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Fair winds are blowing for the bobwhite quail, and Arkansas has the momentum to reap the rewards.

A new bill that was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate will, if enacted, provide a major catalyst for declining species, such as quail, that are not threatened or endangered.

On Tuesday, Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) introduced "The Recovering America's Wildlife Act (Senate Bill 3223)," which will redirect $1.3 billion annually from energy development on federal lands and waters to the existing Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program.

The bill will not require taxpayers or businesses to pay any additional money. Instead, existing money will be reallocated toward conserving aquatic and terrestrial species of "greatest conservation need," as identified by state agencies such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Such species in Arkansas include the northern bobwhite quail and the Ozark hellbender.

A companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 4647) was introduced in December by Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). Its 78 co-sponsors include U.S. Reps. French Hill and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. If passed, this bill will allocate about $15 million annually to conservation efforts for these species in Arkansas alone.

"This is our chance to be proactive about conserving species before they reach the level of threatened or endangered," said Chris Colclasure, assistant deputy director for the AGFC. "This legislation, if funded, will ensure that we have better quality habitat for all species, and it will do so in a collaborative and cooperative way."

Thanks to the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Fund, many species of animals have been saved from extinction by way of federal excise taxes paid by manufacturers of hunting and angling equipment. Or course, the manufacturers pass these costs on to consumers, so it's more accurate to say that hunters and anglers pay the freight.

While many of these funds are dedicated to game species and sport fish, nongame species also benefit.

"What we do for one species typically will benefit a suite of animals," Colclasure said. "Improved grassland habitat for pollinators, butterflies and songbirds will help quail and wild turkeys that use those same types of habitat during part of the year."

If you believe it's too late to recover quail, maybe the success of our neighbors in Oklahoma and Texas might change your mind.

In 1997, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation closed hunting for prairie chickens, a native grouse that once inhabited the Arkansas Grand Prairie.

Due to loss of habitat and other factors such as wind power development, lesser prairie chickens were in precipitous decline. Despite seriously limited funding, the ODWC aggressively developed partnerships with landowners to conserve prairie chicken habitat.

The efforts seemed quixotic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in 2014, but a federal court overturned the listing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now reviewing whether it should list the species as endangered.

That appears premature because lesser prairie chickens are rallying in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

On July 9, the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies announced that lesser prairie chickens increased about 30 percent across their range, from 29,934 birds in 2016 to 38,637 birds in 2017.

The population trend has been increasing for the past six years, with gains of about 3,000 birds annually.

In Oklahoma, private landowners enrolled more than 400,000 acres and more than $64 million through an agreement with the ODWC through which landowners voluntarily agreed to implement conservation practices for lesser prairie chickens in exchange for assurances that no additional burdens would apply to them if the birds were federally listed as threatened or "endangered".

The carrot-and-stick approach is working to recover a species that long ago seemed to have passed the point of no return.

Quail aren't near such dire condition, and thanks to the proactive AGFC and Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, they probably won't be.

Money is the key, and the federal bills couldn't come at a better time.

Sports on 07/22/2018

Print Headline: Federal funding to help recover quail in Arkansas

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