By Tom Dailey, Resource Scientist, Columbia, Mo., and Aaron P. Jeffries, Private Land Program Supervisor, Jefferson City, Mo.
Ever wonder why the opening and closing dates of quail-hunting seasons vary so much from state to state, or why Missouri’s season is always Nov. 1 to Jan. 15? In nearby states opening dates range from late October to late November and seasons close from mid-December to the end of February. With each game species and hunting season, the Missouri Department of Conservation must weigh sound wildlife management, scientific research, hunter satisfaction and the general public’s perceptions when determining appropriate season dates and limits.
In 2005, the Department conducted a thorough review of Missouri’s quail season. Here’s a summary of the review and justification for the current season structure. A similar article was published in the fall 2006 issue of the Covey Headquarter Newsletter.
· Era of annual season review: From 1950 to 1981, Missouri’s quail season opened on Nov. 10 and closed between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, with the longest season being 66 days. Quail-hunting regulations were set each year based on population indices, and most often the season ended in December based on research in Illinois that showed hunting losses in January added to natural mortality and risked a decline in breeder numbers. Despite the annual attention to hunting regulations, quail numbers continued to decline.
· Focus on habitat: In 1982, new MDC quail biologist Rich Cannon recommended the hunting season that we currently use, Nov. 1 to Jan. 15. In 1987 this season structure was placed in the Missouri Conservation Commission Wildlife Code. Biologists reasoned that the public’s focus should be shifted away from regulations as a way to restore quail and toward habitat restoration and management. Today, quail habitat restoration and management are high priorities for the Department and conservation partners, and the birds are responding, albeit in limited fashion.
· Balancing biology and hunting demand: Expanding the season from the pre-1980s length of 66 days to the new structure (earlier opening of Nov. 1) with 76 days caused much concern. Cannon recognized this in a summary of the regulation setting process that was published in 1986 in an MDC publication, "Missouri Quail: At the Crossroads of the Future." In the section titled "Seeking a Balance," Cannon referred to the Jan. 15 closure as a compromise between recreational demand for a longer season and the quails’ sensitivity to over-harvest as identified in the Illinois study.
· Recent research: Recent research in Kansas, Texas and North Carolina reiterated the finding from Illinois that quail are vulnerable to over-harvest in January, February and March. The timing of harvest is at the crux of the quails’ sensitivity. Kansas researchers stated it this way: “Managers should recognize that harvest can significantly lower spring northern bobwhite breeding densities” and that “one way to reduce harvest effects is to assure that harvest timing occurs in early winter and hunting season length is minimized.”
· Timing of harvest is critical: The effect of timing of harvest is based partly on the phenomena that high-producing small game populations face a "bottle-neck" in winter as weather is severe and cover and food are reduced, resulting in increased natural mortality (predation, hypothermia, starvation, etc.), and subsequent rapid decline in abundance. The result of this is that harvest can have less effect on breeder abundance if it occurs prior to major periods of natural mortality. The practical result is that one quail harvested in early November does not necessarily result in one less breeder the next spring. On the other hand, as natural mortality increases during winter, eventually one quail harvested does result in one less breeder. This is especially true in late January and February when other factors such as food and cover may be limited. In other words, by hunting in late January or February, you could be harvesting quail that would have made it to spring to breed.
· Winter stress: In addition to the above consequences, hunting in January is potentially more damaging because quail are more vulnerable in winter’s diminished cover, and birds not killed but harassed could suffer energy losses and potentially higher mortality.
· Missouri’s quail vulnerable in January: MDC’s study of quail on farmland in northeast Missouri in the 1990s found that natural mortality spiked in January—predators and winter weather took a heavy toll with the percent of quail killed jumping from 17 percent in December to 29 percent in January. This pattern fit Illinois and Kansas observations of increased vulnerability in January.
· Today’s quail and today’s hunter: Missouri’s quail hunter numbers have plummeted from more than 100,000 in the 1980s to 22,000 in 2008. Couldn’t the quail population handle a longer season with so few hunters? Unfortunately today’s quail population is but a remnant of the past with quail disappeared or at unhuntable numbers on most of the landscape and the huntable populations scattered around in small pockets. The fragmentation of quail habitat and populations translates to an increased chance of local extinction. And although there are fewer quail hunters, they are efficient and persistent and have the potential to push local populations to extinction. Unlike the old days, the chances are slim that neighboring quail will move in and reestablish a thriving population.
· A new closing date? Based on the scarcity of quail some have argued for a December closure or other restrictions, such as custom regulations for counties, as is done in South Carolina. Of course this would get us back into the mode of working on saving what we have left, instead of focusing on improving conditions and increasing quail numbers. Further, most of the improvements made for quail are being spearheaded by hunters, so further restrictions in hunting would likely result in fewer quail. So, almost two decades later we arrive at the same conclusion drawn in 1986: the Jan. 15 closing date is a compromise between biology and sport. Extending the season into late January or February could potentially impact breeding numbers. Further, in 2002 the state embarked on a massive quail restoration program because of the dwindling quail population—to liberalize hunting now would send a mixed message. Fortunately, there are numerous examples in recent years where public land managers and private landowners have restored and managed habitat for bobwhites with an incredible response. For example, the November 2008 issue of the Missouri Conservationist featured an outstanding story by Jim Low on how Jeff Churan has turned his property into a quail haven. As a result of Jeff’s dedicated work, hunters averaged one covey every 24 minutes during the 2005-2006 season. On one hunt, they moved nine coveys in three and a half hours. Despite all time low densities, success stories from around Missouri have shown that bobwhites will respond to active habitat management.
· A new opening date? No, with a biological constraint on the closure, we are forced to look to fall for increased recreational opportunity. Biologically, this is easy because at this time harvest has little, if any, effect on breeder abundance. Many of the quail killed by hunters would have died anyway because of predation, malnutrition, etc. Biologists have known since the 1940s that good management demands that harvest by the gun come as close to the reproductive season as reasonably possible. With most of Missouri’s quail production finished during August and September, this is exactly what the Nov. 1 opener does.
In conclusion, the future of quail hunting is more dependent on hunters focusing on habitat improvement than getting side-tracked on hunting regulations, predator control and pen-raised quail. The future of quail hunting in Missouri is in the balance—are you contributing? The above summary covers only a portion of the review—for the complete review go to the following link.
Habitat is the Key!