The federal farm bill’s Conservation Title provides the nation’s single largest source of money and technical assistance for quail habitat restoration. The periodic reauthorization of the federal farm bill provides an opportunity for quail enthusiasts to advocate for improved bobwhite habitat on private lands. The 2014 farm bill is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2018 and our elected leaders are already making decisions about its conservation features.
Thanks to support from Park Cities Quail, a Texas-based sportsman’s conservation organization, the NBCI is engaged actively in advocating three top farm bill priorities for quail habitat restoration and management:
Natives First – NBCI’s signature, game-changing initiative would establish a native vegetation standard as the default choice for all USDA conservation programs. Natives First would curtail the longstanding USDA practice of subsidizing invasive exotic forages and other introduced vegetation, such as K-31 fescue, Bermuda grass, and old-world bluestems.
Short-term rotational CRP –this concept, a variation of which is already being piloted as an Iowa SAFE practice, would establish a habitat management technique for CRP that would foster better quality quail brooding habitat over a longer portion of CRP contracts. This concept also would also relieve landowners of the need to implement “mid-contract management” provisions on affected acres in many CRP contracts.
Forest thinning/burning incentives – Across the majority of bobwhite range, forest management provides some of the best bobwhite habitat restoration opportunity. Incentives are needed to assist landowners to thin forests to allow development of a native grass understory followed by frequent prescribed fire to create ideal bobwhite savanna habitat in forested landscapes.
The NBCI is taking every opportunity to inform Congress about these quail-friendly policies that should be included in the farm bill. So far, we have advocated them at the following meetings and events.
- Testimony for the record of a June 29 US Senate Agriculture Committee hearing concerning conservation and forestry.
- A June 30 NBCI—hosted Congressional tour of quail habitat management, aimed at informing decision makers about farm bill policies needed to achieve quality habitat restoration for quail, grassland birds and pollinators. Congressional staff, wildlife conservation organizations and USDA officials attended the tour, at Chino Farms on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the site of the state’s highest bobwhite density. They now have a high degree of awareness about the value of native grassland restoration enabled by farm bill programs.
- Dale Rollins spoke to the July 31 US House of Representatives farm bill listening session in San Angelo, Texas. Dr. Rollins, representing NBCI and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation, began his testimony with the “Bob-White” call, followed by very pointed comments referring to the bobwhite as the “canary of the prairie.” Dr. Rollins explained to the Chairman of the House Agriculture and other Representatives that the bobwhite is a surrogate for many other species of wildlife and pollinators that are indicators of quality habitat. He emphasized the importance of a native vegetation policy and the need to make CRP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) more beneficial to quail and other wildlife.
So the NBCI is working diligently to spread the word about bobwhite needs on private lands and as elements of the farm bill. We urge all who care about wild quail and quail habitat to reach out to your elected representatives and support NBCI’s farm bill priorities. Contact information for all Members of Congress may be found at the following link: https://www.c-span.org/congress/members/
Producing one to three million seeds per acre and remaining viable for what is thought to be up to 20 years in the soil, the seed rain alone creates an ever-abundant seed bank. Once established, plants will reduce or eliminate competing vegetation through shading, competition for water and nutrients and allelopathy. Introduced in 1896 at the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station to be tested as an agricultural crop, sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) also known as Chinese lespedeza or Chinese bushclover, made its first recorded entry into the United States. In 1924, the US Department of Agriculture, using seed from Japan, planted it at the Arlington Experiment Farm in Virginia. Sericea lespedeza was commonly used for ground cover in mine reclamations and road construction particularly due to its adaptability to poor soil conditions. In the 1940’s USDA and many state agencies promoted sericea for forage, hay and wildlife food and cover. Reported in 2005, by C.A. Duncan, et al, Invasive plants of range and wildlands and their environmental, economic, and societal impacts, the estimated coverage of sericea lespedeza was 8.6 million acres in 2003. The authors also reported from a study site in Kansas that between the years 1989 – 2003, sericea had increased at a rate of 24% annually. I do not contend that the rate of increase is 24% annually range-wide, but it does demonstrate that sericea lespedeza has the capacity to overwhelm natural systems rapidly. Sericea is best adapted to areas of 30 inches of rainfall or greater and is tolerant of minimum temperatures down to -15◦ F. Figure 1 shows the approximate area of adaptation, though it is known to exist outside of the area indicated, however in limited distribution.
