Ready, Aim, Fire!
Along the Florida-Georgia border are 80 quail hunting plantations that make up 300,000 acres of accidental nature reserve. Each year scientists and land managers burn tens of thousands of acres and use various other means to mimic natural conditions, preserving a wealth of biodiversity, including the embattled bobwhite quail.
"Careful, boy. Watch what you're doin' in there."
Jimmy Patterson certainly looks the part of a huntmaster. He is a big man decked out in a red vest and suede leather chaps, part dog handler, part hunting guide, part choreographer of the Southern plantation pageant unfolding on this Florida savanna. "Easy, boy," he coos at an English pointer stalking through broomsedge and blackberry. The pointer twitches with checked energy, then freezes in its tracks. In an instant Patterson stands up in his saddle and signals with a lifted red cap. "Point over he-ah!" he yells, and we're off the horses, pulling guns from leather scabbards.
Lane Green goes right while I stride to the left of the bird dog, fingering two shells into the shotgun. "Careful," Patterson cautions again, and this time I'm not sure if he's talking to me or the dog. He slashes at the thicket with a leather flushing whip. A few feet away, two mules shuffle in their harnesses. Hitched to a large wheeled wagon that carries another six bird dogs--the pointers are rotated every 30 minutes to keep them fresh and hunting hard--the mules seem to know what's about to happen.
Suddenly the covey flushes with a sound that has startled predators across the ages, a roar of whirring wings all out of proportion to a six-ounce bird. "Mark!" Patterson hollers, as a shotgun blasts. "Mark again! Mark!" Another shot, and another quail tumbles from a corolla of russet feathers that floats above the savanna. A yellow Labrador retriever leaps from the mule-drawn wagon and vaults into the thicket. When it reappears, it holds a bobwhite gently in its mouth.
It's early February, near the end of Florida's quail hunting season, and this is the year's 491st wild northern bobwhite shot at the 6,500-acre Foshalee Plantation in north Florida. Patterson tallies the count with clerical fervor, for here in the sprawling Red Hills along the Florida-Georgia border, chasing bobwhite quail with dogs and mules and horses and guns is a fundamental part of what some might consider a counterintuitive reality: Hunting the birds goes hand in hand with conserving them. And with taking care of a vast landscape flush with other animals tied to this imperiled ecosystem.
Northern bobwhite numbers are free-falling across most of the bird's range, but not here. Between Tallahassee, Florida, and Thomasville, Georgia, about 80 quail hunting plantations--most with roots that reach back to the Gilded Age--comprise 300,000 acres of rolling open pinewood savannas, carpets of golden wiregrass, ancient lakes, and river swamp. This landscape seems lifted from another time. As southern land prices collapsed after the Civil War, wealthy industrialists from the North snapped up huge Red Hills land parcels. Fueled by a growing interest in bird hunting, the trickle of Yankees swelled into a flood. The first luxury hotel was built in Thomasville in 1875, and soon quail plantations were chockablock between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla rivers.
Today the region's quail-crazy landowners spend small fortunes on their hunting passion. Some are the scions of original late-19th-century plantation owners, families that guard their identities--and properties--cautiously. Others have come into their uber-wealth more recently--think Ted Turner and a raft of dot-commers. Just about all of them employ plantation managers and request advice from biologists charged with fine-tuning their lands for quail. They burn tens of thousands of acres in prescribed fires to mimic natural conditions. In effect, the region has evolved into a massive, privately owned, accidental reserve of biological diversity. More than 100 bird species are found here, including Bachman's sparrows, Henslow's sparrows, and brown-headed nuthatches, three of 20 Red Hills birds considered "species of greatest conservation need" by state wildlife agencies. The plantations are home to the largest population of federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands anywhere. They are a stronghold for gopher tortoises--a federally threatened species across its range except for the state of Florida--and rare Florida pine snakes.
Yet this is no longer a timeless landscape. Development is pressing in on the Red Hills. Between 1980 and 2009 Tallahassee's population more than doubled, from 81,548 to 177,879, and tens of thousands of rural acres were lost to low-density residential development. The nationwide economic slump is hampering families that annually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars maintaining open lands with frequent fires that are the foundation of the region's ecology. Many plantation owners are growing older, and their conservation ethic may or may not be shared by heirs and new owners. A loss of expanded tax benefits for conservation easements could make it more difficult to secure new open-space agreements. "Our job of selling conservation and stewardship is only getting more challenging," says Lane Green, executive director of the Tall Timbers Research Station, a privately funded, 4,000-acre Red Hills research facility whose work is the foundation of conservation efforts in the region.
All of which is forcing plantation owners, scientists, and local conservationists to wonder: Will bumper crops of bobwhites be enough to sustain this landscape--and grassland wildlife species other than the beloved quail--in a future increasingly dissimilar to its post-Reconstruction roots?