Collaboration Aims to Clean the Chester and Bring Back the Bobwhite Quail
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Funded by a $700,000 state grant, a new partnership between Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society (CES), the Chester River Association (CRA), and Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy will improve the health of the Chester River and local waterways while restoring native habitat for the threatened Northern Bobwhite Quail, the only native resident quail in Maryland.
The first phase of this Natural Lands Project is funded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources through its Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund after a competitive grant process. The state received $50 million in requests with only $9.8 million to distribute; the Natural Lands Project was one of only 14 that were awarded funding.
Focusing on marginal farmland (less productive acres on the edge of a field or in a former wetland), it will restore wetlands and install buffer zones of warm-season grasses on privately-owned farms on or near the Chester River in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties.
CES Assistant Director Michael Hardesty, who administers the Natural Lands Project, says the buffer zones will be at least 100 feet deep, which is large enough to help protect quail from predators and to filter out up to 85 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural runoff. Wetland restoration might begin as soon as September, while planting the shore buffers will begin in spring 2016.
“When we first started talking to landowners about it, they got it right away and were eager to partner with us,” Hardesty says of the project. “Local residents feel a real connection to both the bobwhite quail and the Chester River.”
CRA’s Chester Riverkeeper, Isabel Junkin Hardesty, is equally enthusiastic. “The Natural Lands Project balances the interests of water quality, wildlife, and farming in a way that improves the quality of life for everyone. At CRA, we are ecstatic to see the level of interest in agricultural practices that will help restore both the Chester and a popular game bird.”
The CES field ecologist in charge of installing the native grass buffers and monitoring their success is Dan Small, recently named Natural Lands Project Coordinator. “Everyone wants to help clean up the river and bay,” he says. “But we’ve found that people especially love to talk about the quail, their memories of what it was like to have a large number of quail on this part of the Eastern Shore.”
One of those people with fond memories is CRA’s Virgil Turner, who spent 47 years as a soil specialist and conservation planner with the state and federal government. Although he will bear the main responsibility for the wetlands restoration part of the project, he also will help with establishing grass buffers. “In the 1960s, quail was a very popular game bird. They were everywhere,” he says. “I’m excited about the prospect of hearing quail again, and we have a lot of local landowners who are excited about this, too.”
Although it can take two to three years for the grasses and restored wetlands to become established, the impact on water quality will be immediate. “Once you take an acre out of production, you are no longer applying chemicals, so there is an immediate benefit of fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers being applied on the land,” says Small. “Then, once they are established, the grasses and wetlands will act as filters between the river and the crops and will hold onto sediment and nitrogen and phosphorous that would otherwise run off into the river.”
CES Director John Seidel says “cooperative projects like this, combining the efforts of multiple organizations and landowners, are the most successful way to approach large scale landscape conservation. We’re excited not just by the positive environmental impacts, but by the fact that Washington College students will learn from this work at every stage of the project.”
For information on installing buffers or wetlands on your land, contact Dan Small, Natural Lands Project Coordinator, CES, Washington College, firstname.lastname@example.org, 410-708-4479. For information on other conservation projects, visit www.washcoll.edu/centers/ces or www.ChesterRiverAssociation.org.
Above, a Northern Bobwhite Quail in flight at Chino Farms.