To his credit, Joe Crafton didn't sigh, or mutter, or hang up the phone when Unfair Park hit him with The Big Dumb Question. Instead, the chairman and co-founder of Park Cities Quail -- a group of well-heeled quail hunters who recently announced success in their campaign to raise money to help scientists sequence the genetic blueprint of Texas' vanishing bobwhite quail -- politely hung in there.
"You know," came the BDQ, "some people might wonder if you're so concerned with quails' survival, why don't you stop shooting at them?"
OK, stop right there, any hunters reading this. Before you limber up those fingers to fire off a flaming comment, let's clear things up: While most of the Unfair Park Action News Team doesn't share your tastes for blasting God's creatures to kingdom come (mostly because it involves waking up before 11), we respect and endorse your right to do so. And, yes, most of us do eat meat and wear leather, but we prefer to have other people do our killing. Call us hypocrites if you like; we prefer the term "American."
Now, back to the quail hunters.
"That's the easy punchline, and you hear it from those who don't understand," Crafton told us. The plain truth, he said, is that quail hunters pay a huge bill to preserve not only quail, but a good chunk of the Texas environment.
In the past five years, Park Cities Quail has raised more than $2 million to help bobwhite quail, and their annual benefit dinner earlier this month drew more than 1,000 "sport enthusiasts" who spent an average $380 per plate. That money will help fund the Bobwhite Genome Project conducted by the Rolling Plains Research Ranch in Roby in cooperation with Texas A&M.
Crafton said the hope is that genetic sequencing will help researchers determine exactly what has caused the Texas quail population to plummet, and find ways to help it recover. (As writer Ann Zimmerman reported in the Wall Street Journal this month, state surveys found and average 5.3 birds per area measured in 2011, well below the longtime average of 21.)
One likely culprit is a widespread infestation of parasitic worms that attack the birds' eyes, Crafton said, leaving them vulnerable to predators, which in the wild is just about anything that isn't a quail. (Just picture poor Mr. Bobwhite, stumbling around Mr. Magoo-like, groping for a mate, unloved and harried by snakes and foxes, while his only friend in the world tries to cure him so he can shoot him. It'd break your heart if they weren't so damn tasty grilled over mesquite.)
But don't blame the hunters for the population decline. The money they shell out to provide quail habitat preserves countless acres of Texas range land, also giving homes to other species, including meadowlarks and horned lizards, on ranches that might otherwise be converted to grazing or monoculture farming, which are much more environmentally hostile than a few loads of bird shot.
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"A well-managed quail ranch will look a lot like land looked, presumably, 1,000 years ago, Crafton said.
And hunters do shell out. On average the cost to a hunter for the dogs, travel, ammo, etc. comes out to roughly $260 for every bird taken, Crafton said, and for every quail a hunter bags, another 1,000 are provided habitat and a chance of a natural, unpleasant death. It's easy to be an armchair environmentalist, but as Crafton said, ask the folks standing in line at the DMV how many of them would be willing to pay $2,600 to save 10 quail.
No thanks. Rather not. While I wouldn't be surprised to die of old age in line at the DMV, I'd just as soon not be torn limb from limb.
But it makes you think, doesn't it? Like, how might we harness hunters' wallets to other good causes. Say, the Women's Health Program. State-issued game stamps for poor wo ... Nope, sorry. Can't do it. Let's give Jonathan Swift a rest. Besides, someone might take the suggestion seriously.