Quail biologists often paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come” – usually to emphasize the importance of suitable habitat as the foundation of quail populations. From an NBCI point of view, it and they can have additional and equally important meanings:

            - it can mean a vision, a strategy, an initiative, an organized alliance, or a planning tool;

            - they can mean partners, manpower, political supporters, or funders.

It is the NBCI vision and unified 25- state strategic plan and its landscape-scale restoration feasibility assessment. It is the growing initiative that is providing unprecedented leadership and national-level capability for implementation. It is the increasingly organized and strengthening alliance of state wildlife agencies, non-government organizations, research institutes, universities, other conservation initiatives, and other state and federal agencies. It is the NBCI’s new Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP), designed to catalyze effective bobwhite focal areas across the states. The broad community of bobwhite conservationists has built all this.

They now are beginning to come, in varied forms, some unexpected. 

A chance observation of a 2014 federal public notice for a new vegetation management plan led to phone calls, which led to a meeting, which led to a unique and previously unforeseen formal partnership for bobwhite and grassland bird restoration. The first official NBCI focal area in Arkansas was established last month on Pea Ridge National Military Park (NMP), a 4,300-acre unit of the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service (NPS). See announcement HERE.

I am confident that the NPS had been on the minds of very few NBCI states or quail partners. Likewise, I feel sure that bobwhite restoration has not been on the minds of many NPS employees or administrators. But because the states and the bobwhite community first built it, we have earned the NPS’s attention. They now are coming to be an active partner in a common cause. 

Why the NPS?

Due to its overall preservation tradition on national parks, wildlife managers generally overlook the NPS as a potential wildlife conservation partner. But the agency’s national battlefields are different, with a primary cultural mission tied to a specific point in time. The NPS now recognizes that most national battlefields are not authentic representations of the landscapes on which the memorialized event occurred. Vast, mowed fields of fescue are inappropriate, because Civil War-era cattle grazed native forages (fescue hadn’t even been discovered); 19th century forests had been widely thinned out or cut over; fire was common on the landscape; and farm fields were small by today’s standards. In general, the 19th century eastern landscape was bobwhite habitat. 

More importantly, the NPS now is beginning to act to restore more authentic historical landscapes; i.e., bobwhite habitat.  The leadership and staff of Pea Ridge NMP plan to eventually restore more than 2,500 acres of the park into native grassland, savanna and open woodland, all of which will be burned frequently. As a result of the new partnership, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is prepared to assist on the park, as well as on adjacent acreages of willing private landowners, to create a bigger quail-friendly landscape. Meanwhile, students and faculty from the nearby Northwest Arkansas Community College already are counting quail and songbirds on the park, while the local Benton County Quail sportsman’s club is prepared to contribute additional resources.  With so much help, the Park’s restoration vision can be accelerated, improved and elevated into what could become a bobwhite and grassland bird management showcase, consistent with its cultural mission.

With the NPS centennial in 2016, the agency is keen to do some strutting, and is prepared to spend some extra money in the process. Thus, the NBCI already is working with Pea Ridge and regional NPS administrators to expand this unique partnership to the national level. Of all the federal and state land management agencies across the bobwhite’s range, the NPS is emerging as ripe for real partnerships and major progress in a short time. A quick Google count indicates up to a couple dozen national battlefields across several states that might be fertile opportunities. For example, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Gettysburg NMP just met to begin discussions about establishing that state’s first NBCI focal area using the Pea Ridge partnership as a precedent. 

So, why the NPS?  In short: (1) it has land; (2) it has native habitat restoration ambitions on battlefields; (3) it has management staff and funds (though never enough); (4) it is a willing partner; (5) it increases the total size of the nation’s quail restoration pie; (6) parks are prime places for public education on why and how native grassland habitat management benefits quail and grassland birds; (7) NPS leadership may ignite interest – or at least a competitive spirit – in other land management agencies that can join the nation’s grassland bird restoration effort.

What about hunting?

Having led with the fanfare, let’s dispense with the elephant: quail hunting on NPS lands is an unlikely outcome of NBCI focal areas on park lands. That reality may initially seem inconsistent with the NBCI’s vision and #1 principle:  widespread restoration of huntable populations of wild bobwhites. In a tiny frame of reference, I might agree. In the all-important big picture, however, lack of quail hunting opportunity on NPS lands is a small tradeoff for such a valuable restoration collaboration. 

