Ensuring Quail Forever in the Palmetto State
By Ford Walpole
Tim Askins, state chapter chair of Quail Forever, and Nancy Mace with the congresswoman’s first quail. Image provided by Quail Forever.
“The explosive flush. That unmistakable whistle. Man’s best friend. Family traditions. Quail hunting is both an American pastime and outdoor tradition that renews its roots every fall as countless individuals and families set out to pursue America’s original game bird. Requiring knowledge, skill and late-season toughness as one battles the elements of Mother Nature, the thrill of success and defeat in quail hunting is what motivates the average hunter to pursue coveys of quail.” Tim Askins, president of S.C. Quail Forever (QF), presents a vivid image that encapsulates the quail hunting experience.
“Bobwhite populations in South Carolina likely peaked early in the 20th century, when suitable habitat was a by-product of agricultural practices of the era,” Askins explains. “Populations remained at high levels through the 1960s. Liberal seasons and bag limits, abundant bobwhite populations, favorable weather and widespread access to private lands made S.C. a ‘bird hunting’ destination for hunters across the country.”
Unfortunately, the sun would set on the seemingly endless glory days of quail hunting in our state. “By the 1970s, bobwhite populations in S.C. had begun a precipitous decline due to large-scale habitat changes brought about by urbanization, modern agricultural practices and intensive forestry practices. Hurricane Hugo was a death knell as the forest service banned burning,” Askins says.
Fortunately, great things for quail have been happening in S.C. in recent years. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) includes 25 states that have or had indigenous quail populations. The roots of this countrywide endeavor trace back to a 1995 meeting at S.C.’s Webb Wildlife Center.
NBCI established a goal of returning quail population to their 1980 numbers. The S.C. Quail Council was formed in 2014; this group consists of 30 different organizations, state agencies, and landowners. In 2015, the S.C. Bobwhite Initiative (SCBI) began. Directly because of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) membership in the Quail Council, funding was provided for two additional DNR biologists who work exclusively with bobwhite quail.
Breck Carmichael is a longtime biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Carmichael served as the first national coordinator for NBCI, and he currently works as the SCBI biologist. “We have always focused on the habitat end, but now we try to focus our efforts in more discreet geographical areas.” To this end, the S.C. Bobwhite Initiative identified focal areas, which cover two to three counties each.
SCBI initially identified four focal areas: Indian Creek (United States Forest Service), Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Lea (S.C. Forestry Commission) and Webb Center Complex (SCDNR). A fifth, the Bordeaux Quail Focal Area, located on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property in McCormick County, was recently added.
Two additional focal areas are planned: Price Landing Forest Health Project and another encompassing the Kings Mountain National Military Park and Kings Mountain State Park. This effort will seek to restore habitat to what early settlers would have encountered. A Quail Forever staff biologist will work out of an office at the military park; that the property will not be hunted is evidence of QF’s broader mission of habitat restoration.
QF was founded in 2005 as an offshoot of Pheasants Forever. In 2019, the Lowcountry chapter of Quail Forever was reinvigorated through the efforts of old friends and longtime hunting partners Tim Askins and David Clifford. Willie McRae hosted the inaugural banquet at Boone Hall’s Cotton Dock.
Askins discusses what sets the rapidly growing conservation organization apart. “Unique among national conservation organizations, chapters of Quail Forever retain 100 percent decision-making control of their locally-raised funds. This allows chapter volunteers to develop wildlife habitat projects and conduct youth conservation events in their communities, while belonging to a national organization with a voice regarding state and federal conservation policy.
“Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever host more than 750 fundraising events annually, most commonly annual chapter banquets. These banquets are an important source of revenue and provide chapters with the funds needed to accomplish thousands of wildlife habitat projects annually,” Askins continues. “Only the annual $35 membership — which funds Quail Forever’s award-winning magazine, professional services of regional biologists and representatives, our national conservation education programs and state and federal legislative advocacy — is forwarded to the national office.”
For Quail Forever, the recent Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) presented the opportunity for fundraising as well as education. Friday night, QF held the Willie McRae Wildlife Banquet. Call of the Uplands, the statewide meeting, took place on Saturday at the Charleston Yacht Club.
Throughout the weekend, Quail Forever maintained a presence at the Quail Village, which included representatives from SCBI, Covey Rise magazine, Longleaf Pine Alliance, Prescribed Fire Council and Jon Kohler & Associates. For Quail Forever, SEWE was responsible for more than 100 new memberships, and more than $100,000 was raised to fund habitat and outreach.
