If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. -Isaac Newton
Please indulge me a few thoughts indirectly connected to quail conservation. Sheryl and I graduated our son from high school last week. Patrick did well in school, very well, as did his older sister, Kelly. Why they did so well is not completely knowable with any degree of certainty, but I credit the outdoors and quail among the important influences in their lives.
Patrick and Kelly, Bobwhite Brigade graduates
Kel and Patch grew up immersed in the outdoors on our rural 95 acres of heaven in central Arkansas. Among the first books I read cover-to-cover to them at bedtimes was Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy, and its companion, The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, helping stimulate them to become voracious readers.
By 1st grade, Kelly had studied and memorized much of Peterson’s Field Guide to Insects, a technical reference I used in college entomology. Both kids caught and submitted for the record several species of reptiles and amphibians never before documented in Lonoke County. They each killed their first squirrels with my grandfather’s old .22 Remington, the same rifle I used for my first squirrels. Patrick has become a skilled nature photographer, and Kelly enjoys woodcarving. They have plucked porcupine quills out of a bird dog’s face in the shortgrass prairie of Montana, helped me burn our quail meadow, and soberly pondered the meaning of the human skeleton we found while chasing Gambel’s quail in the Arizona desert.
But neither is pursuing a career in wildlife conservation.
Kelly is studying chemical engineering to develop cleaner sources of alternative energy, and Patrick aspires to help cure cancer through medical research. More power to them! I am confident, though, both of them always will deeply appreciate wildlife, the outdoors and conservation, and they will never lose that connection or those roots.
My confidence was confirmed by Patrick’s valedictorian speech Saturday. I had no direct input in its content. He wouldn’t even let his mother or me see or hear his speech beforehand, so it would be a complete surprise. Indirect input, however, can be more important and even more revealing.
About 5 years ago, we sent both kids to Texas for a week with the Bobwhite Brigade. Dr. Dale Rollins (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service) and his dedicated associates have inspired a movement that one cannot fully appreciate without having a participating child. The Brigade combines conservation education and youth leadership development in a way unique to my experiences. The short-term benefit to my kids of that intense week in the hot Texas desert was clearly apparent; the longer-term effects had been more difficult to judge.
Then I heard Patrick’s theme of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” I wish it was my idea. As soon as he began elaborating on the giants in his and all the 2013 graduates’ lives, I concluded (correctly as it turned out) that the seeds planted by Rollins and the Brigade had sprouted and are growing.
I wish I had the maturity and intelligence at that age to stand in front of friends, classmates, family and community to acknowledge the importance of giants. But now I am certain, and deeply gratified, that my kids will be bringing the wisdom of quail conservation and a leadership spirit to their careers in alternative energy and medical research. And to all those around them.
(For more information regarding the Bobwhite Brigade, please visit http://www.texasbrigades.org/Camps/Bobwhite-Brigade/)
"This is a chance to make things better."
-- Hardware-store wisdom following a tornado touch-down near Ward, AR, February, 2001
Landscape-scale habitat restoration as envisioned by the NBCI generally is a slow-moving, long-term slog. But occasional opportunities for a leap forward pop up; some are foreseeable, a few are even actionable in advance. The inevitable government response to the current drought presents just such an opportunity to help cattle producers and restore quail habitat on a large scale.
Since the mid 20th century, some 120 million acres of grazing lands across bobwhite range have been “improved” by conversion – usually with USDA subsidies and encouragement – from native forages to aggressive introduced grasses that provide poor wildlife habitat. Prior to this landscape conversion, cows and quail shared the land; but not afterward. The nearly complete conversion of native grazing lands in the eastern US coincides with the long-term decline of many grassland birds.
Reconnecting cows and quail is a major goal of the NBCI. On native rangelands of west Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, that goal is relatively simple, by improved management of the existing forage base, the cattle and the brush. For the rest of the U.S. grazing lands across the humid majority of bobwhite range, much more exertion and cost are needed to return a portion of the existing “improved” pasture back to native forages with quail habitat potential. The NBCI has been working many years with only modest success to begin changing USDA’s deeply ingrained reliance on exotic vegetation.
History repeats itself. We know, for example, that Congress and USDA miss few chances to provide taxpayer-funded relief to producers following drought, typically helping replant ravaged pastures with more of the same drought-susceptible, introduced forages. While all parties (except maybe the taxpaying public and the quail) are temporarily satisfied with that habit, the reality is that producers are merely set up, once again, to fall victim to the next drought.
It’s more important to do what needs doing, rather than just doing what’s easy.
-- Dr. Guy Baldassarre, undergraduate professor/mentor at Auburn, reacting to one of my research project ideas.
I think about this life lesson from one of my most influential college professors almost every day. The NBCI definitely is about something that needs doing; and it most certainly is not easy. So it fits Baldassarre’s maxim. A basic purpose of the NBCI is to help coalesce myriad capable but independent partners into a critical mass of organized, strategic action, capable of tackling important but heretofore unsolvable quail conservation problems – to do whatneeds doing.