If you don’t have sericea your best strategy is to be diligent about scouting and treat it as soon as you see it. You can’t do much about the natural source of spread by animals, but be mindful of the human sources of spread. Cars, trucks, farm equipment all can capture seeds in the nooks and crannies then fall out to infest unoccupied areas. Mowing and haying equipment are particularly susceptible, miles and miles of highway rights of way have been contaminated by mowing after seed set. Thoroughly clean any equipment that has been in sericea infested fields. Pay attention to hay being hauled in, when buying, insist that it be sericea free. Don’t buy cattle from sericea infested pastures or farms. Seeds can be entangled in their coats and also pass through their systems to be deposited with manure.
When buying forage or habitat seed, relying on the seed tag analysis may not be enough. Depending upon what state you are in, sericea lespedeza may or may not be listed. It is a state noxious weed in Kansas and Colorado so it is required by law to be listed. Other states, under the “Weed Seed” section of the tag, may list it while in other states it may just be part of the percentage of unknown “Weed Seed” and unlisted. Also check the “Other Crop Seed” section of the tag as some seed companies commercially sell it. It is best to specifically ask if the seed vendor guarantees it to be free of sericea lespedeza seed. I would avoid buying native grass or other seed from any vendor who sells sericea lespedeza seed for fear of cross contamination.
If you have sericea lespedeza, controlling it is a challenge and a never-ending task. Even if you can eliminate established plants and seedlings, one study deduced that spring germinating seed may only represent 1% of the total soil-stored seeds. Based on that estimation, once you have it, you can plan on having it essentially forever.
Grazing, mowing, burning, hand weeding and herbicide provide varying degrees of control, better called suppression. In most instances an integrated approach will yield the best results.
Grazing – For the most part, livestock do not graze sericea due to its high tannin content, or it is among the least preferred so last to be grazed. The regrowth of sericea following a burn is palatable and grazed but quickly grows beyond palatability, likewise early emerging plants are grazed too, however if residual stems from the previous year persist, cattle are less likely to graze it. Some exceptions are in high stock density grazing systems, when cattle are forced to graze it – and may be a good strategy for management. Most studies report that sericea does not increase under grazing. Also, note that goats and sheep seem to do fine with sericea.
Mowing – Mowing during bloom does nothing to weaken the plant but it does prohibit it from going to seed, for the most part. Often, mowed plants will re-bloom and attempt to produce seed. If you have a late frost, they may produce viable seed. Mowing when carbohydrate reserves are low can help reduce vigor and annual mowing can reduce the stand, assuming you are also mowing during bloom to prevent seed-set. Lowest carbohydrate reserves are typically early-summer, after green up in spring. Continued mowing during the summer will continue to stress the plants and reduce their vigor.
Burning – Timing of prescribed fire has varying impacts on sericea lespedeza and can increase plant density and vigor. Spring burning stimulates sericea, which if done by itself is not a good strategy. Burning helps scarify seeds and stimulate germination, however if done in conjunction with other methods such as herbicide, grazing or mowing, can be effective. Burned plants are more palatable and burning removes residual stems which inhibit grazing. Because burning stimulates a flush of new seedlings, herbicide treatments following can help reduce the seed bank pressure while also eliminating established plants. The same principles for mowing following burning apply as listed above. Recent research conducted in the Great Plains have shown a reduction in sericea lespedeza with repeated annual growing season burns conducted when sericea is in peak bloom. It should be noted that successive burns may not be possible with heavy infestations of sericea due to lack of ground level fuel to carry the fire.
Hand weeding – Hand weeding is only effective for new seedlings. Established plants have a significant tap root and are next to impossible to pull out of the ground. Hand weeding would only apply to very minimal plant infestations on a very small scale due to the labor intensity.
Herbicide – Herbicide as a stand-alone practice is probably the most efficient but it has its drawbacks. Herbicides that are specific to sericea lespedeza do not exist. The common and less expensive broadleaf herbicides, (2,4-D, dicamba, picloram) are not effective. Glyphosate can be used but is not recommended because it is non-selective. Triclopyr, metsulfuron and triclopyr plus fluroxypyr are the most effective and cost efficient, but still expect chemical cost to be between the upper teens to low twenties per acre. All three have slightly different specifics about their use in relation to their rate and timing of application. In many cases broadcast applications are not desirable due to the presence of other favorable forbs and off-target damage, while spot applications are more targeted they can also result in off-target damage and are more time consuming. Broadcast applications are best suited for heavy infestations or in stands without forbs. Spot application works well for scattered plants or where other sensitive, desirable plants occur such as remnant prairie or in pollinator plantings.
An integrated approach to sericea suppression provides the best results. Combining burning with grazing, mowing or herbicides significantly reduces the population. In organic systems, burning with grazing and/or mowing can provide acceptable results.
