For years most Texans have considered “hunting” to mean white-tailed deer. That perception is fading fast as quail hunting becomes more popular. In the past, Texas quail were commonly thrown in with the deer, turkey, and other species on many leases. No more. Today quail, both the bobwhite and blue (i.e., scaled) varieties, are big business in Texas in their own right.

One rancher whose quail hunting enterprise is typical of a growing number of operations across Texas is Joe Pat Hemphill, a fourth-generationcow/calf operator from northern Coleman County.

“I think anyone who has had their eyes open, particularly over the last 10 years, knows that hunting of all types, especially quail hunting, has become a very, very significant factor in our economy,” Hemphill said.

“There are a lot of guided quail hunting operations in Coleman County. We’re seeing an awful lot of dollars coming into this county that otherwise wouldn’t be here. I think hunting in itself, along with other recreational activities, may well be the salvation of a lot of operations in this area.”

A recent survey by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service summarized quail hunting related expenditures by members of Quail Unlimited (QU), a national organization of quail hunters and conservationists. The survey found that the average QU member spent more than $10,000 annually on his or her quail hunting habit.

And besides just helping landowners, such cash flow helps to prop up struggling rural economies, as 65 percent of the expenditures were made in the destination county. For many ranchers, the trespass rights for quail hunting are more than the property’s value for livestock grazing.

Hemphill underscores that serious quail hunters are indeed the heavy hitters of the Texas hunting world.

“I may get in trouble for saying this,’ he said. “but I see deer vs. quail hunters as being similar to a bull rider vs. a calf roper. Like the calf roper, a quail hunter has a lot of time and money invested in his sport. His expenses include dogs, dog trailers, trainers, and kennels.

He’s feeding and caring for those dogs throughout the year. On top of that, he generally has a lot of traveling expense. A calf roper generally goes through the same type of thing. He must maintain good horses, have a good means of hauling them, and take care of them.

“On the other hand, a deer hunter can go down to one of the outlet stores, buy a rifle and he's suddenly a deer hunter. A bull rider can go buy a bull rope and he’s a bull rider.

“Quail hunting has definitely been more important to us in the last two or three years. I like to think that I could exist without it — however, if I can do the quail hunting and manage it properly, it will give me some options in my operation I would normally not have.

“It’s not all just about the dollars either. One of the most important aspects of a quality quail hunting program is land management. If you’re serious about a good quail operation, you’re probably cutting your stocking rate back on cattle a little bit and taking better care of your land. You’re actually going to improve your cattle operation.

“I see hunting and especially quail hunting opportunities becoming more and more valuable to the land owner who can maintain decent quality levels of hunting through proper range management practices.”

There is a growing dark side to the quail population equation. Experts say time may be running out for quail entrepreneurs like Hemphill, because quail, especially bobwhites, are rapidly declining across their range.

Over the past 20 years the bobwhites’ plight has become so critical that in some scientists in the Southeastern states fear wild quail may be extinct within the next five years.

Texas is one of only three states (Oklahoma and Kansas are the other two) that still has appreciable wild quail numbers. Even here, experts say, populations have dropped almost 5 percent annually since 1981.

Hemphill is among those directly feeling the quail loss.

“Over my experience as both a rancher and a hunter, I've realized and seen an obvious decline in quail numbers here,” Hemphill said. “I think it's extremely important for people in our industry to push for quail preservation any way we can. If we’re going to maintain a significant income source from quail hunting, then obviously we need to support spending to find out why we’re losing these birds. We have got to learn what we can do to stop this progressive disaster.”

Hemphill and other Texas quail aficionados are eyeing the outcome of a $3.7 million initiative now before the Texas legislature. The “Quail Decline Initiative” is aimed at saving native Texas quail.

The initiative includes plans for a focused educational program for landowners on decline of quail and associated songbirds and general education for youth and adults; research aimed at identifying factors contributing to quail decline and mitigating management practices; restoration of quail habitat in 12 targeted counties through use of cost-share funds; economic impacts of quail and related enterprises; and research on management strategies for fragmented landscapes.

“I love to hunt quail and watch my dogs work,” Hemphill said. “I want to do whatever it takes to always have enough wild, native birds to work them on.”