BLOOMING GROVE -- On one side of a gravel road in Navarro County, an overgrazed pasture has been cropped to the dirt. Across the road, a surviving patch of Blackland Prairie that has been reseeded with native grasses is covered with a cornucopia of 170 plant species that together comprise prime habitat for bobwhite quail -- if only they could get there.
"That worn-down pasture's what you call a quail-proof fence. It turns this good habitat into a deserted island," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jay Whiteside, who works with 33 landowners on the Western Navarro Bobwhite Restoration Initiative on 25,000 acres around Blooming Grove, between Hillsboro and Corsicana.
"That over there is no better than concrete for quail," Jimmie Stewart, vice president of the landowners group, said as he stripped seeds from a stalk of eastern gamma grass into palm. "This is quail ice cream. This is what they need."
For wildlife managers and quail lovers, the two fields represent the problem and perhaps the answer to a conundrum across Texas and 24 states that make up the historic range of bobwhites.
Populations of the storied upland game bird and grasslands troubadour, with the iconic call of "bobwhite, bobwhite," are crashing with a speed that rivals the explosion of a flushed covey taking flight.
Range-wide, bobwhites have declined an estimated 80 percent over the past 40 years, said Don McKenzie, director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a University of Tennessee-based consortium of 25 state wildlife agencies, conservation groups and research institutions launched in 2007 to form a unified strategy for saving bobwhites.
"It's hard to overstate how serious the problem is. It's becoming really severe," McKenzie said. "All 25 bobwhite states have experienced short, medium and long-term declines."
Moving in lockstep with the decline is a steep falloff in Texas quail hunting, a cultural touchstone for generations of hunters and a once-powerful economic generator. Quail hunters can spend more than $8,000 apiece annually, according to a study by Kelly Reyna of the University of North Texas.
In 1960, 321,000 Texas quail hunters bagged 98 million birds. In 2010, there were fewer than 50,000 hunters and the harvest was around a half million quail.
Hunters fear their children will never know what they're missing.
"A whole generation is being lost. They've heard stories of the good old days, but we haven't had a good year in the last five," said Joe Crafton of Dallas, one of the founders of Park Cities Quail, which has raised millions of dollars to fund quail research since 2006. "People are very concerned and wonder if they will ever come back."
Carter Smith, director of the TPWD, said he can't envision a bigger wildlife concern in Texas.
"Last summer's drought was a very difficult blow to quail populations. Some of the declines we can tie to habitat losses and unfavorable weather. But there are parts of the state that seem to defy those trends."
There's concern among scientists that there may be more nefarious things at work.
"Bobwhite quail are the king of the game birds in Texas. They are an integral part of our state's great outdoors and natural heritage. It would be a travesty to see this bird disappear from the entirety of the landscape," Smith said.
Over the decades, as quail populations kept shrinking, the fingers kept pointing as people sought answers. Some blamed over-hunting, others pointed to fire ants and feral hogs as newly plentiful predators. Others singled out quail-specific diseases.
Droughts cause extreme short-term declines but, McKenzie said, the problem comes down to one key thing: vanishing habitat.
"Every presentation I give to landowners and hunters, I will hear that nothing has changed except the quail are gone. That is an understandable human perception, but it is erroneous," he said.
But small farms with a patchwork of native pastures, weedy fence rows, and fields left fallow every season have been replaced by industrialized agriculture where no ground is left unplowed.
In Navarro County, Whiteside estimates, there once were 50 farms where now there are five. "It's a landscape change," he said, noting that even with 25,000 acres in the initiative there are lots of missing links between the restored lands.
"Everything has to be connected like a spider web. The quail have to move on connected corridors of good habitat," Whiteside said.
Standing in the reseeded field, the biologist holds his arms out and does a slow whirl, counting off six native plants surrounding his boots: little blue stem grass, big blue stem, white prairie rose, Texas thistle, coral berry and side-oats grama grass.
Then he nods toward a clump of wild plums and a scattering of mesquite trees.
It's close to everything a bobwhite would need, thick clumps of bunch grass for nesting, a profusion of seeding plants for food and stands of short brush that offer protection from predators and provide "loafing" areas.
But there are only few calls of bobwhite, bobwhite to be heard on this day. Whiteside admits he hasn't seen a covey in years.
"It's going to take a while. You have to be stubborn -- and I'm real stubborn," he said.
Livestock industry practices have also changed quail country, experts say.
Until the 1950s and 1960s, almost all Texas cattle grazed on native range vegetation. From Fort Worth east across the country, that range has mostly been converted to exotic grasses like coastal Bermuda which grows thick, making it great for cows but a desert for quail.
"But that's not a change people see when they drive down the road. The cows are still grazing on pastures they were on 50 years ago but now it's exotic, invasive grass," McKenzie said.
But some scientists think there is something else going on, particularly in West Texas, where good habitat is still abundant.
"Nearly everyone will tell you one or two things: habitat or weather. We don't disagree with either one, but we are especially concerned about what happened in 2010. We've got the habitat and the weather was perfect that year, but there were no quail,'' said Dr. Dale Rollins, a wildlife specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and director of the privately funded Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch near Rotan.
"We're investigating parasitic diseases to see if that is related. Something else seems to have gone awry, and we are trying to find out what it is."
"Birds will respond"
The strategy to bring back bobwhites is simple in concept but complicated in execution: create focus areas like the Navarro County initiative where there are large blocks of habitat or at the least scattered patches of suitable ground, said Robert Perez, the upland game bird program manager for TPWD.
A similar effort involving several dozen landowners has been successful on more than 25,000 acres near Columbus, Perez said.
"We badly need to show that if you do the work, the birds will respond," Perez said, noting that a potential 300,000-acre quail corridor project led by Reyna of UNT is now getting under way west of Denton.
"Fortunately, we do have parts of the state where bobwhite quail are still doing quite well. The other bit of good news is that there is such a strong concerted effort among so many private and public sector partners to help unravel this decline that it does give one hope for the future," he said.