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Biologists look for ways to save endangered birds

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004

 

  A male masked bobwhite quail, his beak modified to lessen injuries in fights, protects a batch of chicks hatched from captive parents Aug. 18, 2004, in a rearing facility at the Buenos Aries Wildlife Refuge west of Arivaca, Ariz. Biologists have released more than 25,000 masked bobwhite quail in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge since 1985, but within a year of being set free, more than 90 percent of the endangered birds are dead, most of them picked off by hawks. Today, 100 to 200 of the quail survive in the wild. AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Kel

A male masked bobwhite quail, his beak modified to lessen injuries in fights, protects a batch of chicks hatched from captive parents Aug. 18, 2004, in a rearing facility at the Buenos Aries Wildlife Refuge west of Arivaca, Ariz. Biologists have released more than 25,000 masked bobwhite quail in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge since 1985, but within a year of being set free, more than 90 percent of the endangered birds are dead, most of them picked off by hawks. Today, 100 to 200 of the quail survive in the wild.

AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Kel

TUCSON, Ariz. Biologists have released more than 25,000 masked bobwhite quail in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge since 1985, when the federal government bought a ranch for nearly $9 million and booted cows from the grasslands southwest of Tucson.

But within a year of being set free, more than 90 percent of the endangered birds were dead, most of them picked off by hawks. Today, 100 to 200 survive in the wild.

Now, officials have decided to halt releases of the quail so they can figure out what's going wrong.

''We're not giving up the fight for the masked bobwhite,'' manager Mitch Ellis said. ''We'll keep doing what we can for the habitat, and the birds will come along at some point.''

The reintroduction program has long been held up as a costly federal boondoggle by conservative critics and neighboring ranchers.

Backers of the 118,000-acre refuge by far the largest ever created to recover an endangered species counter that the Buenos Aires protects open space that might otherwise sprout homes and benefits a raft of species besides the bobwhite.

The refuge has no problem pumping out quail, using techniques borrowed from commercial poultry production. But captive-bred birds may not retain enough wild instincts, and the landscape they inhabit is still recovering from more than a century of grazing, erosion and human influence.

''We're trying to get a handle on what's going on out in the wild without throwing all these birds out there,'' said Sally Gall, assistant refuge manager. ''We're at a real crucial turning point. ... It's been many, many years of releases and you really can't say we're fully succeeding here, to be honest.''

In the shadow of Baboquivari Peak's bald knob, an unnatural proliferation of mesquites crowds out grasses and gives raptors places to perch. Lehmann lovegrass, a species from South Africa, dominates the Altar Valley and outcompetes native plants the quail rely on for food and cover.

The refuge has already tweaked its aggressive prescribed-burning program. It is now considering experiments with seeding, herbicides, chain saws and even limited grazing to restore the native vegetation.

''We're not ruling anything out,'' said Ellis.

The bird was first collected in Arizona in 1884 by Herbert Brown, former owner of the Arizona Citizen newspaper. Transplanted Easterners like Brown were enamored of the quail since its mask and call of ''bobwhite'' recalled the northern bobwhites commonly hunted back home in the 19th century.

However, drought and overgrazing decimated Southern Arizona's grasslands and caused the birds to vanish by 1900, scientists say.

Ornithologists and conservationists rallied around the bird because it was ''a symbol of all the destruction that occurred in Southern Arizona at the time,'' said Nathan Sayre, whose doctoral thesis and a book focus on the quail and refuge.

The quail landed on the cover of the 1964 ''Birds of Arizona,'' which called it ''Arizona's most famous bird.'' But numerous reintroduction attempts failed, and it wasn't until the 1973 Endangered Species Act that the federal government was mandated to recover the quail.

Since 1996, the captive breeding has been done at the refuge, where incubators, brooders and flight pens amount to an assembly line for making quail. Heat, light and humidity are regulated to induce breeding, and a crackly radio seems to calm the quail, which can become cannibalistic if they're not debeaked.

The problem is that survival of the fittest in cages may not select for the traits the birds need to make a living in the wild, said Melanie Culver, a geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Even under ideal conditions, the quail suffer staggering mortality rates, with 70 percent to 80 percent perishing in their first year.

Steve Dobrott, a refuge biologist from 1985 to 1992, said the bird's best hope is conserving the Sonora population so there are enough quail to transplant to the refuge. But Dobrott, a member of the review team, said even wild quail will find something missing in the Altar Valley, such as enough diversity of winter vegetation.

Sayre's book points to dramatic changes in hydrology: storm runoff once spread across the valley to create a moist microclimate for the birds, but today it's whisked away in a wash that has grown from 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep to as much as 20 feet deep and 1,400 feet wide.

Nearly everyone with a stake in the refuge thinks it's smart to hold off on more releases, but not all of the possible habitat treatments have universal support. Some environmentalists and scientists worry that applying herbicides, discing the soil or dragging chains with bulldozers to uproot mesquites could do more harm than good.

Tucson residents have no trouble seeing quail in subdivisions within city limits, but those are usually the Gambel's variety. Masked bobwhites are far more sneaky and were never common in Arizona. Nearly all of the bird's historic range is in Sonora. That's why the reintroduction is bound to fail, said Arivaca resident Mary Kasulaitis, whose family's Noon Ranch borders the refuge on two sides.

''We're saving something that isn't really indigenous to this area or was here in great numbers to begin with,'' said Kasulaitis, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1879. ''If they want to save this as desert grassland, that's one thing. But if they want to waste a lot of effort on these birds, that's another.''



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