The “take home” points:
- If you don’t have sericea lespedeza do everything you can to keep from getting it.
- If it shows up, get on it immediately, don’t wait for it to get to a threshold level before implementing management.
- Once you have sericea lespedeza, you are always going to have it.
- Be diligent in your sericea management strategy, don’t skip a year. You may be able to lessen effort in certain years based on plant population but don’t skip a year.
- Use an integrated approach for best results.
Get mad, no, get angry at sericea lespedeza and attack it with a vengeance and don’t let up. It certainly isn’t going to let up on its invasion. Heinous invader.
Hot cannon metal under my hands, I peered down the barrel and across the open lands to where the Union troops under General John Pope poured from the wood line and into the hail of artillery from 36 Confederate cannons on Battery Heights not far from the Brawner House. It was on the afternoon of the 3rd day of the battle, on August 30th, 1862, that these cannon played the decisive role in the Second Battle of Manassas, (Bull Run). On this day, August 1, nearly 155 years later, I stood on the ground where over 3,000 men died in combat all those years before.
I had slipped away from our group of biologists, having seen a rail fence on the ridgeline, my one moment of digression during this quail habitat monitoring workshop. Once there and seeing the cannon I had to take a closer look. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in souls. Closing my eyes for a brief moment a chill went down my spine and my eyes misted. I believe wherever we travel a small part of us stays behind forever. For an instant I felt the same fear and exhilaration those men on that fateful day felt. What goes through a man’s mind when he charges headlong into such carnage? The rest as they say is history and what is arguably one of the most important events in the story of humankind ended 100 miles to the south in Appomattox less than 3 years afterwards (though we are still trying to heal some of those old wounds).
I doubt those men could have had even the slightest inkling of how much change would occur over those next 150 years. The constant sounds of commercial airliners approaching Dulles International Airport, or Reagan National Airport served as the backdrop for most of our day in the field. Traffic on the nearby highways was never ending. Yet Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) serves as a unique oasis for wildlife in the middle of a metropolis. With over 5,000 acres of habitat, wildlife thrives. And yes, even the bobwhite quail remains – largely due to the extraordinary efforts of the Manassas NBP staff.
Think about that for a second. In one of the most human dominated landscapes in America, with enough land and the right habitat management, bobwhite quail can find a way to win. If this does not give you hope for bobwhites, or convince you that habitat does work, there is not much more I can say to you, or is there?
And this was one of the primary reasons our group of about 25 biologists gathered at Manassas NBP earlier this week. We were there to practice conducting habitat monitoring as part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). Developed by the science subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee among others (our own Jay Howell played a key role), the CIP will prove to be the largest coordinated monitoring effort ever undertaken for bobwhites (and several songbirds, too.) Virginia was proudly one of the first seven pilot states. The number of states now involved has soared to 21 and at some point we hope all 25 NBTC states will come on board.
But why do all this?
No matter how hard biologists stress that while other factors may play a role in bobwhite decline habitat loss is still the driving factor, many people simply did not believe us. Further, though many states did have evidence of habitat’s effectiveness, each state did their own thing and trying to compare survey results was like comparing anvils and kitchen knives. Beyond being made of metal, they do not have much in common.
All states participating in the CIP will be using the same methods to monitor habitat and bird response. Further, they will use the CIP to layout and design their focal areas. The monitoring protocol is designed to work across the vast array of ecoregions where quail occur. Take a deep breath and then think about the power of this program. Potentially 25 or more focal areas across 25 states all replicating the same methods and analyzing their results to form a massive data set that will answer this question once and for all. But the CIP is more than a monitoring program; it is a catalyst for quail habitat work and partnerships.
Witness how the National Park Service (NPS) has embraced this program (along with others like the U.S. Forest Service). The first official NPS CIP Focal area was Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas and they are smack in the middle of implementing their focal area. Their staff came to Virginia this week to help their peers at Manassas NBP. In addition to the Pea Ridge staff, our group this week included key national staff from NBCI, national level NPS staff, Manassas NBP key staff and field biologists, staff from Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, a West Virginia DNR quail program biologist, a Quail Forever coordinator from South Carolina who is leading their focal area, a biologist from Virginia Working Landscapes, a teacher (our instructor this week) from Northwest Arkansas Community College, and our own VDGIF staff.
Ours was the second of such training workshops, the first being in Kentucky last year and more are already scheduled. I won’t ramble on anymore today about the CIP, but I hope that for those of you who feel not enough is being done for quail, we are doing more for them now than at any time in history. You will be hearing more about the CIP and I believe it will lead to you hearing more quail in the future.