The latest big problem the NBCI and its National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) brain trust are working to solve is how to help states design and implement quail/grassland bird focus areas more effectively, consistently and successfully. Restoring quail to the landscape is like eating elephants: one bite at a time. Thus, focus areas have been a standard implementation prescription of the NBCI from the beginning, the tactical endpoints (bites) for strategic action of state step-down plans. Why this emphasis on focus areas? Three reasons: (1) widespread quail restoration is a long-term challenge saddled with short-term expectations, attention spans and budget cycles; (2) we cannot possibly fix entire states at once; and (3) the clock is ticking for us to demonstrate short-term successes that prove the NBCI concept, instill hope and secure perseverance.
However, we all have seen recent examples of quail focus areas that weren’t “successful.” I recently developed the slide at right to highlight my perception of some pitfalls in our NBCI focus area track record. In some cases, failure to meet goals is due to factors beyond our control, such as extreme weather. In other cases, no goals were ever established; the design of the area was inadequate; implementation fell short; or inadequate monitoring prevented documentation of what might have been a success story.
For example, a recent survey conducted by NBCI Science Coordinator Tom Dailey found some pretty good news: 52% (13 of 25) of NBCI states had active quail focus areas in 2010. However, the focus areas were very diverse in size (e.g., a few hundred to 2.3 million acres) and other key design parameters, impeding meaningful comparison, compilation and conclusions. More problematic is that of the 182 total quail focus areas in 2010, only 79 areas were subjected to any measures of population response; and only 45 of those measures were statistically valid.
We have to do better. We have little hope of achieving, much less demonstrating, widespread quail successes if we cannot do a better job of setting ourselves up to succeed. This is a good time to step back, and work together to do focus areas right.
At the 2011 NBTC annual meeting in Florida, the Research Subcommittee formed an Ad Hoc Monitoring Subcommittee to tackle a couple of these key focus area problems. This small, diverse group is headed by Kentucky’s John Morgan, the NBCI’s Tom Dailey, and Research Subcommittee Chair Theron Terhune. The group also includes other representatives of states, the NBCI, research institutions, Partners in Flight, joint ventures and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The initial charges for this group are to develop (1) standard monitoring techniques that all states could agree on and begin to adopt for quail/grassland bird focus areas, and (2) a “model” blueprint to promote consistency in designing and implementing successful focus areas.
The Ad Hoc group met in Kentucky for three intense days in May to brainstorm and begin consolidating its ideas. The group has been refining its recommendations over the weeks since, and will bring its draft of standard focus area monitoring protocols to the upcoming NBTC annual meeting in Abilene, TX in August, for review, discussion and hopefully approval by the collected state quail coordinators. At that same meeting, the group then will draw upon the collective expertise among all the state quail coordinators to constructing a model blueprint for successful focus areas.
The NBCI strives to strike a constructive balance that promotes greater accomplishment through collaboration and unity, without encroaching on the independence of states and all the other key NBCI partners. The ongoing efforts of the NBTC’s Ad Hoc Monitoring Subcommittee represent very real progress by a diverse group representing the array of stakeholders in quail and grassland bird restoration, for the benefit of all of us. This is an ideal example of how I think we need to do more quail business. With this kind of unprecedented progress on a difficult and long-overdue but important set of tasks, the NBTC and NBCI are doing what needs doing, rather than just what is easy.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
--Ancient proverb, variously attributed to Aristotle, Rabelais, Descartes or Spinoza
I frequently assert the need for greater leadership in the NBCI’s quest to restore bobwhites. But leadership is much easier to invoke than to exercise. Why do we need leadership for quail? And what does it really mean? Why we need leadership is easy: (1) to make things happen, such as by prioritizing and allocating resources, and (2) to prevent vacuums that can have unpredictable consequences.
What quail leadership means is more complex. I envision it arising from all levels and myriad sources, the more the better. But with the legal and political realities of quail conservation in the U.S., some sources of leadership are more crucial than others. In the end, bobwhites are the legal authority and stewardship responsibility of the states. Thus, state leadership—or lack of it—trumps all other sources, in my view.
Texas quail populations are in a dramatic slump, which has hit the state’s hunters and landowners hard. Most of the rest of the bobwhite states are in the same boat, but their slide was gradual, hardly noticeable; Texas’ populations went bust quickly, painfully. Most biologists generally expect Texas’ bobwhites to rebound with a couple consecutive wetter years, at least in areas of extensive good habitat. Nonetheless, the drastic bust created an unfamiliar sense of urgency among diverse Texas quail enthusiasts, many of whom began energetically seeking causes, remedies and immediate actions.
The resulting scramble has complicated the Texas quail conservation scene over the last couple years. But there is a notable bright side: numerous Texas quailophiles have become energized and active, maybe more than ever. The demonstration of energy and passion by professionals and citizen conservationists is inspiring. It would be difficult for any other quail state to muster the people, institutions, and organizations that are working right now to help Texas quail.
