Quail Unlimited, the conservation organization founded in South Carolina that served as an advocate for bobwhite quail and championed the rich tradition of "bird hunting" for more than three decades, has ceased operations.

Billy E. Bowles of Albany, Ga., who took over the organization 2½ years ago as president when it faced dire financial problems, has sent a letter to remaining members announcing that Quail Unlimited has gone out of business.

"There are a few large challenges that we are about to be faced with. Could we possibly overcome them? We might be able to, but it would require money that we do not have and it would be a huge distraction from our basic purpose: quail and youth," Bowles said.

The announcement was met with mixed feelings by representatives of two other major conservation organizations with strong roots in South Carolina – the National Wild Turkey Federation, which is headquartered in Edgefield, and the Quality Deer Management Association, founded by wildlife biologist Joe Hamilton of Walterboro which is now headquartered in Athens, Ga.

"I think it is unfortunate that the various quail species have lost their primary support organization: Quail Unlimited. Game animals need their support groups," Hamilton said. "The good news for quail in some regions/states is that research continues and in Georgia, the DNR has a very active Bobwhite Quail Initiative. So, changing times and changing habitats have had a measurably negative impact on wild quail populations in general, but there is still hope at least in certain regions."

However, Dr. James Earl Kennamer, chief conservation officer for the NWTF, said in the overall view of conservation work, Quail Unlimited's role had greatly diminished over time.

"We (NWTF) have picked up a lot of what they had been doing. With our habitat program, we have done more for quail than probably all the rest of the organizations. We are represented on the board of the Bobwhite Quail Initiative, and we are currently doing a lot of quail habitat work now," said Kennamer who joined NWTF as a wildlife habitat specialist in 1980.

Quail Unlimited's problems became public during a tumultuous time in 2009 when the organization's leadership went through several changes – including some contentious situations involving board members – before Bowles, an Albany area plantation manager, was named president.

Managing partner of Quail Country Plantation in Arlington, Ga., and a member of the organization's 20-member board, Bowles had been asked to investigate the organization's finances in late 2009. When he arrived in Edgefield, he found major problems but did not see any fraud as had been reported by some publications. The rumors of fraud had been so persistent that some board members had already resigned.

However, Bowles encountered major problems, including an accounting system that was not functioning properly, and he found a huge debt owed to many Quail Unlimited chapters across the country.

"We didn't have a little problem," Bowles said at the time. "We had a big problem ... a more than six-figure problem."

The decision was quickly made to divest the organization of its national headquarters complex, which consisted of a 12,000-square foot headquarters and warehouse on 75 acres of land, and use that money to pay off the debt.

Bowles also determined to hold the annual Celebrity Hunt, which served as a major fund-raiser for the organization. At the annual event in and around Albany, QU members and others paid high premiums to hunt quail alongside movie and television stars, professional athletes and other newsmakers.

But in the end, it still was not enough.

In his letter to members and supporters Bowles recommended Quail Forever, an outgrowth of the national Pheasants Forever organization, as the future of quail conservation in America.

"We share in an obligation to our mission of supporting quail and youth. It is time for us to assure ourselves that we stay focused on our mission. It is my firm belief, at this time, that our beloved quail need us to unite our efforts," he said.

Bowles said QU members would receive a letter from Quail Forever in the near future inviting them to join.