A couple dozen miles down a bumpy dirt road, it’s dry and dusty in this remote corner of Box Elder County, even in February.
The two Utah Division of Wildlife Resources employees who are also serving as my guides for the day make a left turn off the main road and start heading up the hillside. A couple of slow-going miles later and the landscape starts to change. We have entered a canyon, and pretty soon find ourselves on the banks of a small stream lined with willows and other dense brush, resting in the shadow of the snow-capped Pilot Mountains along the Utah-Nevada border.
“This is our spot,” says Avery Cook, the leader of the project that is introducing five dozen California quail to their new homes. DWR technician Shawn Pladas starts unloading several bright-orange plastic crates containing the birds, which are chirping excitedly as if they can sense they’re about to be set free.
These birds have spent the entirety of their short lives in Salt Lake City, so this far-flung corner of the desert is undoubtedly unfamiliar to them. Still, after an hour or so of Cook fitting each individual bird with an identifying leg band, the birds rush from their cages without hesitation and quickly disappear into the brush.
Despite their urban upbringing, Cook said the quail will thrive in this seemingly harsh environment as long as their basic needs are met.
“They need brushy, thick cover, both for thermal cover and shelter in the winter, and also as cover from predators like hawks and eagles,” he explained. "They also need food and water, so we put them on streams in these riparian areas.”
California quail aren’t native to Utah, but they’ve been in the state since people brought them here in the late 1800s. Cook said they’re doing very well in the state, especially along the Wasatch Front and Uinta Basin.
The Wasatch Front populations of this species are doing so well that every year, the DWR traps and relocates some of them to other parts of the state — sometimes to other rural towns, other times to public lands where some will meet their fate at the business end of a shotgun.
Cook said the survival strategy of the California quail, which typically only lives for two to three years, is to produce a lot of offspring. They will start breeding in the coming weeks, and the average nest will cradle between 10 and 15 eggs.
Their adaptability to different environments also helps them propagate, and makes them ideal candidates for this relocation project — but the success of a new population in a new area takes a little luck as well.
“Some of these outlying populations will do well for 10 to 15 years, and sometimes the population will flake out during a hard winter,” Cook said. “In a good year, their populations can jump immensely in a short period of time.”
In remote areas like this, the goal is to provide another upland game bird hunting opportunity. Wildlife and habitat conservation efforts in Utah and across the United States are largely funded by the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses, so providing more opportunities for sportsmen translates into more conservation work the DWR and others are able to do.
Cook said private hunting groups like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Utah Chukar and Wildlife Foundation also help fund projects like this and donate valuable volunteer work.
The Utah Chukar and Wildlife Foundation, a 400-member grassroots organization based in Nephi, has been a key partner in identifying suitable areas on public lands for establishing quail populations, as well as securing permission to trap the birds in urban areas and relocate them.
"It's been quite a process over a number of years," Foundation President Travis Proctor said. "The nice thing about quail is they have a lot of potential to grow within the state. We know they're succeeding. I know of four or five populations in the state, so it's working."
Proctor said quail have expanded naturally without the need for human intervention in Idaho, where water and ideal habitat are more abundant, but the drier climate in Utah means people need to intervene in order to expand the range of quail.
The foundation raises about $30,000 every year through an annual banquet, and is able to multiply those dollars through matching grant funds.
"It's amazing what we can do with a little bit of funding," Proctor said. "Our state didn't have a loud voice for upland game, but we partnered with the DWR to create more opportunities."
The foundation has been able to influence the way dollars are spent to put the money to more effective use, he said.
"Spending all the money on coyote control is a poor use of upland game money," he said. "We've really helped the DWR become more proactive in working with our projects and making upland game a priority. It's really helped money for upland game be used more wisely."
The harvest numbers in the fall hunt are limited by the number of days and the number of birds hunters are allowed to take, which helps the DWR ensure that a sustainable population can be maintained.
It’s largely up to Mother Nature whether these birds will have a successful, long-term run in their new high-desert home — but with the proper mix of water, food and shelter, they always have a fighting chance, Cook said.
“We focus on the California quail because it’s a species where we can really make a difference as far as expanding their range and populations,” he said.