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Pennsylvania Game Commission managing reintroduced bobwhite quail population

Mar. 22—In the five years that Alex Busato has been keeping his eyes peeled for local birds, he's seen perhaps two bobwhite quails. State game commission officials are hoping to change that.

Once found in all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties in the mid-1800s, the little 10-inch-tall bird has been pushed out of its classic habitat — the older grassy fields found on family farms, which once covered more than 60% of Pennsylvania.

This week, game commission officials released a group of 50 bobwhite quails on the grounds of the Letterkenny Army Depot in Franklin County, part of a larger group of 76 that have been released so far.

"This is an exciting time, the next chapter in a story of wildlife restoration," said Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. "It's difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to take any species that's disappeared and bring it back again."

Farmland now covers about 25% of the state, and as farms disappeared, so did many population centers for the quails, Burhans said.

"They were a pretty decent food source when the state was being settled, said Busato, who is president of the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club. "Habitat has been a very limiting thing for them."

The quails were hardly alone. When Pennsylvania's forests were largely clear-cut by timber barons in the 1800s, many animals closely associated with the Keystone State were nearly wiped out.

"We almost lost white-tailed deer and wild turkeys when the forests were clear-cut," Busato said. "And when they grew back, we lost a lot of the habitat diversity we once had, and that wasn't conducive to the quails."

The game commission declared bobwhite quails extirpated — gone from within state borders — after extensive surveys in 2013 and 2014, although they suspect it probably happened even earlier, sometime between 1990 and 2000.

In the intervening years, the commission has worked to find a suitable restoration site. Starting in 2017, they worked with Letterkenny officials to manage about 2,700 acres and create the Bobwhite Quail Focus Area.

After working with partners in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida, PGC staff were able to trap and relocate quails to the Franklin County Army installation, with another trapping effort planned for next week in Virginia.

Those numbers should make a successful species restoration possible, according to PGC Quail Biologist Andrew Ward.

"We now have warm-season, bunch and clump grasses to provide nesting cover," Ward said. "We have forbs and legumes to provide brood habitat as well as food. And we have shrubby, woody cover that offers protection from the elements as well as from predators."

There will no quail hunting permitted in the near future, and the PGC has a management plan that outlines steps to continue restoring the population through 2030.

In addition, two graduate students will be on-site this summer to monitor the birds' progress, and will track them through leg bands and radio collars.

Burhans said it will take time, pointing to the decades-long process of restoring eagles to their current in-state population.

"This is an opportunity to help bobwhites in ways we never have before," he said. "I can't wait to see where this project takes us."

Busato said he's excited as well.

"They've done similar thing with the ruffed grouse and the American woodcock," he said. "I think the reintroduction is a great thing."

Patrick Varine is a TribLive reporter covering Delmont, Export and Murrysville. He is a Western Pennsylvania native and joined the Trib in 2010 after working as a reporter and editor with the former Dover Post Co. in Delaware. He can be reached at pvarine@triblive.com.