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

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.