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From the Farmhouse to the White House: CIP Matters

“There are now 21 states participating in the [CIP] program and the future of bobwhite recovery may rely on how well these efforts document habitat’s effectiveness and how well those positive effects are marketed.” K. Marc Puckett, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Learning from mistakes of the past can improve the future; failing to learn and adapt is simply irresponsible and a guarantee of future failures. The NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) combines lessons from the past with the science of today to create the largest and best network of bobwhite restoration demonstrations in history. The CIP is more than just a focal area program; it may well be the gateway to the future of bobwhite restoration.

Ultimately, the CIP is envisioned as the springboard toward the NBCI vision of widespread huntable wild quail populations that can lure young and old alike outdoors with bird dogs to enjoy time-honored outdoor traditions.

Typical bobwhite management of the past—opportunistically adding undocumented small patches of habitat scattered haphazardly across vast landscapes—may boost bird numbers on a field or site, but the effects were usually unmeasurable at any larger scale, while overall populations continued declining. To improve on that approach, managers began trying to concentrate habitat efforts and improvements into defined focal areas to restore and document a critical mass of habitat at a scale sufficient to produce measurable population-level results.

Yet, without strategic vision and clear guidance in place, many focal area approaches have suffered shortcomings, such as:

  • focal areas too small to affect or sustain a population, or too big to manage in the near term;
  • poor landscape context, with low chance of successful management;
  • inadequate agency leadership, commitment, or concentration of resources;
  • no population goals, habitat objectives, or timelines;
  • no consistent, scientifically valid monitoring;
  • unrealistic expectations for “success;”
  • weak coordination of partner support and landowner participation;
  • lack of patience, perseverance, and follow-through.

The CIP strives to rectify such shortcomings. In simplest terms, the CIP is a habitat-based focal area program designed by quail researchers and managers using the best current science and hard-knocks lessons. In reality, it is much more. The CIP aims to visibly demonstrate one of the most basic concepts of wildlife conservation—that bird populations respond to management of suitable habitat. Here’s why the CIP matters so much:

