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:


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

REJUVENATED … in a worn-out kind of way

The 19th Annual Meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) in Roanoke, Virginia, July 23-26, led to the most pleasant and stimulating exhaustion one can get from work. Four days of burning candles at both ends; immersed in myriad bobwhite conservation issues, opportunities and barriers; renewing friendships across the country; meeting new friends and partners … it can’t get any better.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) provided superb hospitality and facilities in a splendid setting. My thanks to the many VDGIF staff who made invaluable contributions. Marc Puckett, VDGIF small game coordinator, pulled amazing double duty as the organizer of the entire meeting and as the chair of the NBTC. Consequently, he had to plan and oversee the NBTC meeting for 125 people, while planning and executing the NBTC Steering Committee’s heavy business meetings the first and last days. Cheers, Marc, and thank you!

VDGIF Executive Director Bob Duncan participated two days, with a few of his agency’s board members – including Jimmy Hazel, the newest member of the Bobwhite Foundation’s Development Board – who are as passionate about quail as any of us professionals, and who fervently support their agency’s Quail Action Plan. Duncan provided inspiring comments and a potent show of political support for quail conservation that any state agency quail biologist would envy. 

Other highlights of the week:

  • The prospect of increased Pittman-Robertson funding from the bobwhite states to support the central NBCI operation generated animated discussion and progress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Chief for the P-R program, Mike Piccirilli, joined the steering committee for an in-depth analysis of the details, and provided counsel on moving forward.
  • The 3rd annual NBCI Coordinators’ Workshop was attended by 22 of the 25 state quail coordinators, for an intensive review of the nearly complete NBCI Focus Area Program, a project of the NBTC Research Subcommittee. When complete by the end of 2013, the Focus Area Program will provide a fertile platform from which to launch NBCI implementation and accountability to new levels in many states.
  • The long-postponed NBTC Mined Lands Subcommittee met for the first time, with the leadership of David Ledford, a longtime quail manager and friend of the NBCI, and now CEO of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation. More than a dozen stakeholders, including industry representatives and other reclamation experts, gathered to begin developing strategies to foster collaboration and progress in improving grassland and early-successional habitats on mined lands.
  • The NBTC Annual Award was presented by his peers to Thomas V. Dailey, in recognition and appreciation of his long career of leadership in quail conservation. Prior to being the NBCI assistant director / science coordinator, Tom retired from the Missouri Department of Conservation as a quail and turkey research scientist, with emphasis on human dimensions of conservation. 
  • The NBTC Group Achievement Award was presented to the Kansas State Offices of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA Farm Service Agency for their roles in insisting that most of the state’s Conservation Reserve Program acreage be planted in native grasses,  a decision that resulted in stable or increasing populations of bobwhites as well as expanding range and populations of lesser prairie chickens.
  • While in Roanoke, the NBTC Outreach Subcommittee totally revamped and expanded the NBTC’s awards program, to recognize many more stand-out contributors to bobwhite conservation across the states, elevate the stature of the recipients, and increase the public profile of the NBCI.
  • The NBTC Agriculture Policy Subcommittee met with Galon Hall, NRCS National Program Leader for the Working Lands for Wildlife Program, to better incorporate quail habitat into the WLFW program.
  • The USDA Forest Service, the VDGIF and the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture sponsored a field trip to the forested mountains that seem at first glance an unlikely quail landscape.  Many eyes were opened to the possibility that vigorous, purposeful management can provide real-world restoration of huntable quail populations, as well as other priority wildlife such as golden-winged warblers and woodcock.
  • Finally, the cultural highlight of the week was provided at the welcome social by young musician Jesse Black, son of NBCI Forestry Coordinator Mike Black.  Jesse regaled the crowd with singing and playing multiple instruments, while enticing a few NBTC wannabes to step up and join him. 

Now we are back, tackling the long to-do lists of bobwhite conservation issues, barriers and opportunities highlighted by our brainstorming in Roanoke. Next year, in Iowa, we do it again, from a position a few steps ahead of where we were in Roanoke, thanks to the work done there, and subsequently, by the NBTC membership, its subcommittees, and by the NBCI staff.

-August 1, 2013

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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.