Consider:

            - Disturbance and harvest – including the risk of overharvest – will not be a confounding factor in achieving and documenting quail population increases;

            - NPS quail focal areas may be used as sources of wild quail for future translocations;

            - NPS leadership and partnerships – and especially quail population success – can stimulate interest and action by surrounding landowners, where hunting likely will occur, resulting in an expanding landscape-scale effect;

            - Absence of public hunting on NPS lands eliminates the political difficulty of mediating among conflicting and competing sportsmen constituencies.

Given the current situation of declining bobwhite populations in every single state in which the species occurs, quail folks need more successes in the near term, wherever we can find them. The NPS is capable of making real conservation contributions toward near-term, habitat-based bobwhite success stories. 

Bobwhite folks across 25 states built it, and now they are coming … almost as if we had planned it that way!

I’m not a very supernaturally inclined person. 

Why sure, I recognize that Murphy’s Law is an inviolable law of nature; I’ve got enough scars to prove it.  And of course I’ve learned many times over not to utter a peep on those infrequent days afield when I happen to have a string of good shooting; that lesson was reaffirmed just this past holiday season while hunting Mearn’s quail with my family in Arizona.  I was silently nurturing a 2-day perfect shooting streak until my son, Patrick, made a big deal about my shooting … out loud … to the rest of the family.  I missed the very next shot.  Beyond such examples, I dismiss the supernatural.

Flushing Bobwhites  
   

There comes a time, though, to believe in omens; or at least to want to believe.  Two situations close and very important to me converged last weekend. 

First, 2014 was a challenging year for the NBCI – a “rebuilding” year in college football parlance.  The sudden and unexpected termination early in the year of the NBCI’s primary funding source spiked urgency into an ongoing – previously methodical – process of establishing a better and stronger primary funding source from the states. By the end of 2014, the new and much-improved NBCI business model was established and operational, with the leadership and investment of the states, but not without many sleepless nights. 

Second, my family’s rural property and the surrounding neighborhood in central Arkansas once supported a few persisting coveys of bobwhites. I say “persisting” because our property has only about 20 acres of upland; I manage those acres intensively for native habitats for bobwhites and grass/shrub birds. To my knowledge, none of my neighboring landowners have any decent quail habitat. There’s only so much an island of 20 acres can do to support a quail population long term. I often wondered how those coveys persisted as long as they did. The party ended a few years ago during a harsh winter with extended ice and snow. The bobwhites disappeared, and we hadn’t seen any since then. Given the presumably long distance to the next wild quail population, I concluded grimly that we may not again have quail on our property for the foreseeable future.

Fast forward to last weekend, Sunday morning, January 4, 2015:  my wife, kids and I were sitting around the breakfast table, eating and enjoying the warmth of the wood stove. She had a view through the picture window out to the back yard.  With unnerving speed, pitch and volume, my wife jumped up shrieking “Oh, my gosh!  Nobody move!  Oh, my gosh!  Don’t scare them!  Oh, my gosh!  Quail in the back yard!” 

Of course, we all jumped up instantly and ran to the window, scaring an entire covey of bobwhites, which ran across to the edge of the yard and flushed into our meadow. It was a celebratory occasion for the McKenzie family, and cause for elation. That is the power of the bobwhite. 

Yes, this time I want to believe in the supernatural. That covey simply has to be an omen:  2015 is destined to be a good year for the NBCI and for bobwhite conservation!

We both smiled brightly for the first time since he left. 

The weekend visit from our son, Patrick, was welcome and very pleasant; but short. We are exceedingly fortunate that we actually still like both our college-age kids; they, in turn, still seem to appreciate us. But there is a very real downside of such a mutually enjoyable relationship. His return to Knoxville on Sunday for the final weeks of the University of Tennessee’s spring semester left behind a melancholy void. 

I normally can never find time to do all the things I want to do.That day, I couldn’t seem to find anything I wanted to do with all the time. Only the threat of overnight storms finally moved me off the deck swing and over to the mower in the half-finished yard. 

Just as I reached the mower, I heard a sound so unexpected it didn’t even register at first:

 Bob WHITE!

