Snow Burying Plains Bad News for Quail

Life is hard out there in the sand sage. It’s even harder when you weigh 6 ounces, the snowdrifts can bury standing cows and the only food for miles is you.

When Gov. Bill Owens surveyed blizzard-ravaged southeastern Colorado from a State Patrol airplane Sunday, he saw “just a sea of white.” Highways had been erased, human traffic frozen in memory.

Most folks are warm, hunkered down and still waiting to be dug out. But there will be no rescue for wildlife, including what before the fierce storm Friday and Saturday was a rare abundance of scaled quail.

“I’m singing the blues as far as the quail are concerned,” said Jonathan Wright, district wildlife manager in Springfield. “I’m rather worried for them.”

Wright is stuck in town, except for brief jaunts in his pickup onto U.S. 287, where he has been helping other law officers man a traffic blockade.

“We’ve had a handful of truckers make a break for it and then have to be rescued,” he said.

He’d rather be out checking on critters, including the area’s special native quail. But presently, there are no roads in southeastern Colorado.

The fear is that last weekend’s storm and its aftermath might turn out to be as destructive to quail as the one that hammered the area in October 1997.

“A lot of the locals around here are saying this completely trumps that blizzard and may be the worst blizzard they’ve seen since the early 1950s,” Wright said.

The 1997 blizzard decimated the area’s scaled and bobwhite quail. It also killed livestock, deer and pronghorns and put a serious dent in pheasant numbers.

Then came a long drought. But blessed by water in spring 2005, quail and pheasants became high rollers. Another good production year followed in 2006. In a nod to plenty, the Division of Wildlife enrolled 60,000 acres of Walk-In Access lands specifically for scaled quail this hunting season.

Propelled by those enticements and memories of a superb bobwhite hunt a year ago, some pals and I had planned to muster at Springfield with pointing dogs a few days ago.

A business meeting interrupted our plans, or we’d be there now.

Playing cribbage in the Bar 4 Corral.

Wright said he is anxious to see how the game birds fared. He fears for quail, but he has seen pheasants wandering the snowscape, making something of a living.

“This was a bum deal for quail,” he said.

Last weekend’s big blizzard follows a lesser storm that blanketed the southeastern counties a few days before Christmas. That storm created a scarcity of cover and food, which exposed many scaled quail to raptor predators.

“They become so visible (on snow),” Wright said. “I found two or three carcasses. It looked like they were getting picked off at a pretty good pace.

“And now they’re going to have a really tough time.”

No matter how tough it gets, southeastern Colorado’s quail and pheasants always manage to recover eventually.

“If you get the right conditions, with good nesting cover and insect production, quail and pheasants can skyrocket,” Wright said.

He said scaled quail can lay 20 eggs in a nest, fueling population bursts. Pheasant and quail hunting extends through Jan. 21 in the southeast. Wright says hunters might yet enjoy some good pheasant hunting.

They might find quail, too, but they might want to spare them.

“Usually, even if you hunt quail pretty hard, you aren’t going to impact them too much,” he said. “But if they survive this, they should get a free pass to the spring in my opinion.”

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