Memorial honors the late biologist
A year ago last February, Quail Forever biologist Kelly Bufkin died unexpectedly at the age of 34. The Mississippi native was the catalyst behind numerous conservation initiatives in the Blackland Prairie region of Arkansas, and last week the quail habitat management area of Alex Smith Park, south of Texarkana, was dedicated in his name.
Bufkin was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was a dedicated outdoorsman his entire life, and hunted with his family from an early age. After graduating from Vicksburg High School in 2004, he enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he served as a munitions systems apprentice with the 712th Munitions Squadron at Camp Darby in Livorno, Italy.
After being discharged, Bufkin took advantage of the GI bill to attend Hinds Community College and then Mississippi State University, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts in history. When he realized he could turn his passion for the outdoors into a career, he returned to the university and obtained a bachelor of arts in wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture in May 2016. He became a part of the Quail Forever family in December 2017, as a Farm Bill Biologist.
“Kelly’s passion and love for conservation was infectious, and he was an inspiration to everyone who worked with him,” said Chris McLeland, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s vice president of conservation delivery. “He was a wonderful biologist, and was the driving force behind Quail Forever’s work in the Blackland prairie region of Arkansas. We’ll continue to see the impacts he made on the landscape for a long time, but I’ll also remember Kelly for his personality, character and the example he set as a husband, colleague and friend.”
Quail Forever Arkansas state coordinator Ryan Diener worked closely with Bufkin, and said his passion for the job was contagious among both employees and landowners.
"Kelly made a lasting impact with everyon he met," Diener said. "We hear great stories from the landowners he worked with all the time about the experience they had with Kelly, and it's obvious the passion he had for conservation. His work with the folks at Alex Smith Park is no exception, and they continue their great habitat work today in honor of Kelly."
Alex Smith Park was founded in 1962, and has been managed by a small group of volunteers in the decades since. Recently, thanks to federal and state grants, volunteers have been able to undertake some significant improvement projects, many of which were helped along by Bufkin. His partnership with the park began as an effort to bolster the local quail population, but Alex Smith grew into a passion project.
“The Park was a two hour drive from Kelly’s work area, but that was just the way he was. He didn’t care who you were or where you were located, he was going to help you the best he could,” said Sabrina Claeys, a biologist who also worked closely with Bufkin. “I always jumped at the opportunity to work with him, because he was so knowledgeable, and such a great mentor to new biologists like myself.”
Since Bufkin’s passing, the park has undertaken timber thinning to create quail habitat, planted new acres of pollinator habitat and has begun a prescribed burn rotation.
“Everything that Alex Smith Park does, screams ‘Kelly’. You can see his passion and commitment in every blade of grass, flower, tree and person that visits that park,” Claeys said. “That park is part of Kelly’s legacy, and it’s something I cherish. He could have passed the project off to a local biologist with another agency, but instead he went out of his way to help. I’ll always remember his patience, wisdom and humor — all of which continue to live on through those who knew him.”