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Making room for quail

Preservation isn’t just for urban elites.

Jim Willis knows it isn’t easy to love a prairie. The quilt of burnt orange and brown that covers his Colorado County land can’t awe or inspire the way a canyon or mountain range does. But he can step onto his porch on a crisp morning, take a sip of coffee and hear the three-count whistle of the northern bobwhite quail.

The moment is enough to reveal the subtle beauty of an unbroken terrain of yellow Indiangrass, little bluestem and other tall grasses. That’s because the land was barren of wildlife not too long ago, unable to support anything but cattle.

Willis began restoring his overgrazed pasture into native grasslands more than a decade ago, placing him at the fore of a new prairie populism in Texas. Across the state, rural landowners, a new generation of urban refugees, are removing acres of Bermuda grass and creating pioneer-era landscapes that require less water and chemicals and provide habitat for a variety of critters.

The push is in response to the steady decline of the quail, an iconic Texas bird that uses the tall grasses for shelter and food. But the benefits of native grasslands go beyond one species, Willis said.

“Quail really is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “If they’re healthy, you have a healthy ecosystem. ”

Texas is known for its bucolic hill country and mysterious piney woods, the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park and a seemingly endless coast. But it’s largely a prairie state, and those grasslands are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices, development and fragmentation by roads and ranchettes.

The changing landscape has put quail in peril, with the bird’s numbers dropping 75 percent over the past 30 years or so, according to state biologists.

A carpetlike pasture planted for cattle grazing “might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot” to quail, said Jon Hayes, a biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the bird to nest, forage and hide from predators, heat and wind.

To help reverse the quail population’s decline, Texas lawmakers last year earmarked $6 million for restoring prime habitat, expanding research into the species and educating landowners.

The state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate prairie in three areas: the Interstate 35 corridor just south of Dallas, the rolling plains near Oklahoma and a 12-county cluster beyond the westward march of Houston’s sprawl. The key is to connect restored plots to one another to increase the bird’s odds of survival.

Already, what began with 225 acres owned by Willis now stretches across 40,000 acres. That includes seven miles of contiguous reconstructed prairie that connects his property to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles west of Houston.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the A&M Agrilife Extension Service have lots of information about the decline of the quail population in Texas and the ongoing efforts to do something about it. As a to-the-bone urbanite, I know nothing about any of this, but I’m glad there are people who do and who care enough to try to make it better. I wish them the best of luck.

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