  • Consensus approach – Dozens of researchers and managers from many states, organizations, and institutions—under auspices of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee—spent two years developing the CIP as the best compromise presently attainable for implementing quail focal areas successfully across the diverse breadth of the bobwhite range. Perfect? No. A milestone advancement? Yes! Adaptive and improvable as we learn more? Absolutely!!
  • Turnkey package – The CIP is designed to provide guidance and support to states and partners from the beginning to the end of designing and implementing a bobwhite focal area, with clearly defined expectations, procedures, and outcomes. It features:
    • minimum acreage and habitat standards for sustaining a viable quail population long term;
    • a scientific experimental design with treatments and reference areas;
    • population goals and habitat objectives, set by the states;
    • required standardized monitoring for quail, songbirds, and habitat suitability;
    • technical assistance, plus database storage, management, and reporting services provided by NBCI;
    • active data analysis that complements an adaptive resource management model.
  • Designed for success in near term – The nation’s bobwhite conservation community is backed against a wall. We need success stories sooner than later, and cannot afford continuing disappointments. The CIP is designed to optimize the chances of documenting and showcasing restoration successes over a defined 5- to 10-year time-frame.
  • Understand shortcomings – Even following the best guidance, some CIP focal areas may not perform as hoped. But, the CIP design standards and required monitoring of bobwhites, songbirds, and habitats on both treatment and reference sites will provide vital data needed to begin understanding varied outcomes and illuminating needed habitat improvements. The bobwhite community will benefit from such experience and knowledge, and thus will be able to raise our game at a faster pace.
  • Tangible “shiny thing” – A CIP focal area is a definitive project that offers numerous practical ways for partners to get involved and feel a valuable part of something bigger. Thus, the CIP has proven to be able to attract, coalesce, and motivate varied partners such as national NGOs, local sportsmen’s clubs, researchers, landowners, federal agencies, local college biology clubs, as well as various state conservation agencies.
  • Bigger than bobwhites – The CIP provides a monitoring protocol as well as firm expectations that several priority grassland birds (as determined by each state) be monitored along with bobwhites, to document songbird responses to focal area habitat restoration and management. Being inclusive means CIP is bigger than just bobwhites, and thus is even more important; it also helps boost and diversify partnerships.
  • Restoration path for extirpated areas – CIP provides the first clear roadmap toward and standards for restoring bobwhites in regions where wild bobwhites are extirpated. That need is increasing in several states.
  • Defining “success” – CIP requires a bobwhite population goal be set as a benchmark, thus forcing biologists to confront the difficult and long-debated question of defining a successful bobwhite restoration. A biological success is presently defined in the bobwhite literature as sustaining a fall population of 800 birds over 99 years, a yardstick also referred to as a viable population. A cultural success may be something more, such as a huntable population, or one capable of serving as a source population for translocations. The specific concept of a huntable population is widely variable, depending on state, region, landownerships, and expectations.
  • Attract new funding – The tangible, turnkey CIP package promises quantifiable metrics, reliable data, and measurable outcomes from defined management prescriptions. This uncommon complete package offers the compelling prospect of return on investment, and is already starting to attract new interest and new funding to bobwhite and grassland conservation.
  • Commitment – The CIP expects a minimum 10-year commitment to its focal areas, which is longer than innumerable failed quail focal areas received in the past. Bobwhite restoration at the scale envisioned by NBCI is a generational endeavor; thus, 10 years still is a relative blip, but a longer, improved blip.
  • Competition – The CIP can introduce a new, constructive element—and maybe even some fun!—to bobwhite restoration: a healthy competitive spirit among states, and among CIP focal areas and their partners.
  • Public interest stories – Each CIP focal area is a story with its own unique combination of landscapes, histories, landowners, partners, personalities, successes, and lessons learned. Each successful CIP story provides another compelling marketing opportunity for native grassland conservation, bobwhite restoration, partnerships and reinvigoration of the treasured bird hunting recreation.
  • Poised to convince – Among the hurdles confronting the NBCI community is winning over a constituency of sportsmen, landowners, agency administrators, commissioners, and politicians who are skeptical of the usual answer that habitat is the solution to the quail problem, while seeing little convincing evidence. The entire CIP is designed as a massive scientific experiment to answer scientific questions, but also to provide convincing contemporary evidence that habitat still produces birds. For various reasons, the list of those who may need convincing is long, including sportsmen, landowners, outdoor communicators, state agency administrators and commissioners, grantors, state legislators, politicians, and federal agency administrators in DC… and even stressed-out, overworked and underappreciated field biologists.
  • Restore hope –The CIP is designed not just to convince skeptics, but also to restore their hope, and thus build stronger foundations of public anticipation, enthusiasm, and support. Without public hope, there is no hope for the NBCI mission.
  • Strong first step – From the beginning, the CIP is envisioned as a jump-start means toward a much bigger and more important end: widespread restoration of sustainable, huntable populations of wild bobwhites and vibrant native grassland ecosystems across at least 25 states. Once the modest-sized CIP focal areas have made their case, the stage is set to magnify the CIP effort to create a larger movement that can replicate such successes on larger focal landscapes and eventually across vast focal regions. One solid step at a time, starting with the CIP focal areas.

The NBCI’s CIP is the best and most comprehensive collective effort ever undertaken by bobwhite managers. To date, about 19 to 21 states (depending on how we count) have embraced and are acting on the CIP concept, establishing 24 projects that include 45 focal and reference areas and more than 1,000 bird/habitat monitoring points. Early returns already indicate an average 80+% increase in coveys on managed focal areas compared with the unmanaged reference areas.

Those individuals and states stepping up with resolve to adopt and implement the CIP are the new generation of leaders across the entire bobwhite and grassland bird movement. They are the innovators, the seekers of truth—using a transparent, accountable, and adaptable system—about the linkages between best management practices and bird populations. These state/federal/NGO/private leaders are playing central, coordinated roles in the long-term future of bobwhite recovery and in the resurrection of a cherished, if faded, hunting tradition.

Shell’s Covert: The Moon Shot

Dozens of biologists, including the Virginia quail team, toured bobwhite habitat around Albany, GA during the annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee recently.