The second call stopped me in my tracks. The third made me whip around to see if the mockingbird was playing a cruel trick. We hadn’t heard a singing bobwhite on our property in three years, since a series of nasty ice storms had hammered the local population. At the fourth call, I ran around the corner back toward the deck just as my wife, Sheryl, was hopping down from the deck. We both shouted at the same time:  “A bobwhite!”

We stood for the next minute or so, just listening, enjoying and trying to pinpoint the bob’s location. Just that quickly, the mood brightened and the day felt good again. 

We both smiled brightly for the first time since he left. 

April 22, 2014

More than a decade ago, the bobwhite folks reached consensus that we needed an effective voice in Washington, DC to represent quail habitat needs in federal conservation policy. Too many longstanding problems and missed big opportunities for quail had been rooted in uninformed decisions made in Washington. 

During 2009, NBCI and our partners were pursuing two funding opportunities simultaneously:  approval as a “Keystone Initiative” of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a Multistate Conservation Grant.  Both avenues aimed to establish a DC policy position for the NBCI. 

In the meantime, two different operational models for that position had been proposed. 

(1) The NBTC Agriculture Policy Subcommittee (led at the time by Bill White and Chuck Kowaleski) developed a thoughtful recommendation that the NBCI create a technical liaison with the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), housed within the very FSA division that administers the Conservation Reserve Program – the Conservation and Environmental Programs Division (CEPD). At the time, the FSA Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs (DAFP) had a vibrant relationship with the wildlife community and vigorously supported the liaison concept as a way of building relationships and helping FSA improve the CRP’s effectiveness for quail.

(2) The other model for a full-time DC quail position – based largely on my personal DC experiences from 1991-1997 as a full-time agriculture conservation policy coordinator with the Wildlife Management Institute – was an all-purpose DC quail habitat representative, a professional quail expert interested in policy, who can tolerate DC long enough to become effective. 

We opted to try the Ag Policy Subcommittee’s FSA Liaison model. Our 3-year MSCG proposal was funded, and in summer 2010 the NBCI was privileged to hire Bridget Collins, the one person in the U.S. at the time who was a (a) quail expert, (b) interested in policy, and (c) didn’t mind working in DC. Shortly after she started working inside CEPD, the politically appointed DAFP who had been so supportive left the agency. Two years later, Bridget was hired by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies as their new Agriculture Conservation Coordinator. For the last year of the position, the NBCI was fortunate to find and hire Kyle Brazil, a quail expert with an interest in conservation policy who was willing to move to DC to give it a try. Kyle finished the term of the grant in December 2013 and left DC to go back to southeast Texas to work for the Wildlife Habitat Federation.

Bridget and Kyle did valuable service for the NBCI in a challenging position that very few of us quail folks could handle.  They earned our respect and gratitude. Both made real contributions by providing technical input on key practices and proposals. For example, Kyle created and led a national coalition supporting increased USDA use of native vegetation, and shepherded the NBTC’s proposal for center pivot corner eligibility in CP33 farther than anyone or any group had ever been able to. Some 250,000 acres (the unfilled CP33 allocation) of quail habitat opportunity is at stake in the bobwhite states that have center pivot irrigation. Every previous proposal over the last 20 years for pivot corner eligibility in a continuous CRP practice had been immediately and firmly rebuffed by FSA. But right up until he left, Kyle had been able to negotiate the concept to the verge of internal acceptance by FSA. The matter remains on the verge, unfinished, but without our NBCI person in DC tending to it.

Fortunately, a majority of the bobwhite states are stepping up right now to provide increased, stable funding for the NBCI for the next 3 years. This vote of confidence from the states makes it more likely that we will be able to refill the DC position sooner than later. 

Meanwhile, this pause allows reflection. The concept of a key federal agency liaison offers intriguing possibilities, but also comes with myriad limitations and sensitivities. We knew from the beginning that this experiment could turn out to be a brilliant stroke of genius or a colossal failure. It ended up somewhere in between, for a variety of reasons, but the bottom line is it did not meet our needs. On the bright side, the bobwhite community now has a much better understanding of why things are the way they are with CRP, and has made some valuable connections within USDA.

The NBTC Ag Policy Subcommittee and Steering Committee currently are mulling over the lessons learned from the last three years, and deliberating on how better to set up and manage the position once we are able to refill it. 

Stay tuned for updates. 

