Celebrating the Life of a Grand Idea

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.


Without the States We Are Nothing…

Even as this post aims to highlight the central importance of the states to the future prospects for restoring bobwhites, our thoughts and prayers go out to those in many of those states – including Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi and Arkansas — who have lost family members or friends, or have seen their or their neighbors’ homes and businesses destroyed during waves of violent weather this spring. In fact, according to AP today, 328 people across those seven states died just last week in the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression. While my family has spent a lot of time in our own “fraidy hole” ducking multiple close tornadoes in central Arkansas, the impact personally has otherwise been limited. Rising waters forced the evacuation of my office and equipment storage areas. My brother watched helplessly as a giant tornado gutted his hometown of Tuscaloosa.  So many other others have not been as fortunate. Let’s all keep those folks in our thoughts.– Don

Bobwhites are the legal authority and responsibility of the state wildlife agencies.  That’s just the way it is for resident (non-migratory) species of wildlife.  The federal government has no formal role or responsibility … unless bobwhites get listed under the Endangered Species Act.  No one wants to go there.   

The NBCI started out in 2002 as a strategic plan of the states, but has become much more.  The plan started the ball rolling in earnest; since then, collaborations have made it snowball to the national level. 


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‘Net Gain’ is the Holy Grail for Quail

Our quest to restore bobwhites to huntable levels across much of their historic range—by restoring suitable habitats on scores of millions of acres—is such a daunting task it’s hard to know where or how to begin.  It helps me to break such monumental tasks into strategic pieces.

#1 Stop the Bleeding

The duck guys figured it out first. At a landscape scale, their wetland restorations would not make much difference in duck populations if ongoing wetland losses continued to exceed wetland gains. Thus arose the concept of “no net loss/net gain,” providing a framework for strategic thinking and action under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

A net gain of wetland habitat could not be achieved until wetland losses were dramatically reduced. Put another way, stemming wetland losses was just as important to reaching the goals of the Waterfowl Plan as fostering wetland restoration.  Both sides of the equation are vital. In this respect, bobwhites are just like ducks.

Every acre that is planted or re-planted to unsuitable habitat makes our quail restoration job harder.  Consider a popular suite of invasive, exotic, sod-forming forage grasses that render scores of millions of acres unsuitable to bobwhites across most of the species’ range.  Still today, Bermuda grass, tall fescue, old-world bluestems, bahia grass, etc. are being planted on open lands at a rate far exceeding the rate at which quail conservationists can restore native grassland habitats.  Just because quail managers are expert at restoring habitats does not mean we are gaining; bobwhites still are suffering a “net loss.”

An Historical Perspective – Part 2 of 2


Part 2 of 2

A new quail era begins.  Part 1 overviewed the excitement and drama of the early NBCI years.  Part 2 brings us Duckbill Quailbeyond that euphoria, through cold realities and, finally, to a higher plane.

The 2002 NBCI charted daunting challenges for the still-young Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG).  On the upside, it energized the quail folks. The SEQSG annual meeting had long been a perennial downer, as state after state dutifully reported declining populations every year, with little hope for change.  But by 2004 and 2005, the NBCI had helped the SEQSG achieve formerly impossible feats and the tenor changed for the better.

States Embrace New Quail Initiatives

In addition to valuable new habitat programs described in Part 1, the number of state quail initiatives increased from 2 to 18. Several states began creating or strengthening private lands programs, and reallocating money and staff resources to quail.  More quail organizations arose, while others began prioritizing quail for the first time.  Bobwhites became a national issue, especially as the first “NBCI success stories” emerged.  Life for state quail biologists became high profile, fast-paced and demanding.

While observers were impressed at so much progress so quickly, they also wondered how could this momentum be sustained, much less expanded, to “raise our game” to the next level?

‘Duck Guys’ Provide the Model

The duck guys provided the example. The North American waterfowl management community is better organized than any wildlife conservation niche in the world—an international treaty; organization by flyways and joint ventures; long track records of interstate, regional, national and international collaboration; multiple federal agencies to provide umbrella oversight, coordination, funding, research and expertise; a powerhouse NGO capability; multiple federal programs providing crucial funding for habitat restoration; and success that proved the formula.  If only the quail guys could get as well organized, we could muster the power to solve bigger, tougher problems.

The bobwhite world always lacked that kind of organized muscle, but it was time to start developing it. We invested the period 2006-2010 in growing and grounding the national bobwhite conservation infrastructure.

  • The SEQSG grew and matured from a southeastern regional group into the one national technical group, the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, representing all states in bobwhite range.
  • The small southeastern committee of state wildlife agency directors overseeing the NBCI grew into the national NBCI Management Board, composed of some four dozen conservation leaders across the country.
  • State wildlife agencies selected the University of Tennessee as the permanent “home” of the NBCI, to secure enduring logistical support and capacity for growth.
  • The NBCI strategic plan, itself, grew from 22 to 25 states, changing from the “Northern” to the “National” Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.
  • Finally, the original plan was revised by more than 600 biologists from those 25 states, and was converted from a paper to a digital GIS-based plan on the cutting edge of conservation planning technology.  (This new NBCI 2.0 strategic plan was unveiled last month in Kansas City, to rave reviews.)

At first, this organizational progress may sound like bureaucracy.  To the contrary, it means capability.  These steps to unify, organize and elevate the national bobwhite community already have caught the attention of those with money to contribute, allowing the NBCI to hire its first four highly qualified experts in critical disciplines to help the states and partners to advance and accelerate the Initiative. 

The bobwhite conservation world is developing muscle.


Don’t Confuse ‘Inputs’ With Success

We are well into our second year of implementing the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative and we’ve had some success, especially in terms of measuring “inputs.” We can say our biologists and partners have made close to 600 site visits and placed several thousand acres of new habitat on the ground. They have visited with landowners who control over 75,000 acres of land. But you have to be careful measuring — and touting — “inputs.” It’s much harder to measure “outputs,” otherwise known as “results.” Claiming success based on measuring inputs is akin to a bird dog trainer measuring their success based on numbers of dogs “trained.” “Hey Mr. Smith, I heard you’ve trained 376 bird dogs … is that true?” “Well, yes, it is young man, now mind ya, none of them will hold a point, retrieve, or ‘whoa’ very well, but I’ve run that many through here.” Our ultimate goal, of course, is to measure an increase in quail populations in an area as large as a county, or perhaps a region, of our state. Along with that, we’d love to see more folks out in the field chasing a bird dog and finding more quail. Ultimately, we would like to reverse the downward spiral in the number of bird hunters. This summer and fall will be our first opportunity to start measuring “outputs,” and we are optimistic, so stay tuned.