dormant in the soil to sprout.
"That's the perfect recipe for quail habitat," he said.
Baker said it has taken four years to attract Working Lands for Wildlife money to Arkansas. Initially, coastal states got all of the money for endangered species projects, he said. "Declining" species in interior states, like bobwhites, were not part of the program's original model.
Priorities expanded partly because of generous publicity about the bobwhite's plight in recent years.
Really, $600,000 isn't much money to restore habitat over a large landscape, but the fact that it's available is monumental.
"This is the real message," Baker said. "We are backing up what the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is doing on some of their WMAs. The commission dedicated a lot of resources and expressed large interest in creating large blocks of quail habitat on public lands. The key to sustaining quail is large blocks of habitat."
Fred Brown of Corning, the AGFC chairman, said that quail restoration was one of his goals in his final year on the commission, and his leadership has empowered the agency to succeed after his term expires in June. The AGFC has hired a full-time, dedicated quail biologist, and it is attempting to recruit landowners to improve quail habitat on private property adjacent to Pea Ridge National Battlefield, the state's largest quail focal area.
The AGFC also does a lot of upland habitat enhancement at Moro Big Pine WMA in Calhoun County.
"They are reducing stand densities and putting prescribed fire back in," Baker said. "I would be surprised if we don't see a bobwhite quail response there."
Even so, the AGFC's quail restoration efforts are comparatively small, and they are dedicated to public land. The NRCS program will apply only to private land, but Baker said ideally it will expand the breadth of public land improvements.
"My hope is that the private lands work we're doing will sustain long-term populations that will spill over onto public land and vice versa," Baker said. "The bigger the habitat blocks you put together, the better it is for everybody."
While $600,000 isn't much money in the grand scheme, a strong public response probably will make more money available in coming years. It would be great if the number of applications exceed the amount of money that's available. The feds probably would increase the grant to satisfy more applications in 2018.
"It's important to get a good response," Baker said. "That's how we increase our funding levels."
The NRCS will begin accepting applications Monday. For more information, go online to nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/ar/home.
Sports on 01/01/2017