 

February 5, 2014

A Brief Case Study:  Kentucky’s Quail Leadership Pulls the Right Stuff Together

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) organized and hosted a Peabody WMA Bobwhite Rally this past Saturday “… to motivate our quail enthusiasts across the state ... towards restoring northern bobwhite quail,” according to John Morgan, KDFWR Small Game Coordinator.    

Huh?!  Typically, sportsmen have no trouble rallying themselves to oppose or catalyze agency actions.  This rally turns conservation tradition upside down:  an agency trying to rally sportsmen to action!

In thinking about what messages to that audience might be helpful from me, two important points were illuminated:  (1) the very need for this reversal of roles may be a clear sign of the dejected state of some of the quail conservation community, in Kentucky and certainly beyond; and (2) KDFWR is once again exceeding expectations, assertively demonstrating its commitment and leadership for restoring bobwhites, leaving no stone unturned in the agency’s quest.

I could say many good things about numerous wildlife agencies in bobwhite states.  But because I was just in Kentucky to participate in this unique rally, and because KDFWR has pulled together so much of the right stuff to advance bobwhite restoration, that agency gets highlighted with this brief case study. 

By my observations, this instructive and inspiring example of state agency bobwhite leadership began most pointedly in 2008 with two major developments:

  • The state published in April its NBCI step-down plan, Road to Recovery; The blueprint for restoring the northern bobwhite in Kentucky, authored by KDFWR statewide quail coordinators Morgan and Ben Robinson.
  • In December, the Department took a major public step to begin implementing the Blueprint’s goals, by convening at its large Peabody WMA a “quail consortium” of bobwhite experts from across the country.  The goal:  to create a world-class public quail hunting destination.  The consortium was energized by:
    • Dale Franklin, a KDFWR commission member and infectiously enthusiastic quail advocate who had made bobwhite restoration his marquee priority;
    • Jon Gassett, KDFWR Commissioner and wildlife biologist, who understood the challenge and complexity yet still took it on; and
    • Karen Waldrop, KDFWR Wildlife Chief, who has steadfastly supported her staff and the quail initiative as a top priority.

Since that foundational year:

  • The Department allocated ample money for needed equipment, habitat restoration and quail research on the reclaimed mine lands.  Today, the area’s management staff, lead by Eric Williams, has doubled the Peabody quail population across thousands of acres, according to results of ongoing long-term research conducted by University of Tennessee wildlife students.
  • The agency continues to wield its two statewide quail coordinator positions focused virtually full-time on quail restoration.  By comparison, few other states have even one statewide person focused full-time on quail.  These two coordinators are bobwhite leaders not just within their state but also nationally:
    • Morgan has served on the Steering Committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) and is a co-chair of the technical working group developing the NBCI Model Focal Area Program;
    • Robinson currently chairs the NBTC Outreach Subcommittee.
  • When owners of the historic Shaker Village, near Lexington, approached KDFWR a few years ago about doing something different with its land, the Department quail coordinators and nongame program, lead by Sunni Carr, pooled funds and staff to restore native grassland habitat on nearly 1,000 acres of fescue pasture.  Within 3 years, the bobwhite population increased from ~6 coveys to ~50 coveys, while grassland songbirds responded likewise, making Shaker Village a national showcase and inspiration for grassland bird restoration.  Such effective collaboration between game and nongame agency staff is exemplary.
  • At the national level, KDFWR administrators provide key leadership:
    •  Commissioner Gassett stepped up in 2009 to Chair the new NBCI Management Board, providing high-level guidance and oversight to the Initiative.  Gassett served until this autumn, building the Board into a potent support and leadership mechanism for bobwhite restoration. 
    • Assistant Wildlife Director Dan Figert chaired the 25-state NBTC during its challenging transition period from a southeastern to a national group, and during the rapid growth period of the NBCI. 
  • KDFWR has developed a national-caliber solid relationship with its state USDA offices and the State Technical Committee, with enviable results:
    • The University of Kentucky Extension Service, with Tom Barnes in the lead, conducted ground-breaking research on eradicating fescue and other invasive introduced species, and restoring native grasslands.
    • Native plants (instead of fescue) are becoming the norm for USDA conservation programs across Kentucky.
    • KDFWR has probably the second-highest number of private lands/farm bill biologists of any state, achieved in large part by cost-sharing with USDA and the former Quail Unlimited (QU).
    • KDFWR instigated a collaboratively developed Green River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) focus area, which established more than 100,000 acres of native grassland across a several-county area of central Kentucky.  Today, monitoring data documents a four-fold increase in quail abundance in the focus area.
  • The KDFWR public information and education section, lead by Tim Sloan, recently created a popular, attractive and informative quail exhibit at the Salado Wildlife Education Center in Frankfort, complete with native prairie and a walk-in cage bustling with live birds.
  • KDFWR now is elbowing its way to the front of the line, trying to become the first state to launch an “official” NBCI focus area—in Livingston County, in western Kentucky, with the management leadership of Philip Sharp—following completion early in 2014 of the new NBCI Model Focal Tiers Program, which will set standards and guidelines for how to design and implement successful quail restoration projects. 

