SAFE program helps quail, but is it enough to preserve their habitat?

SAFE program helps quail, but is it enough to preserve their habitat?

February 26th, 2009 by Dan Cook in Sports - Outdoors

The U.S. government's SAFE program is starting to catch on with farm owners and operators in Middle and West Tennessee the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recently reported.

The acronym stands for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement. It's intended to restore habitat for bobwhite quail and other native grassland and shrubland birds that have had a marked decline in population in recent decades. Those include field sparrows, Eastern meadowlarks, loggerhead shrikes and dicksissels.

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted approval for some new statespecific wildlife practices in the Conservation Reserve Program to help stem that decline. In Tennessee, 10 counties considered to have the best potential for improvement were selected for the program, which involves landowners being paid to let some potential cropland develop ground cover the birds can use.

The deal includes 50 percent cost sharing for the ground-cover establishment, an extra 40 percent incentive payment for cover-establishment practice and a $100-per-acre signing Incentive payment received up front when a program contract is approved. And a farmer can enroll an entire field or sections of it.

TWRA private lands biologist Clint Borum has called it the best such plan available.

Larry Craig, owner of the Craig Game Preserve near Fayetteville, Tenn., and Jasper native Jon B. Calhoun, a biologist and regional director for Quail Unlimited, believe it will help.

But Craig thinks some other steps, including eradicating prime quail predators, may be necessary as well.

Craig, who works with 900 acres of land - planting sunflowers and natural habitat

dedicated to hunting quail - said, "We do all that we can, but it would be a lot easier if we could shoot hawks. It's not only redtails, but sparrow hawks are mean as the devil. Redtails won't go in the bushes, but those sparrow hawks will go in there."

His property is open to pheasant and quail hunting from the first of October to the end of March.

Calhoun, who played on a state championship football team at Marion County and lettered at Cumberland University before heading into biology - teaching it in addition to coaching for a while - believes the grant programs will help if for no other reason than giving farmers a tax break.

"Are the populations ever going to get back like they were?" he asked. "Never. But we can maintain what we've got."

Cooper hawks and coyotes actually help quail by thwarting nest predators such as opossums, skunks and snakes, he said.

One plant appearing on a lot of farms that is not so conducive to helping quail is fescue, Calhoun said. It is often used instead of lespedeza, which would be better.

Still another means of aiding quail is controlled burning, he said. This allows new plants to spring up that better produce quail food.

"Indians used to burn these valleys, and we're finding out burning does more for wildlife than anything," he explained.

Quail hunting season concludes Saturday in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, but bird hunting enthusiasts and biologists will remain hard at work to improve the situation.

E-mail Dan Cook at chattadan@aol.com