Having been an infantry soldier, I know what those Civil War soldiers were thinking about when they were baking with sweat streaked faces in the hot summer dust, or freezing to death in the dank winter mud, the only intangible thing holding them to that particular spot on earth being their own honor. They thought about simple things … a home-cooked meal shared slowly around a table with good conversation, a clean, dry and safe place to sleep, the rhythmic sounds of summer katydids on a moonlit night or the sound of a bird coming from the fence lines at least as peaceful as the call of the mourning dove. Softly at first, “bob-BOB-WHITE,” …“bob-BOB-WHITE,”…”it’s ALL RIGHT,”…it’s ALL RIGHT” – I’m still breathing in and out.
I had the joy and privilege of filming and producing the Firing Up Your Beef Production video. Aside from being an avid hobby photographer, which is one reason why this project was so enjoyable, I met some of the most genuine, sincere and interesting people. During the interviews, it was obvious each and every one, in their own unique way, had a passion for what they were doing and the land they were on. This has been a rewarding project.
If you were a ranch owner and cattleman in the Great Plains and there was one thing you could do to halt and/or reverse woody encroachment, increase your carrying capacity, increase water availability, increase animal performance, increase forage quality and quantity, reduce parasites, improve grazing distribution, improve range health and protect against wildfire, would you do that one thing?
According to the ranchers and researchers interviewed in the recently released NBCI video, Fire Up Your Beef Production – A Ranchers’ Perspective of Prescribed Burning for Range Management, that is precisely what prescribed burning does.
Ranchers who are using prescribed fire on their ranches to improve their beef production shared their experiences for the filming of Fire Up Your Beef Production. It became apparent after the second interview there was a common theme developing … all the ranchers, in their own way, were saying the same things about woody encroachment control, water availability, carrying capacity, forage quality and quantity, range health and other topics. It was a script that was writing itself.
The focus of the video is on the ranchers but researchers were included to throw a little science in for those who want to hear that aspect, though in the real world most folks find those ranchers who are practicing what they preach to be very credible and, in the end, this video is targeted to ranchers.
The ranchers are the stars of the video. After all, when you get quotes like…
“…springs started to flow again.”
“The thing with prescribed burning and grazing management is we’ve been able to run more cattle through the ranch which increases the bottom line significantly.”
“Range condition has definitely improved, (we have) a lot more tall grass than we used to and just all around better plant health.”
…then how can you go wrong? Ranchers are telling their own stories of how they use prescribed burning on their own ranches to improve their operation. These testimonials are sure to resonate with other ranchers who view this video.
The National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Grassland and Grazing Lands Subcommittee charge in developing this video was to target it to ranchers, knowing if prescribed burning is implemented along with grazing management, bobwhites and other grassland wildlife will benefit. Wildlife enthusiasts are likely to ask why there isn’t more about bobwhites or wildlife in the video. Again, wildlife managers and bobwhite enthusiasts are not the target audience for this video, though there is plenty a wildlife manager could learn from hearing these landowners tell their experiences. Keep in mind, ranchers trying to make a living are the target audience.
Moving outside of our traditional NBCI promotion circles, cattlemen’s associations, grazing lands coalitions, associations of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, prescribed burn associations and several other groups received the news release announcing the video, and, of course, our traditional network of contacts. The video, in both long and short versions, is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/user/BringBackBobwhites/videos. Entities interested in obtaining copies for group screenings may contact Alyssa Merka at firstname.lastname@example.org for copies on DVDs or flash drives.
This project wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the ranchers, but there were many other people involved in the background who coordinated site visits for filming, set up the interviews, provided drone footage, answer the call for “b-roll,” reviewed our effort and provided quotes for our news release, and on and on. I am going to attempt to list everyone who had a hand in this project in one way or another. I apologize in advance for any omissions.
The state quail coordinators in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska… Robert Perez, Derek Wiley, Jeff Prendergast and Jeff Lusk, respectively.
All of the ranchers: Linda Evans, Jerry Hunter, Cody Sander, Ted Alexander, Brian Alexander, Tom Carr and Greg Hurlbut.
Crew of many others: Alex Lyon, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT); Allen Wilson and Reading Benefit Fire District, KS; Ken Brunson, The Nature Conservancy-Kansas; Barth Crouch, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition; Craig Woods; Oklahoma State University (OSU); Russel Stevens, Noble Research Institute; Blayr Gourley, OSU; Chris Schenck, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) ; Kyle Banowsky, TPWD; Carol Baldwin, Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, Kansas State University (KSU); Aleksey Sheshukov, KSU; Tom Gross, KSU; Dan Donnert, KSU; Eva Horne, KSU; John Weir, OSU; David Engle, OSU; Brian Teeter, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever; Alva Gregory, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; Mike Remund, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; Chuck Stanley, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Troy Smith, KDWPT; Society for Range Management; NBCI staff.