Breck Carmichael comments on SEWE’s impact on SCBI: “I just saw a list of 25 landowners who want biologists to visit their property and create recommendations; we also will help secure cost-share funding through NRCS.”
David Clifford, Quail Forever’s state habitat chair, recognizes that all of the young faces at QF events suggest a vibrancy for the organization as well as a bright outlook for the future of quail habitat and conservation. David “Bunny” Snipes, avid hunter and professional dog trainer, recently took the reins as president of the Lowcountry chapter.
David "Bunny" Snipes, current president of Lowcountry chapter of QF, conducting a quail-friendly prescribed burn.
“Education is another important side of what we do,” Clifford notes. We want to expose conservation and quail hunting to more people. It’s all about getting new people in the field. We want women and kids involved in shooting sports, or this is all going to go away. Through quail hunting, we want to educate and promote the outdoors.” Congresswoman Nancy Mace spoke about this very subject at the Willie McRae Wildlife Benefit; last week, she experienced a successful quail hunt with QF members at Canebrake, Tim Askins’ farm in Andrews.
In addition, SEWE also helped QF build new relationships. “A lot of people are interested in bringing back the whistle” of the bobwhite quail, David Clifford says. “Quail Forever partners with a number of organizations, such as DNR, SCBI, the U.S. Forest Service, and the S.C. State Parks.
David Clifford and his son Lucas Clifford.
“We are looking to forge partnerships with any conservation organization or agency, not only to benefit quail but to promote increased wildlife habitat in general. People in different conservation organizations have an affinity for working together. We might have a little bit different points of view, but we all have the same end goal of habitat preservation and restoration.”
Carmichael agrees: “I remind people that SCBI is not DNR; it’s a big partnership — by necessity. It is easy to find new partners committed to conservation. People really want to see quail make a comeback; you wouldn’t believe the number of calls we get.”
“The biggest thing to remember is that Quail Forever isn’t just about hunting: It’s about habitat and conservation,” Clifford adds. “Habitat doesn’t happen in three months. It’s not a springtime romance; it’s a year-round effort. We are already planning for next year’s SEWE. This is something we live and breathe, and it’s not game or species exclusive.” Carmichael reminds us that habitat management for quail is good for turkeys, deer, non-game species, reptiles and pollinators.
Things are looking up for quail in S.C. Fall covey counts and spring whistling cock surveys reveal significant growth among S.C. quail populations. “The challenge is getting enough habitat on the ground over a wide enough area,” says Carmichael. “I tell people that quail populations did not decline overnight, and the population won’t return overnight, either.
“Land use changed, which caused habitat to disappear. We’ve got to convince people to commit marginal land and even a little bit of productive land to quail habitat. Sometimes it means they have to give up some of their maximum potential revenue from their land that is being farmed with row crops or timber.”
Left, Tim Askins and Lacey, his German Shorthaired Pointer and David and Josie, his German Shorthaired Pointer. Right, Nancy Mace and Blair Cool, a QF volunteer at Canebrake, Tim Askins' farm in Andrews; both women shot their first quail on Monday, 2/21.
To assist with implementing land management practices conducive to quail habitat, Quail Forever currently has three full-time wildlife biologists on staff and will add two more in the very near future. QF advises private landowners and works with DNR biologists on public Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). In addition, QF seeks to secure funding for the creation of new WMAs.
Recently, thanks to the efforts of QF, the generosity of legendary Coach Mooney Player and his family, and the S.C. Conservation Bank, Bobwhite Hills, a 798-acre farm in Sumter and Lee Counties, will be perpetually protected by a conservation easement. This gem will soon become a WMA, where future generations of quail hunters will be able to enjoy public access to a well-established habitat. The colorful Player was the keynote speaker at this year’s Quail Forever SEWE banquet.
Jacob McClain, the S.C. Quail Focus Area Coordinator for Quail Forever, expresses optimism for the future: “Quail populations have been increasing for the past several years on the S.C. Bobwhite Initiative (SCBI) Focal Areas — due to extensive habitat work by SCDNR, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Quail Forever and other partners.
“Many people think bringing back the bobwhite is hopeless. They think that the fire ants, raccoons, hawks and other scapegoats make it impossible to grow quail populations. Those people are wrong, and their ideas are dangerous,” McClain continues. “We have proven that habitat is the missing ingredient. Focus on thinning your pines, using prescribed fire regularly and planting native vegetation, and the quail population can rebound!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.