Fire has become a common tool for creating wildlife habiat. But using it over high explosives? That’s new, at least here.
Photo: PA Game Commission
What do you get when you mix high explosives, large weapons and fire?
If your first thought was bobwhite quail, raise your hand.
Then put it back down. Because you’re fibbing and we all know it.
That crazy cocktail just may produce birds, though, or least the kind of habitat capable of supporting them, if all goes well at Letterkenny Army Depot in southcentral Pennsylvania.
Here’s the story.
Pennsylvania Game Commission officials want to re-establish bobwhite quail in the state. There are none left right now.
They’ve targeted Letterkenny, a U.S. Army facility near Chambersburg, as the place to do it. The commission and military signed an agreement to work toward that end.
That mostly means reclaiming old fields.
“Tree clearing is going to be our major objective,” said Tom Keller, the commission’s bobwhite quail focus area coordinator.
Some of that will be done via conventional timbering. More will be done using prescribed fire.
Crews burned 139 acres earlier this spring.
Burning over ammo
That didn’t come without concerns. Burns have been used on military sites in some places in the country for years, Keller noted. Still, he said, it’s something different here to “burn over a bunker that’s full of hundreds of pounds of munitions.”
“It was really exciting for us, really nerve-wracking for them,” Keller said.
There are other challenges, too.
Ben Jones, chief of the commission’s habitat planning division, said that one state game lands, burns are typically green-lighted only the day before they occur, so as to utilize the most up-to-date weather conditions. Letterkenny officials, though, want 48 hours notice.
“Which can be really tough,” Jones said. “Two days out, your weather forecast is still coming together.”
There are other issues, too.
To participate in a burn at Letterkenny, commission employees have to undergo criminal background checks, then get security approval the day of any burn. Army fire department and ammunition specialists also have to attend every burn, which can lead to scheduling issues, Jones said.
He’s confident fire can be used at the facility to good effect, though.
What that leads to, and how soon, are questions.
Keller said the commission’s quail management plan is finalized. It will guide decisions through the end of 2027.
Part of it had called for “translocating” quail – i.e. bringing them in from another state and releasing them in Pennsylvania – as early as 2018.
Keller asked other staffers in house and experts from sportsmen’s organizations like Quail Forever and the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to review it. He asked the same of biologists from a number of other states, including Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Nebraska and Kansas, among them.
“So we wanted to get this in the hands of as many people as possible who are experts on this to give us some feedback,” Keller said.
Two common concerns surfaced.
The 2018 timeline for releasing birds was one.
“Most of those people recommended we push that back at least one year and maybe multiple years,” Keller said.
The commission – which will be asking some of those very states for quail – agreed to revise its schedule. Now, Keller said, the goal is to release birds starting in 2019.
The other concern was how to capture birds and move them around successfully.
“Translocation is one of the biggest issues in the quail world,” Keller said. “It’s a challenge to say the least.”
Reviewers of the plan suggested the commission come up with a detailed plan of action. In light of that, Keller said he’ll be putting together a task force of experts from around the country to come up with ideas.
He believes the management plan is capable of adapting to any challenges that arise there or on other fronts. Keller said it’s of necessity flexible.
“That’s the big thing with quail habitat. It’s always changing even as you’re managing it,” he said. “So you can’t be too rigid.”
The test state
The commission is optimistic it can overcome any challenges, said executive director Bryan Burhans. It’s counting on getting technical assistance and other help from its many partners, he added.
All, he noted, want to see this reintroduction work.
“Everybody’s hoping we can be successful in this endeavor. Everybody’s watching,” Burhans said.
The reason is simple, Keller added. Bobwhites are in trouble across almost all of their range.
Pennsylvania, though – which now considers the birds extirpated, meaning with none left in the wild — is the first place where anyone is trying to bring the birds back from zero.
That’s why everyone’s on board with helping, he said.
“Because they’re afraid they’re going to end up like us, and they’re afraid they’re going to have to do the same thing,” Keller said.