Sportsmen at Peabody Bobwhite RallyWith all these right things already happening in Kentucky, why convene a sportsmen’s rally? The Department realized one crucial piece is missing:  a powerful, organized support base of quail sportsmen. Until its demise early this year, QU played a major partnership and support role for KDFWR, linking sportsmen with the agency, and channeling sportsmen’s contributions to boost agency projects. The vacuum left by QU remains, leaving a gaping sportsmen’s hole at the foundation of the Department’s grand vision for quail restoration in the state. So KDFWR did what KDFWR does:  the agency took the initiative by hosting a rally to solve the problem.  

Four quail-related NGOs were invited to participate in the rally, and two participated: Quail Forever and the Quail and Upland Game Alliance. Those two groups enjoyed quality time and many new memberships with some 125 enthusiastic quail hunters, some of whom drove several hours for the opportunity to be rallied. More than 30 of those sportsmen arrived long before daylight to participate in a quail covey call count. The agency and the NGOs wanted the same thing from the rally:  sportsmen to get excited about quail progress, and to join the quail organizations that, in turn, could lend their increasing weight to supporting the state’s aggressive quail initiatives. 

It’s easy to criticize and casually dismiss the value of government. It is more difficult to recognize and appreciate circumstances when government not only lives up to but even exceeds expectations. The KDFWR is aggressively doing everything it can and should for bobwhites, in a methodical, thorough and effective manner. Now the ball is in the court of Kentucky sportsmen and the non-government organizations that enlist them, to stand tall in support of their Department’s leadership and initiative for bobwhite restoration. 

If the quail sportsmen rise to the level set by KDFWR’s examples, expect much more good quail news from Kentucky in coming years.

A final editorial note:   KDFWR staff believes their quail success should not be hard to replicate in numerous other states.  In their view, the keys to KY’s success have been pretty basic:  

  • An inclusive, aggressive state bobwhite plan, stepped down from the national NBCI strategic plan;
  • Top agency leadership – including the Commission chairman – talking constantly and seriously about bobwhites, while following up with action and support;
  • 2 years of significantly increased funding, much of it invested in capital (equipment);
  • The small game program authorized to manage the bump in funding;
  • The small game program staff allowed to focus on quail and given support to do what needs done;
  • Identifying and recognizing highly motivated field personnel, then rewarding them with extra quail management funding; and
  • Public outreach of many kinds to get people seeing, talking and thinking about quail.   

October 31, 2013

A line of KDFWR trucks showing tailgate wraps

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Don McKenzie

Don McKenzie

NBCI Director

Don McKenzie, a recovering waterfowl and wetland biologist, is a product of the deep South, steeped in its cultures of hunting, fried catfish, barbeque and SEC football.  He survived an abrupt transition from hip boots in South Carolina to dark suits in Washington, DC as a professional wildlife advocate specializing in agriculture conservation policy.  

During 6 ½ years in DC, he engaged the community of southeastern bobwhite quail biologists, and soon became their most active representative on federal conservation policy issues.  McKenzie eventually arose as a national leader for what now is recognized as arguably the largest and most difficult wildlife conservation challenge of this era—restoring huntable populations of bobwhites across their range.

He was a facilitator and editor of the original “Northern (now “National”) Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,” published in 2002, and has been the national Coordinator for implementing the Initiative since 2004.  Don, his wife Sheryl, and their two teenagers live on rural acreage in Arkansas, where they hunt, fish, garden and manage native quail habitat.