Our Virginia quail team spent the first week of August in Albany, Georgia, attending the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting (Thanks to the Georgia DNR and a local plantation as well as all sponsors for hosting a great meeting and field tour). It was hot in Virginia but hotter still down there. The quail management we saw was also hot…as in some of the most intensive (or “extensive” as they say – will explain later) quail management in the world – described by one of the world’s leading quail biologists as “The N.A.S.A. of the quail world.” And that is how they manage on the best of the quail plantations – shooting for the moon. They have the highest quail densities found on earth. Some would say artificially high…and I would agree. But it is heartening to know that almost 1/5th the way through the 21st century bobwhites can still be produced in these numbers (densities as high as 3 or more quail per acre).

These privately owned plantations are large – ranging from a couple thousand acres to over 20,000, and over 300,000 acres of them are within an hour of Albany. There’s another 300,000 north of Tallahassee, Florida, and still more in Alabama. The old adage “more begets more” is proven here. For those folks who believe there may be some unknown combination of environmental factors that are causing the quail decline (pesticides, disease, climate change, etc.) this area is not immune to those things. To the north, south, east and west of the plantation country is some of the most intensive center pivot agriculture in the world, rivaling anything found in the mid-west. And if climate change were the driving factor in quail decline…being further south they’d know it before us. There may indeed be environmental factors affecting many wildlife species, including quail…but the basic ingredients for baking a quail cake have not changed. While some of what the plantations do may be the moonshot, most of what they do is not rocket science.

The building blocks of their success are: large contiguous acres, intensive use of prescribed fire, systematic incorporation of disking, good distribution of all cover types, wise use of herbicides, well managed quail harvest, and sound scientific research as a feedback loop. And let me say that you can have plenty of quail by doing all these things and stopping right there. I think these plantations could easily reach 10 – 15 covey hunting days (most Virginians would be happy with 2 to 6 covey days) by using the aforementioned techniques alone. But to get to 20, 30, even 35 or 40 covey days…that is where shooting for the moon begins.

Their research program is an example…they have had radio-collared quail as part of the Albany Area Quail Project every year since 1992. They have had over 30,000 quail radio-collared (including those from Tall Timbers Research Station) during that 26-year period! While some people still scoff at the need to land people on the moon, the technological developments that the moon landing precipitated has benefitted every single one of us in our lifetime (paraphrased from their presentation at the meeting).

Now…let’s talk about “extensive” quail management. I had a tough time at first understanding this…but then realized it just boils down to thinking outside the box, not being afraid to challenge some norms, and being willing to go above and beyond in management. There is some controversy in the quail ranks over some of what the plantations do to achieve their success. And it is in this extensive management where that develops. I consider three major things being applied there to be extensive in nature: 1) supplemental feeding, 2) scientific, year-around, legal mammalian predator control and 3) extra incorporation of brood fields (ragweed galore) to include occasional deep plowing, liming and fertilizing where needed.

Albany is in pine savanna country

Before I elaborate, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the owners and managers of the plantations. It is easy to sit outside that circle and accuse them of being wealthy elitists having nothing better to do with their money. But they could do anything with their money they wanted to do…and they choose to put untold millions into quail recovery and large scale land conservation. They should be applauded for that. As for the managers…having tried myself just to manage my 40 acres…and having seen how hard our staff works to try to stay ahead of the game on their Wildlife Management Areas…I do not think a plantation manager or their staff know what a 40-hour work week is. I suspect it takes 50 or 60 hours a week, almost year around to keep these plantations in shape. And just try to imagine the pressure to produce results.

Back to the extensive techniques – supplemental feeding. On one plantation we visited there were 115 miles of feed lines evenly distributed through the grounds. Yes…miles. They have perfected the feeding system. In winter they use corn and milo, in summer milo alone. The feed is spread by tractor and feed wagon every two weeks, and they have it figured down to the number of seeds per square foot necessary to last for that time period. Their research has clearly shown within their ecosystem, supplemental feeding increases quail productivity. Research also demonstrated that contrary to intuition, supplemental feeding did not make finding quail easier, in fact, sometimes it made it harder. The way it is done it is not baiting. I am not a fan of it personally…but for them it is legal, affordable, and it produces more quail.

