Monday, June 3, 2013

Texas quail may get financial aid


Only time will tell if it makes a difference, but more money may be coming to help find an answer to what is happening to Texas’ quail and Eastern turkey populations.

If a budget proposal stands, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will have authority to spend not only the money it takes in annually with its Upland Game Bird stamp, but will also be able to spend down an almost $5 million fund surplus.

Of course nothing is simple when the Legislature gets involved, and that is certainly the case here. It started with Texas AgriLife Extension Service asking for $1 million a year during the next two-year budget cycle from the state’s general revenue fund to conduct bobwhite quail research and landowner education. Somehow that morphed into the money coming from TPWD’s Upland Game Bird stamp fund.

Then, answering calls for the fund surplus to be used, the Legislature has proposed allowing the department to spend not only its normal $1.5 million annually from the fund, but also an additional $2 million a year during the budget cycle on habitat work and other projects. This extra money is to be filtered out to universities and approved non-government agencies.

“Everyone has been worried about these balances. That takes care of them,” said Dave Morrison, TPWD small game program leader.

The Upland Game Bird stamp fund comes from a $7 stamp charged hunters who hunt quail and wild turkey or is included in Super Combo license. Previously the department has been authorized through the state budget to spend about $1.5 million annually primarily on projects on wildlife management areas.

Morrison said that TAES will be able to control how it spends the money, but it comes with the provision that TPWD must approve the programs. As the budget bill is written, TAES can use the money to research diseases and toxins affecting quail, develop diagnostic testing, do DNA mapping of the birds, conduct field studies and demonstrations and develop a central bank for quail research. TAES may also use some of the money to underwrite quail research conducted by other universities as well.

Even without the budget having been approved yet, TPWD is already looking for additional projects for the extra $2 million it could receive.

“We are working on it. We have focus areas and I have asked our guys for ideas of things to be done. This is a lot grander than we imagined,” Morrison said.

Morrison said the department is already asking universities and researchers to admit proposals in focus areas in Northeast Texas, the western portion of the Cross Timbers, nine counties in the Coastal Plains region and western Navarro and Ellis counties in the Blackland Prairie region. Research efforts and projects in Northeast Texas would focus on Eastern wild turkeys and will most likely involve the use of controlled burns. The area originally included just Bowie and Red River counties, but has been expanded to Camp, Cass, Delta, Hunt, Fannin, Franklin, Grayson, Harrison, Hopkins, Lamar, Marion, Morris, Rains, Titus, Upshur, and Wood counties.

“We are talking about doing things on private property,” Morrison said of the expected projects statewide.

He added that it could be difficult to come up with enough worthwhile projects to spend the entire amount on because starting in September when the state’s new fiscal year begins is an odd time for university researchers. Morrison said the money that isn’t used will go back into the stamp fund if it can’t be rolled over to 2014-15 projects.

A smaller attempt to fund projects in the focus areas last year showed the department the difficulties of the task it faces.

“We did a truncated list of projects last year to the tune of $130,000. We are going to have to think big,” Morrison said.
Some say the money is needed to turn around a quail population that has been in a decline for two decades. Morrison is among a group of biologists that believe two back-to-back years of normal rainfall will make a bigger difference.

In East Texas quail can almost be considered extinct as their numbers are so low and populations are so fragmented. Instead the department hopes it can bolster its turkey restoration program that is currently just hanging on in some counties. 

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