Of birds and fish

“Prehistoric evidence of bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania dates back as early as the 1400s with the discovery of their bones found in early human settlements.” – Pennsylvania Game Commission

I remember the first year I was old enough to hunt on my own. My grandfather owned a sizeable farm in southcentral Pennsylvania that was mostly forested, though there was a power line right-of-way that ran up through the only field he worked. I left my grandparent’s house just as the sun was rising since my plan was to simply walk across the field and up the powerline ROW which would only take me a few minutes.

When I reached the corner of the field and turned the corner onto the grassy powerline ROW, a covey of quail erupted out of the tall grass between the field and the powerline. At 12 years old, in the half-light of the morning, the quail about caused me a mild heart attack.

Quail sightings on my grandfather’s farm were somewhat frequent back then (late 80’s). By my Junior year of High School, my Granparent’s health was failing and they sold the farm to settle in a nice split-level in town. It’s hard to recall at this point, but my last wild quail sighting was somewhere around that point in time.

Bobwhite Quail
Bobwhite Quail

Photo Credit – By I, BS Thurner Hof, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2275479

Changes in agricultural practices are often cited as a major contributing factor to the decline and eventual extirpation of Bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania. As the native bird was losing it’s grip on our landscape, another avian sport bird was also declining.

The state started stocking Ringneck pheasants in the early 1900’s, though private landowners are reported to have been releasing the Asian birds in Pennsylvania back into the mid 1700’s. Self-sustaining populations of Ringneck pheasants ebbed and flowed throughout the 1920’s. The Pennsylvania Game Commission spent considerable money and resources building Pheasant rearing farms across PA.

By 1983, the Game Commission was stocking 425,217 pheasants per year across the Keystone state. This operation was the equivalent to a “Put-and-take” fishery in that the vast majority of the pheasants didn’t survive the winter. Through mass-producing the birds, the wild instincts of the Ringneck were essentially bred out of the resulting product.

Through urban expansion, it’s estimated that Pennsylvania has lost approximately 900,000 acres of farmland to development from the 1970’s to early 1980’s. Both our native quail and the imported Asian Ringneck have suffered from the massive loss of habitat across the state.

For the Bobwhite Quail, another factor helped in their demise. As with Ringneck pheasants, large numbers of pen-reared quail were released throughout Pennsylvania to support hunting. The massive influx of suboptimal genetics to the remaining wild population is believed to have contributed to the decline and eventual extirpation of quail from Pennsylvania.

Ringneck pheasants continue to be propagated by the Game Commission and private individuals throughout the Commonwealth. The populations of Ringnecks are almost entirely supported by artificial propagation. In 2011, the PGC developed a Northern Bobwhite Quail Management Plan for Pennsylvania. While the program initially set out to determine how many quail and how much habitat was left, after determining that Northern Bobwhite Quail were extirpated from Pennsylvania, the program is currently working to restore a small self-sustaining population at a military depot in Southcentral Pennsylvania.

Northern Bobwhite Quail

Image Credit: By HarmonyonPlanetEarth – Northern Bobwhite|Laguna Atascosa NWR|TX | 2015-05-15at10-20-1012, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45578764

I’ve heard from several biologists within Pennsylvania that brook trout face fewer threats here than in our neighboring state to the south (Maryland) and we may actually be gaining brook trout populations in some watersheds. This is the argument I hear when I ask why Maryland sees brook trout conservation as such a high priority, while Pennsylvania seems to be happy to leave well enough alone. To be clear, I have never received actual survey data to back up these claims even when I’ve asked for them.

As with quail, habitat loss is a major contributing factor to the localized declines in brook trout numbers across Pennsylvania (Kocovsky, P. M., and R. F. Carline. 2006. Influence of
landscape-scale factors in limiting brook trout populations in Pennsylvania streams. Transactions of the
American Fisheries Society 135:76–88.).

According to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s “Distribution, Status and Perturbations to Brook trout within the eastern United States” from 2005:

Self-sustaining populations of brook trout are more likely to be extirpated from subwatersheds where the percentage of land with human uses was greater than 18%. Intact populations (>50%) are more likely in subwatersheds where the percentage of human uses is less than 10%. Continued habitat loss associated with land use practices, existing and new populations of naturalized exotic coldwater and warmwater fishes threaten remaining brook trout populations. Even with no further habitat loss or increase in exotic fishes, existing habitat fragmentation could lead to continuing extirpations at the subwatershed scale.

In the 1800’s, Bobwhite quail were found in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties and had expanded in both range and numbers. I often wonder if those alive during that time could have predicted that the species would be wiped from the state completely? While brook trout have lost considerable numbers and watersheds in Pennsylvania (A regional and state-level assessment (Hudy et al. 2005) indicates that “Pennsylvania had the greatest number of watersheds with brook trout populations classified as reduced, severely reduced, extirpated, or unknown” within the eastern brook trout’s native range.) we still have many miles of somewhat resilient populations in the northern tier of the state.

It’s hard to ignore the similarities in management of our native bird and native fish species. Both lost strongholds due to habitat loss, and both were replaced with artificially propagated nonnative species. While habitat loss is an obvious driver for the declines in brook trout, nonnative invasive species have also had a serious impact on the decline in their numbers across the keystone state.

There is compelling evidence that the presence of nonnative fish species has a direct impact on other environmental factors. (Fausch, K. D., and R. J. White. 1981. Competition between brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) for positions in a Michigan stream. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 38:1220-1227.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/f81-164) and (Marschall, E. A., and L. B. Crowder. 1996. Assessing population responses to multiple anthropogenic effects: a case study with brook trout. Ecological Applications 6:152-167.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/2269561)

That is to say, harmful environmental factors may be exaggerated by the presence of nonnative fish. Any protection or restoration efforts to protect and enhance wild native brook trout populations must be a holistic approach including work to improve habitat, water quality, and the removal of nonnative fish species.

wild native brook trout

Ongoing studies to examine brook trout population trends in Pennsylvania are lacking. Our state has a wide variety of habitat types for brook trout spread across the state. While we may be gaining populations in some watersheds and subwatersheds, we’re almost undoubtedly losing populations in other regions of the state.

As we’ve seen with the Northern Bobwhite Quail, it’s much harder to bring a species back from extirpation than it is to prevent the extirpation in the first place. With brook trout, we need to do more than simply habitat and water quality improvement. Genetic introgression from hatchery-raised brook trout, competition, and displacement from nonnative species, angler exploitation, and incidental mortality resulting from stocking hatchery fish over top of wild native brook trout, are all pressures that we (as humans) have the ability to correct. I only hope that we can find the courage to make difficult decisions now before brook trout are in the same position as the Bobwhite quail.

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