NJ Hunters and Conservationists Alike Seek to Save Bobwhite Quail

Three-day conference brings together apparent opposites to identify common interests and goals

bobwhite quail
Hunters love to shoot them and birders love to watch them but both groups understand that they can only save the bobwhite quail by working together.

The apparently opposing groups came together for a three-day conference to talk about ways of preserving the scarce and secretive game bird and to identify other areas of common interest, ranging from fighting invasive species and maintaining healthy forests to managing New Jersey’s growing population of black bears.

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs held their first annual joint conference from April 26-28, with a view to identifying common interests and fostering cooperation between the two groups.

“What we hope to do in working with the sportsmen’s federation is bring together two groups that in many ways share the same goals,” said David Wheeler, executive director of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, in opening remarks at a hotel in Eatontown.

The aim of the event, Wheeler said, was to bring participants up to date on conservation issues such as the status of the bobwhite quail, while identifying ways of building public support for the outdoors, especially among young people.

“We need to talk to the public about how we can energize the next generation,” he said. “What many of them are missing is engagement with the outdoors.”

Frank Virgilio, membership director for the Sportsmen’s Clubs Federation, said the two groups have recognized their common interests since the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter who understood that sportsmen would have no more game to shoot if they did not also work to conserve the targeted species.

But with modern pressures such as habitat loss due to development and changing agricultural practices, there’s an increasing need for the two communities to work together, he said.

“How do we get the green colors of Conserve Wildlife and the camouflage colors of hunters and fishermen to work together?” he asked.

Hunters have now stopped shooting the wild quail, whose population has plummeted to around 600, largely in Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland Counties, in response to loss of habitat.

Sportsmen would love to start hunting the birds again but recognize that they must first help the population recover to a sustainable level, Virgilio said.

To that end, they are working with Dr. Larry Niles, a former DEP biologist who is also known for his work to save the endangered red knot, to raise funds for the preservation of farmland that formerly provided habitat for the birds, and could do so again if the conditions are right.

Virgilio expressed hope that, with grain at current high prices, farmers could be persuaded not to cultivate the edges of their fields, making a small reduction in their crop acreage in order to restore some habitat that’s favored by the quail.

Thanks to the latest conservation efforts, Virgilio said he’s confident the quail can recover in the next 10 years. “I’m more optimistic today than I’ve ever been,” he told NJ Spotlight.

For now, hunters are taking aim at captive-bred birds, some of which are reared in Ocean County schools under the “Quail in the Classroom” program run by the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance’s Environmental Projects. The captive-bred population is kept separate from the wild population.

Some conservationists increasingly recognize that hunting can play a valuable role in maintaining ecosystems, especially in the case of white-tailed deer, whose exploding population is decimating the understory of many forests, and destroying habitat for some other species.

Kelly Mooij, vice president of government relations for New Jersey Audubon, told the conference that she had recently been on her first deer-hunting trip.

“There’s not enough regrowth of forests,” she said. “We need to increase the tools to manage the deer population.

But she acknowledged that her group’s acceptance of the need to control the deer population is controversial. “It’s a lightning rod,” she said. “I’ve had my fair share of people coming after us because of the position we’ve taken on deer management.”

About 64,000 deer are harvested annually under a program regulated by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection with a view to controlling the herd and generating revenue from hunting permits. The DEP’s Fish and Wildlife Service sets limits on the number of bucks that can be taken during the hunting season but there are no limits to the number of antler-less deer that can be taken by archers and most firearms users in about 70 percent of the state’s hunting zones.

There are apparently no qualms about hunting for more than 5,000 young people who last year participated in a hunter education program run by the state’s division of fish and wildlife.

Keith Griglak, a biologist who runs the program, told the conference that it awarded more than 8,000 certificates of completion in 2012 to participants who learned skills in shooting rifles, shotguns, and bows. Griglak showed pictures of beaming children posing with the carcasses of deer, fox and wild turkey that they had killed.

For Ray Seborowksi, central region representative of the nonprofit New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, there’s an obvious link between conservation and hunting. Without responsible management of duck populations, for example, wildfowlers would have diminishing opportunities to pursue the sport they love.

“Every hunter is a conservationist,” he said.

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