The need for a national bobwhite strategy is demonstrated by our collective failure. If a laissez faire, everyone-for-himself, bobwhite conservation approach was sufficient then bobwhite populations would be in fine shape everywhere. Clearly, that approach comes up far short.
Now we have a simple choice: (1) continue the failed laissez faire approach; or (2) try something different. Bobwhite conservationists, to our credit, finally opted for (2). Thus arose the NBCI.
Maybe you recall the movie “Unforgiven.” It has become a classic, and it earned awards for star (and director?) Clint Eastwood –
Best Picture among them. In one memorable scene near the movie’s end, Gene Hackman’s character “Little Bill” lays dying, but still defiant, on the floor. Clint stands over him with Morgan Freeman’s Sharps rifle cocked. Little Bill says “I don’t deserve to die like this.” To which Clint replies, just before finishing him, “Deserving’s got nothin to do with it.”
Maybe it is quite a leap to relate this back to quail management, but at least I got your attention. It made me think of the undignified deaths of so many plants deemed “weeds” by the masses of “lawn-like landscape” lovers out there. So many “weeds” die an undeserved death by bush-hog or broad-spectrum herbicide at the hands of landowners bent on wasting $4.00 dollar a gallon diesel fuel in fighting an ill-conceived war with Mother Nature.
As wildlife professionals, we have been ineffective in educating the public as to the value of “weeds” and “brush.” Think about this, “A weed by any other name may be a Rose.” A poor twist on Shakespeare, no doubt, but the point is – many of the things people call weeds, are in fact valuable wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. They do not deserve to die “undignified” deaths at the hands of uneducated, mis-informed – though perhaps even well meaning landowners.
If you have worked as a wildlife biologist in the field of private lands management, you have undoubtedly heard the following: “Marc, I got that old field cleaned up; I was in there all week with the dozer and bush hog. I have it down to bare dirt. What do I need to plant for quail?”
I find that the “food plot” mentality still prevails in some cases, more than two decades into what I call the “modern era” of quail management. We have simply failed in spreading the word about proper habitat management for promoting early-succession species like bobwhites.
One of the biggest challenges in working with landowners is to first help them recognize the good habitats they already have. Indeed, there are times when setting things back to “ground zero” may be necessary, and soil disturbance in the form of disking, or prescribed fire is a big part of quail management. But it must be done with some degree of discretion and knowledge of proper application.
What can you do as a quail enthusiast? First – learn. Educate yourself about the hundreds of plants many collectively call “weeds.” Knowing something by name automatically elevates a person’s appreciation of it. Briers become blackberry, greenbrier and raspberry thickets. Brush becomes wild plum, sumac and elderberry “coverts.” Weedy fields evolve into ironweed, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, Maxamillion sunflower, beggar-weed, wild bean, sweet pea, and native grass “meadows.” Then – share your knowledge with a neighbor. We have become such a society of “texters.” We stand in line at the grocery store, right next to fellow citizens of planet earth, texting someone half a county away, when it has been months since we walked over to our neighbors house and said “hello, how are you, and by-the-way – I’m leaving this habitat along my field edge for a reason.”
Then learn how to properly apply prescribed fire, rotational disking and, yes, in some cases, selective herbicides to promote healthy, early-succession plant communities. They are indeed a highly valuable component of the landscape. But until these transitional plant communities are recognized by the masses as being valuable, they are destined to continue to undeservedly disappear from our lives. I am “preaching to the choir.” It is your responsibility to go out and preach to those who may not even recognize the hymn book.
And while you are out there, maybe also take the time to thank a military veteran, or an active duty Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine, National Guard or Navy person for their service.
Local-level quail conservationists are the foundation of the movement to restore bobwhites. No matter how tall the states may stand in pursuit of their quail stewardship duty, the states cannot succeed without the full partnership of a vigorous grassroots support base.
A central theme of the NBCI and of our strategy for restoring bobwhites range-wide might now be coming into focus. I call it the NBCI “pyramid strategy,” which aims to address head-on the societal reality that bobwhite restoration has less to do with science and technology than it does with people, politics and money. One of the greatest strengths of bobwhite conservation is we are loaded with brilliant scientists and managers who have amassed an impressive record of knowledge and experience about quail biology and management. Conversely, our weakness is our tepid organizational skills to make effective use of all the people who are crucial to our success. The NBCI aims to begin fixing this weakness, by catalyzing a “quail machine,” of people who collaborate synergistically among all three essential levels – local, state and national.
Almost every quail hunter already realizes the biggest problem with bobwhites – clean farming practices. Modern, weed-free, fencerow-to-fencerow, high-intensity production leaves little habitat for most grassland birds. Certainly, agriculture is not the only force that has changed the landscape in ways inhospitable to quail, but it probably has the largest impact.
Consider: across the core bobwhite range there are roughly 210 million acres of cropland, 120 million acres of pasture/hay, and 35 million acres of plantation pine. Decades ago, this 365 million acres of production land was inherently suitable for bobwhites. No longer.
Cultivated cropland now is so free of weeds and idle areas as to no longer accommodate quail. Pasture and hay land has been so “improved” with aggressive, exotic forage grasses that they have no practical value to quail. Dense, unburned pine plantations offer little at ground level but a thick layer of needles.
As Americans we are routinely criticized for using more than our share of the world’s resources, but we are rarely praised for shouldering more than our share of the world’s burdens. A nation can never be perfect, as all nations are composed of imperfect individuals. Differences exist between countries, states, friends, families and neighbors, yet occasionally something reminds us we have more in common, than not.
I remember where I was on 9/11. Always will. And I will remember that, in spite of the sadness of that event, it galvanized our nation like no other occurrence in my lifetime. I believe a death is nothing to celebrate, so today I would say I am celebrating life – the life of a grand idea expressed by our founding Fathers nearly 235 years ago. Their belief in the inalienable rights of all humans on planet earth. And though we have not always lived up to the idea as we should have, America remains the “light on the hill,” the beacon for freedom that our forefather’s envisioned.