But the most crucial element of the state’s quail leadership was caught off guard, both by the problem and the uprising. The resulting vacuum temporarily enabled a disorganized crisis atmosphere. New high-profile research institutes arose seemingly overnight, pursuing various purposeful and cultural quail management solutions. Others invested heavily in basic research on hypotheses for observed phenomena that don’t seem to fit traditional paradigms. Outdoor writers and hunters called loudly for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to shorten or even close hunting seasons, and cut bag limits – to do something, anything, whether it would help or not. Across the board, these quail enthusiasts sought unifying leadership.
At the height of the cacophony—arguably because of it—TPWD stood up, to begin exerting the needed and desired authoritative leadership. This ongoing process and its outcomes could prove to be illuminating.
The Department convened a quail science meeting in March, inviting a handful of prominent quail research authorities, including NBCI Science Coordinator, Tom Dailey. The aim was to help TPWD evaluate the state of its quail data, determine if conservative regulations could help populations, and make recommendations on best next steps for TPWD. The science advisors concluded (1) conservative regulations would make no significant difference in quail populations at large scales, and (2) aggressively implementing quail habitat focus areas in collaboration with joint venture partnerships, to meet NBCI population objectives, would be the soundest immediate course of action.
Following the science review, TPWD leadership immediately convened in early June the first joint meeting of its two key stakeholder groups – the Upland Game Bird Advisory Committee and the Quail Roundtable. This meeting brought together representatives of all the quail horsepower statewide, including nearly two dozen separate organizations and agencies. The day-long summit was moderated by TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith, with his commission, deputy, wildlife chief, statewide quail coordinator and numerous other TPWD biologists engaged. The purpose was to present the results of the science team’s review, lay out TPWD’s preferred course of action (keep regulations the same, but aggressively implement quail focus areas with monitoring), and give everyone a chance to have their say.
My presentation at the summit included this text slide, with a theme of the need for sustained assertive leadership at all levels—national, state and local— with constructive collaboration up and down among all levels. But for quail, the authoritative leadership must be centered with the state agency—with TPWD for Texas quail. Without the states in the lead, I am convinced no amount of local or national activity has much chance to solve a statewide quail problem.
I left Texas gratified to have witnessed and participated in an influential demonstration of much-needed state leadership for quail. Follow-through is the next key, of course, but the commitment I detected from TPWD leaders gives me hope the state has climbed in the saddle to stay for a while. Just as important, I perceived the state’s vital partners standing ready to pitch in to help the collective cause in their various own ways. That resulting collaborative spirit gives me renewed hope for Texas, and could offer a useful model for others.
I have been advised many times to keep the NBCI complexity behind the curtain. Such advice typically follows a showing of my infamous “NBCI octopus graphic,” a clumsy attempt to schematically illustrate the byzantine organizational structure of the national NBCI community. I get it. Even though there are very important differences between the NBCI strategic plan, the NBCI staff, the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC), the NBCI Management Board, the NBCI’s national operational center at the University of Tennessee, etc., it is simpler to merely call it all “the NBCI.” However, simple is not always the appropriate, or most accurate, answer.
Bear with me for a quick peek behind the curtain.
The NBTC is the state-led, range-wide technical body that provides expertise and leadership for wild bobwhite restoration. The NBTC created the NBCI, the unified range-wide, science- and habitat-based restoration initiative for wild bobwhites. The NBCI reflects the scientific consensus of the NBTC that the root cause of widespread, long-term population declines is landscape-scale habitat loss and degradation. Yet, the interests, expertise and activities of the NBTC are broader than its habitat-based initiative. That is why the NBTC has not already been renamed the “NBCI Technical Committee” – the NBCI is an initiative of the NBTC, not the other way around.
The NBCI website (www.bringbackbobwhites.org), or BBB as we call it, combines the NBTC and NBCI web presence. It deliberately has been hiding the complexity while targeting our messages and information predominantly to our top priority – NBCI-related habitat restoration and management efforts – to focus attention and resources on the consensus highest priority conservation needs.
That exclusive focus, however, is inconsistent with the broader reality of the NBTC’s expertise and activities, and with the NBTC Steering Committee’s desire that its website become “bobwhite central.” Just as oversimplification of complex national political issues does not foster better public understanding or improved federal policies, oversimplifying “the NBCI” and its website incurs tradeoffs. BBB cannot be the one-stop website for all legitimate information on wild bobwhite biology, ecology and management if it only provides information on NBCI-related habitat implementation activities.
The entire NBCI community supports and welcomes all legitimate scientific research on the biology, ecology and management of wild bobwhites, in the quest for knowledge and improved conservation abilities. And because the NBCI is a science-based initiative (by definition, it follows the state of the science), research on topics that may not be a consensus conservation priority today still adds value today, and could even become established and influential as a priority later.
This all is a long way of explaining why substantive changes are coming to the NBCI website. We are in the process of broadening the scope of the information we post and archive about legitimate research on, and management of, wild bobwhites to be much more inclusive. Some of this change will become evident immediately; other structural changes to the website will occur in coming weeks or months. In the end, BBB will become a more-comprehensive, one-stop source for information about wild bobwhites.