When I was a kid, many things were different than they are today. I won’t go into all of them that I lament the passing of, but I will tell you of a few that I think are affecting the current quail population.
In my younger days, almost every ranch was a “working ranch.” There was almost no such thing as a game ranch and almost no such thing as an absentee owner. Of course, a few of the wealthier landowners lived in the city and hired people to work the ranch, but it was still a true agriculture-producing ranch.
Another thing that was much different was that most of the ranches had families that lived on them. Those families had children, like my buddy, Wyman Meinzer, and his family. His father Pate was the cattle foreman of a fairly large ranch near where we grew up, and Wyman and his brother and sister lived in a little house on a hill overlooking the Brazos River. Wyman, like most ranch kids, spent the days he wasn’t going to school or working cattle in wandering the country with a .22 or an old single-shot shotgun held together with bailing wire.
These days there are immensely fewer such ranching families. In my own neck of the desert, I can think of only three or four ranches that have families in residence. In addition to this, I would hazard a guess that over half, possibly two-thirds, of the ranches in the county have been cut up and sold in smaller pieces; or sold in total to absentee owners that visit only a few times a year, and bought the ranches because the deer hunting around here is good–not because they wanted to raise beef or other livestock.
As there are fewer people on the ranches, and because the present owners are scared stiff that somebody is going to shoot one of their precious deer, there is nowhere near as much access as there once was. Because there are fewer cowboys and fewer kids on the ranches, there are fewer people riding around or walking around with .22 rifles plinking the jackrabbits, skunks, opossums, raccoons and other so-called “nuisance animals.”
Many of these people do not understand the need to control predators. I was run off one such ranch a few years ago. I was there at the request of the rancher who leased the place to graze his livestock. I was trapping coyotes, specifically, but was also catching the occasional raccoon or other predator. When the landowner discovered what I was doing, he called the lessee and told him to get me off the place, that he wanted no predators killed on his property.
In addition to lack of access to the land, the price of furs has gone into the cellar. With this bottoming out of the fur market there are fewer people running traplines. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, my buddies and I ran traplines to catch raccoons, ringtails, foxes, opossums, and such for the furs. We made a pretty neat profit each winter selling the furs.
In the 1980s, the animal rights “activists” successfully torpedoed the fur-fashion market, which led to a decline in trapping all over the nation.
In the 1990s, the animal rights “activists” lobbied the federal government until congress caved in and cut the budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s predator control program. This caused the curtailment and, in many cases, the complete elimination of the program that employed government trappers, which was instrumental in the control of many of the predators discussed herein. On top of that, the animal rights Nazis are still lobbying for even more protection for, and even the reintroduction of, top predators. The wolves that have decimated the elk population in Yellowstone Park, and which have spread onto private land in several states, living now on privately owned livestock, is a perfect example of this lunacy. Another good example is the mountain lions in California that have gotten so plentiful that they have begun to attack kids and joggers with alarming regularity.
Now for the clincher: Since in Texas, specifically, there are few people on the ranches; furs are worth less; there is less federally funded predator control; and since there are fewer people trapping, the numbers of animals such as raccoons has skyrocketed. Don’t believe me? Ask any of the deer hunters about the number of raccoons that raid their deer feeders. I have seen as many as a dozen raccoons around a single feeder. This population spike is also true of skunks, opossums, and other such denizens of the brush, including feral house cats, which are bird-killing machines, proven to kill billions of birds each year, including quail.
If the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department wants to find out why the quail population is so depressed, they need to quit looking for fire ants and strange and exotic diseases and start looking at what is right in front of their noses. Nest and direct predation are the scoundrels here, not some difficult to identify disease.