Henderson, agencies creating quail habitat

Quail conservation efforts are under way at Henderson State University’s Simonson Biological Field Station.

The university is working with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish a habitat that will attract quail and other wildlife to the almost 200 acres surrounding the field station on the shore of DeGray Lake near Bismarck.

Henderson’s biological sciences department and the agencies have been collecting data and marking trees for cutting. The first timber harvest is planned for late summer.

“The ultimate goal for this project is to restore much needed habitat that can be utilized by quail, turkey, deer, songbirds, reptiles and many other organisms,” said Marcus Asher, quail program coordinator for the Game & Fish Commission. “Open woodland characteristics will be established that will create widely spaced trees and open canopies that encourage plenty of understory vegetation used for cover and foraging.”

Another goal of the project is to educate landowners, school groups, faculty and other agencies about characteristics of quail habitat and how it can be created using prescribed burning, thinning and planting native vegetation.

“It won’t happen overnight,” said Dr. Tommy Finley, associate professor biology. “It will probably take five years to get close to where we want it. And it has to be maintained.

“We have always wanted to do something to enhance wildlife on the land. For research, if you want to work with animals, you must have animals to work with.”

Henderson will offer a new wildlife academic track beginning this fall and Finley anticipates students in that program will be heavily involved in the quail conservation project.

“They’ll get to work side-by-side with game and fish people,” he said. “For hands-on, you can’t get any better than that. They can build a relationship with possible future employers, including the Corps.”

Finley said he and field station manager Allen Leible began discussing quail conservation on the land about two years ago. At the time, they were unaware that the AGFC had just stepped up efforts to enhance its quail management process and hired a new quail coordinator.

Finley said timing was perfect when Leible contacted AGFC and the Corps. Both agencies were “very interested,” he said.

Asher said AGFC will serve in a technical service role.

“We will provide guidance on management planning and even provide manpower assistance as needed to conduct prescribed burns, timber marking and spraying,” he said. “We will also present programs at field tours and workshops.”

Asher said there are numerous similar habitats in Arkansas, but this is the first restoration project coordinated with a university.

The Corps of Engineers developed the initial wildlife and forest management plan for the partnership’s foundation.

“Now that we are past that phase, each partner is adding/modifying aspects of the plan to improve the direction as this will be a working document as we proceed,” said Dustin Thomason, a wildlife biologist for the Corps. “The Corps will be administering timber sales and will conduct prescribed burns along with other techniques as part of the management in the future to help achieve the desired goals.”

Leible said the efforts will also enhance the habitat for pollinators.

“We will be doing some supplemental planting particular to the pollinators with extra green spaces,” he said. “We have already been doing outreach program on pollinators, particularly the monarch butterflies, for several years now.”

“We hope this will help generate a lot of interest and get a lot of people interested in science,” Finley said. “We’re very proud of it. We feel it’s something important that needed to be done.”

Leible said the quail population has been on the decline nationwide by as much as 65 percent due to land use and farming practices.

While no quail will be relocated to the area, Leible said, “It’s kind of like Field of Dreams… build it and they will come. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

He has been surveying the area for quail and heard one several weeks ago.

“There are some on the land. That’s promising,” he said.

Finley said the Corps will establish small tracks of land to help manage the habitat on a smaller scale.

“There will be multiple small openings, interspersed with timber,” he said. “There will still be stands of hardwood timber. But it’s not going to look good at first with treetops lying around.”

Asher said timber thinning will occur initially, followed by prescribed burning that will be conducted on a two to three-year rotation.

“This strategy will ensure that one-third to one-half of the field station area will be burned annually,” he said. “Burning and thinning will allow sunlight to reach the woodland floor and stimulate native vegetation utilized by quail and other wildlife for nesting, foraging and escape cover.”

Finley wants the project to be a model for conservation of quail, pollinators and other wildlife.

“The main goal is to manage the land to increase wildlife, with quail being the focus, and keeping them there so students can go out and be pretty much guaranteed to see animals, not just quail,” he said. “And it will be a hands-on program for students taking the wildlife track.”