Predator control also continues to raise some hackles, but for the plantations it is legal, scientifically done, and shown to be effective within their ecosystem. They focus on mid-sized mammalian predators (raccoons, opossums, skunks, etc.). Their approach is beyond the means of most, but in Virginia trapping is a legal, honorable and protected form of outdoor recreation. If landowners here wish to employ trapping as a legal form of predator control, I feel it is their prerogative.

The last one is the extensive incorporation of brood fields. As much as 30% of their total land area (heavily thinned pine ecosystem) is made up of well distributed 2 – 5 acre fields. The fields are managed specifically for ragweed. They soil test, add amendments accordingly, and lime where needed. They use fall disking, disking each field every year. And about 1/3 of each field is deep plowed with a bottom plow annually. They have shown that this deep plowing is sometimes necessary to break up the hardpan that develops after years of disking. It is not so much that these methods are new. What makes them “extensive” is the systematic way they are incorporated into the plantations. All these techniques are discussed in detail in the Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook which can be purchased via their website.

So where does that leave the average owner of 100 or 200 acres in Virginia? I would say first make sure you have maximized the habitat basics before thinking about adding anything more. Within a pine timber system, if it is practical for you, I’d suggest seriously considering adding in more openings next time you thin your timber. It will take time before they can be disked, and will take a long time before they can be plowed, but quail management is a long term endeavor.

Have your habitat evaluated by a quail ecologist. If all agree that the habitat is excellent and should be supporting more quail than are being found, you might consider legal trapping, especially late in the season to see if predators could be suppressing your quail population. And I think supplemental feeding will rarely be of value for most Virginians with one exception, during periods of prolonged heavy snow cover. A landowner might consider providing spread feed (not concentrated feeders) in areas where coveys are known to exist in good cover (when legal – check the feeding laws in our DGIF Regulations Digest or on our website www.dgif.virginia.gov ).

I have been to the “promised land” for quail now several times – Texas, Georgia, Florida, Kansas…duly blessed to have seen it with my own eyes. Life’s fortunes may never take me back there again, but a bucket list item has been crossed off for me. And I am happy to still be a bird hunter here in Virginia after having seen all that. I still enjoy finding 4 or 5 woodcock a day, or seeing a quail covey from time to time. I heard this said somewhere before, something to this effect “It must be sad if, after having caught a lot big fish, you can never be happy catching little fish again.”

Native Grass Gazette: Workshops and Debunking Myths

Working with Dr. Pat Keyser, Center for Native Grasslands Management (CNGM), and a host of local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, I recently finished conducting the first two Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) in-service training workshops, one in Missouri and the other in Kentucky. The workshops are to provide support and training for the WLFW Bobwhite in Grasslands project. We cover some bobwhite habitat basics but really immerse participants into the reasons for using native forages, establishment and grazing management, finally integrating grazing management with grassland wildlife. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and CNGM are under contract with NRCS to conduct seven or more (depending on how far the money goes) of these workshops in the Bobwhite in Grassland states. I’m proud to report workshop evaluation surveys completed at the conclusion of each of the workshops for the question, “Considering this workshop in its entirety, how would you rank it?” averaged 4.65 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Workshops begin with an indoor presentation before proceeding outdoors.

High scores are something to feel good about, but are our objectives really being met? In both instances, there were about 30 NRCS, University Extension, state wildlife agency staff and partner biologists attending. Respectable numbers and a good cross-section of participation, also a good crowd size for free and open discussion.

The question that has to be asked, why not more? Was the timing poor with too many conflicts, is it a topic staff aren’t interested in? Was it because there was travel and potentially an overnight stay required? Our survey can’t get those answers, how do you survey someone who wasn’t there? In the meantime we need to figure out an effective way to get our message about integrating native forage into grazing systems and integrating bobwhite management to a larger audience. Workshops are a great way to convey the message and can provide an excellent learning opportunity. The drawback is there are only so many workshops that can be physically conducted within a defined timeframe. Recording the workshops and setting up on-demand webinars can help alleviate the problem of limited time, but typically don’t provide as good a learning opportunity as a workshop combining classroom time and field tours showing examples. With the technology available today, perhaps a live broadcast available for remote viewing and connectivity allowing questions from viewers in real time is an option. Regardless, NBCI will continue to explore the options available and meet the demand to the best of our ability and technical capability.