I hope I got everybody. Thank you!
I have been off on a much needed break for a bit now. After 21 years with DGIF and over 25 working with quail, burnout can ensue. While home the other day I was doing some “cleaning out” when I found a 1998 issue of Virginia Wildlife. In it was an article I had written titled “A Quail for the Heart.” It reminded me of the many reasons I continue to enjoy this job. It reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for, too.
For wildlife professionals my age (54), the last decade has been a little confusing. We have lived and worked during a time of rapid change in our society and profession. What professional statisticians like to call “demographics” – meaning the makeup and interests of our human population –has changed. The short story is folks are less connected to the land now, less likely to spend time outdoors and much less likely to hunt and fish than they were 50 years ago. This has translated into declines in revenues for many state wildlife agencies and the last decade has seen great effort expended to seek remedies. Some have been found, but no perfect fix exists.
One thing many of us realized quite some time ago is that our constituency is very diverse now, and we need them all to succeed. And we believe they need us, too, in order to truly have the kind of future they desire. At some point in the lives of many people they find something is missing. For many, what is missing is a connection to nature and their ancient roots.
Our “Quail Team” has embraced the idea of partnerships quite well. We call ourselves the “Quail Team” quite frankly because it is much easier to say than “early-succession habitat / species team.” And we simply have not struck upon a better name (if you can think of one, please let us know). In the back of our new quail and early-succession species recovery plan (available at this link: https://bringbackbobwhites.org/about-us/nbci-statescoordinators/virginia-nbci/ then click on the tab for the plan – thanks to NBCI for working with states to create these pages) is listed 35 partners from a very diverse array of entities that we work with and rely on routinely. And we have a team of private lands wildlife biologists with impressive backgrounds that include remarkable knowledge about songbirds, deer, pollinating insects and plants. I am proud of the small role I have played in helping them in their careers, but they have helped each other a great deal more than any of their managers have, like a true team. Our goal as cooperative managers via DGIF, NRCS and CMI has been to allow them to work to their strengths, and encourage and facilitate them when we can.
With all this partnership though, and much talk about the huge declines in upland gamebird hunters, I fear our upland gamebird hunting constituents might worry they are being forgotten. My main reason for writing this post is to assure them they are not being marginalized. In our new “quail plan” – in quotes because it is much more than that – we identified several key areas where significant improvement is needed, and one of those is our efforts to continue to recruit and support upland gamebird hunters. Maybe this phrase has been overused, but “it is not a zero sum game.” This means that we do not have to either be “game species” managers or “non-game species” managers. The more I work in this job the more I realize how important what some call the 80:20 rule is. Written about in the most recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, this rule states that when bringing diverse partners together, focus on the 80% of things you agree on and forget about the 20% you might disagree on. Whether your favorite species is the monarch butterfly, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the southeastern fox squirrel or the bobwhite quail – there is a good chance their habitat needs are similar. And it will only be through the “strength in numbers” that evolves when we come together with a common message that allows us to “move the conservation needle” in the right direction. Ouch – enough quotes!
As for myself, I have a new bird dog puppy on the way. I look forward to picking her up in late August. I have been too long without a puppy to love and train. I am looking forward to that bonding process again that unless you have experienced it you may not understand. It is hard to put into words the feeling you get when you see something as tiny, dependent and innocent as a Llewellin Setter puppy develop into an independent, hardworking companion that lives for you and to hunt upland gamebirds. There is some luck and magic involved in this process. Special touch is required to understand how to keep a bird dog enthusiastic and pointed in the right direction. You have to guide them, but you have to keep it fun. You have to allow them to train themselves as much as you train them and you have to be forgiving of mistakes. In short, it is not altogether different to how we might raise a child, or how we ourselves might like to be “trained” to do things we have the heart and instinct to do but not the experience.
As long as I am in this job role, and alive on this earth with the health to do it, I’ll be a proud “bird hunter.” You might say I was born into it. When I entered this world back in “those good old days” on a cold November Sunday, my Dad brought my Mom a meal of pan fried wild quail as she recovered in the hospital. A peer once said to me “Marc, the quail is never going to be everyman’s bird.” I have thought about that for many years now. I am not sure any bird will ever be everyone’s bird. But I can assure you of this – the bobwhite quail is this man’s bird, and will continue to be a primary reason I come to work every day.