A significant part of the workshop is challenging long-held beliefs about native forage and bobwhite habitat using science-supported facts about native forages to debunk the common myths.

For example, everyone knows – or least has been told for years, that native grasses are difficult to establish. Not so true, The CNGM looked at their 14-year history of planting native forages and found 85% of the time they were able to establish a production stand of native grasses. Weather extremes were responsible for the majority of the 15% failures. Establishing native grasses is an agronomic practice and as long as you follow the agronomic procedures they are not difficult to establish. When weather extremes are the culprit, it doesn’t matter what you’re planting, it’s going to fail. I’ve not seen the success rate for introduced species for comparison and I’m not sure one exists, other than anecdotal.

So maybe native grasses aren’t so hard to establish, but you can’t graze them for 2 or 3 years. Ever hear that before? Again at the CNGM, they have been consistently able to graze stands in the first

Field tours show workshop participants real-life examples of native forages in production use.

growing season after planting, admittedly not at as high of level as a fully established stand, but they can provide grazing the first year after planting. Because planting native warm-season forage is a deliberate move a grazier can plan accordingly; adjust stocking rate, paddock size or plan for supplemental feeding.

Native grasses are a poor quality forage, why would a rancher want to purposely plant them? Forage quality tests of native warm-season forages don’t compare favorably to introduced species, especially when using forage tests designed for cool-season species. The ultimate test of any forage is animal performance. It has been well documented, over a long period of time, across multiple studies, average daily gains on native warm-season forages falls within the range of 1.5 to 2.0 pounds during the summer months. Conception rates are high, lactation is greater, average weaning weights are higher and, overall, other animal health issues are fewer. Poor quality forage doesn’t have these attributes.

But they are so expensive to establish. If you are doing a prairie restoration with a complex mix of grasses and forbs, yes, they are expensive. Under a production scenario using simple mixtures, depending upon species selected and species being compared to, establishment cost can range for 20% less than introduced species to 50% more. Seed cost can, but not always, be more expensive, but when you look at total establishment cost, considering other inputs, native warm-season forages can be very competitive with introduced species. In economic analyses conducted by CNGM, including establishment cost, a big bluestem-indiangrass mixture was compared to bermudagrass and sudex for hay production, using a $65 per ton price, found a producer could recoup their investment in year 4. The producer would never recoup their investment for bermudagrass or sudex. Now consider this, steers grazing big bluestem/indiangrass provided the least expensive cost per pound of gain at 31 cents, bermudagrass at 54 cents and sudex at 75 cents.

Yeah, but they are hard to manage. If you like continuous grazing, you can keep continuous grazing. Do simple pasture rotations, you can continue simple pasture rotations. Like management intensive grazing, you can keep management intensive grazing. Proper grazing, regardless of forage – cool-season, warm-season, introduced or native, is about proper forage management. The process isn’t any different, only the trigger points for decision making. Of course, proper forage management includes proper stocking rates.

There are many other advantages to incorporating native warm-season forages into a grazing system, some not as easily quantified. There are advantages to soil health, water quality, soil conservation and wildlife. I think if a producer takes an unbiased look at native forages, without the interference of all the misinformed nay-sayers, they will find native warm-season forages to be a valuable addition to their grazing systems.

Fescue fields in the background are brown from the drought.

Shell’s Covert: A Burning Controversy…Fire During the Nesting Season

A May 3, 2017 prescribed burn on a WMA in Virginia. Goal was to reduce rapidly encroaching sweet gum and red maple understory, a task which cannot be accomplished with winter burning alone.

“I understand the need for fire, but when you are burning in May, you are burning up quail, turkey and grouse nests and that can’t be good. Why don’t you burn in winter, or early spring before nesting begins in earnest?”

I am sure many of us who practice prescribed fire have started to hear this more often. And it is partially our fault…as we have not done enough outreach and education about why we sometimes burn in late spring. I have also had it expressed to me that some believe this “growing season” burning occurs primarily due to fear of lost money. Meaning that if an agency has set a budget for burning, and winter weather delays it, if they don’t burn in late spring, they’ll lose the funds.

I’d like to first say that I have seen prescribed fire professionalism increase year-after-year-after-year for over two decades. With increasing public scrutiny, and more and more human encroachment surrounding public lands, the need to be completely professional in the use of prescribed fire has increased. Everyone I know in the profession of wildlife management and forestry use prescribed fire for all the right reasons. With regards to the funds…it is true that in many cases they can’t be carried over from one fiscal year to another, but, in most cases they can be redirected to other appropriate uses during that same fiscal year. The money does not evaporate if not used.

From an economic standpoint, nothing in our wildlife management tool box can treat more acres faster and at a lower cost than prescribed fire. I once helped bush-hog some heavily overgrown fields on one of our Wildlife Management Areas. It took two of us working all day for three days running two 75 horsepower tractors to complete 40 acres of mowing. That same acreage could have been safely burned in 3 to 4 hours. But we had fallen behind on burning…and the vegetation had reached a stage where fire would no longer set it back to the desired condition. And this is one key reason growing season fire is sometimes applied. It can be the only time during which fire will have enough impact to set back plant succession to the desired condition to favor, quail, grouse, woodcock, turkey and many songbirds and pollinating insects.

Let me explain a couple things. First – it is good to mix up the timing of burning. A good practitioner would never want to burn a particular tract only in the winter, or only in the late spring, etc. Fire practitioners often use winter fire to reduce heavy fuel loads after a thinning operation. Winter fire can also top kill some young pine and hard wood competition, help scarify native plant seeds to increase germination rates, and remove duff making foraging easier for some wildlife species. But if managing for quail, grouse or turkey is your goal, some growing season fire is going to have to be applied. And sometimes that may be later in the season…into May. This may seem counterintuitive, but let’s stop and think a minute.

Suppose we can’t burn a timbered tract (either thinned pines or hardwoods) in late winter because it stays wet and cold. It stays wet into spring, and then we finally get some good burning weather in May. We have choices. We can delay and perhaps try again in fall. Or we can delay a full year, hoping for good conditions in early spring, or we can burn it now…in May and risk losing a few nests – though studies show percentages of lost nests are low (Kilburg et al. 2104). Given that most entities using fire have limited budgets, staffs and time, and given that we cannot predict the weather in two weeks, much less months…many good managers would choose to burn in May. If we don’t burn in May, and then we can’t burn the following year…for all practical purposes that block of habitat is going to be “lost.” Meaning we have no real way of managing it now until it is clear-cut, replanted and reaches thinning age again in 20 to 25 years. What we have done is traded a few nests this year for potentially far more nests in subsequent years if we had been able to stay ahead on the management of the unit.

It is also funny as humans we tend to use rationalization when it benefits us. How often do we make decisions based on short-term gain that could lead to long-term loss…debt comes to mind…go ahead and buy that boat and worry about paying for it later. Right? You only live once. But rarely do we use the counter-equation – “Short-term loss for a long-term gain.” Such as “I don’t really need a 64” flat screen TV to watch the Superbowl…let’s save that money for a trip this summer.” In the case of growing season fire, we make a very well thought out decision based on short-term loss traded for long-term gain. I think if you asked most of the tax-paying public…they’d appreciate our use of that view. I am not sure why when it comes to prescribed fire they don’t seem to.

I stated all the above as a seasoned professional, and I know these things to be true after 26 years in this profession reading about fire, practicing fire and observing the results of fires on a variety of landscapes. My colleagues and I will continue to make decisions about the use of fire based on science, knowledge and practical experience with wildlife’s and the public’s best long-term interests at heart.

Citations and further reading:

Lightning Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Cox, J. and B. Widner. Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Miscellaneous Publication 17/ http://www.talltimbers.org/images/pubs/FireBreedingBirdsBooklet-small.pdf

Kilburg, E., C. Moorman, C. Deperno, D. Cobb and C. Harper. 2014. Wild turkey nest site survival and nest site selection in the presence of growing season prescribed fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(6): 1033 – 1039.

Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue Among Scientists, Planners and Land Managers. Eds. W.T. Rankin and Nancy Herbert. U.S. Forest Service: Research and Development Southern Research Station. General Technical Report SRS-189.