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Shell’s Covert: Thoughts from the ‘Heartland’

Next month I promise to return to a topic that may be educational, useful and less philosophical – expressly quail nutrition and food habits. But this month, I wanted to share a few thoughts from the heartland after our recent National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I have visited the “plains states” several times and I love it “out there.” Some folks refer to the heartland as the “flyover states,” insinuating there’s nothing there to interest anyone not from around there. And from 35,000 feet you see lots of squares and circles representing crop fields, and very few homes or towns. On the ground one of the first things I felt was that there’s very few places to hide from the weather … or hide from anything else for that matter. And it has created a people without pretenses. More than anywhere I have ever visited, it is a place where “what you see is what you get,” take it or leave it.

In winter the wind is relentless, as well as the work … and it leaves little time for fanciness. Homes look worn, but the people in them don’t and in every country café I visited, people were friendly and welcoming. “You guys bird hunting?” would be a frequent question as we sat eating fresh hamburgers. Often followed by something like “Well, if you get over by Clay Center, I have a piece of land there you are welcome to hunt.”

There's farmland all around

There’s farmland all around

I remember back in 2008 registering for a hotel one evening in Clay Center and I asked the lady behind the desk “What county are we in?” She looked at me like I was about the stupidest hunter she ever saw and said, “Why do you think they call this town Clay Center?” That’s when it hit me, most everything was surveyed in squares on the plains, and each square county had a town surveyed and laid out right at its center…hence Clay Center was at the geometric dead center of Clay County. When you are from the convoluted Southeast like me, there is something refreshing about that simplicity.

And not to disparage our Nebraska friends, but some things regarding quail are just easier out there than they are here. For starters, it’s rural, and that alone makes life easier for quail and all sorts of other critters. I am talking so rural in places that on our field tour last week the tour buses just parked right in the road while we went about our guided stops. And if a car did come along, they’d just go around us (maybe one or two cars all afternoon).

Next, farmland out there is everywhere – there is so much of it that it makes it easier not to farm every acre of it, and that again helps the bobwhite along with many plants and animals. Perhaps most importantly – it takes trees years and years to grow out there once any distance from a waterway. Sweetgum there is found in a pack, not growing from the ground. Red maple? Pine? Poplar? Not there. Plant succession is slow and thus the need for active management is not quite as urgent as it is here in the humid East. Another little something I noticed, non-native invasive vegetation has not had nearly as long to take hold out there as it has back here. It exists and does cause problems, but the native seedbank of plants seems to respond fairly well when given a chance. Wild plum still seems to grow on its own there, too, and I saw many a good thicket of it along roadsides, much like Kansas back in 1997 when we did not really need a bird dog to find quail. We simply hopped from plum thicket to plum thicket relying on the dogs mainly to help us chase the birds out (those quail would run around and around in circles within those thickets hating to fly out).

They have their share of problems, too, and I don’t want to make it sound easy. Winters can be severe, drought can have negative effects and as the human population increases they’ll be expected to squeeze every soybean out of their farmland. But it is nice to know that given good weather, a little passive neglect and some active management with fire and cattle grazing can still produce a bunch of bobwhites somewhere in America.

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

Also, in my opinion, if you have never visited our plains states, you can’t really call yourself an American or a bird hunter. If for no other reason, you need to drive out there during winter, stand out

in the middle of that vastness and appreciate the kind of self-sufficiency and courage it takes to live there.

Ah, yes, and about the NBTC meeting itself…it was fantastic (Thanks Nebraska folks!). I left once again feeling like the NBCI was on the verge of great things. Their list of accomplishments over the past year is impressive. There have been doubters out there and concerns expressed about the use of Pittman-Robertson funds to support NBCI staff.

As I sat looking out my hotel room, I had a magnificent view of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football stadium. A more famous stadium one will be hard pressed to find. The Big Red is everywhere in Nebraska. I thought about how the NBCI had only existed for six years and had only had stable funding for two years and it made me think to myself “I wonder where Nebraska would be if they’d given up on their football team after its first two years?”

The kind of work ethic and dedication I see in Nebraska fans is evident all over our great country, it is what makes us great, and I see it exemplified by the staff of the NBCI.

Shell’s Covert: The Subtle Things

I have been absent from the blogosphere since early June. It has been a busy summer so far. Not to mention a very troubling one with regards to some of what has transpired in our great country and around the world. I made the comment to a friend and colleague last week that I was afraid we ought to just put our American flags at half-mast and leave them there. It seems no sooner than we raise them back to full staff that another tragedy unfolds. I hope the future can return us to some sense of “normalcy,” but throughout history I am not sure that ever really existed for very long.

Pasture / hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

Pasture/hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

One thing I really struggle with sometimes given all that is going on in the world is how do I continue to believe in what I am doing? Some days I suffer from an existential crisis mood. I ask myself – why should anyone care about quail? About bees? About butterflies? About thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses? About wetlands? About forests?

There has never been another species that has had as great a capacity to inflict atrocities on one another as ours. Going back as far in history as one can go, examples of the wholesale slaughter we have leveled on ourselves are limitless. But so are examples of our capacity to survive those cataclysms. It occurred to me as I thought about this that barring nuclear holocaust, we are not likely to bring about our extinction through war. As bad as things get, as horrible as times become…our species can survive those things.

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

But what we will not survive is the continued erosion of our ecosystems, or our continued loss of what Aldo Leopold referred to as a “land ethic.” It occurred to me that it won’t be the dramatic events that bring about our demise as a species. It will be the underlying, sometimes subtle things that go on around us every day that cause the “bottom to fall out” at some point. And therein were my answers.

I spent a good part of the last two weeks traveling around to various parts of our state looking at habitat projects of differing kinds. All around us was life and positivity on our site visits. Examples of landowners who, while still making income from their property, made decisions reflecting their love of the land and wildlife.

Projects ranged from reforestation of declining species of pines to incorporating wildlife considerations like reduced stocking rates and lower intensity herbicides, to a single project that incorporated hundreds of acres of native grass and pollinator plantings. These landowners counted on our professional recommendations to design and help them accomplish their projects. Many also relied on financial assistance from conservation cost-share programs.

Dedicated conservation professionals helped walk them through the process. At nearly every site we heard the “bob-bob-whiiiittte!!!” call. We saw countless numbers of pollinating insects. Plant diversity was improved at all sites. The only thing that dampened our thinking was the distance between good sites at times. We simply need more landowners inclined to do conservation-minded habitat work. And that is a goal worthy of our work. Our life’s chosen calling will become increasingly critical to the continued existence of our species. Our jobs are not glamorous, we rarely work in the spotlight (good or bad), and in most cases we do not risk our lives unreasonably in our profession. But what we do matters to our future on this planet.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Bittersweet Birding

 

A solo birdwatching trip to an east Arkansas national wildlife refuge last weekend took me physically and mentally away from work’s reports, contracts and budgets.  Spotting scope and binoculars in hand, I anticipated that waterbirds and maybe even some early-dispersing shorebirds at this Mississippi Alluvial Valley refuge would be the day’s features. Instead, the surprise highlight was found among the numerous former crop fields that have been planted with tidy rows of bottomland hardwood trees.  

Driving slowly along the gravel road, windows down and head out, listening, I heard an unusual but vaguely familiar bird song. Reflexively braking the truck, I stopped along a large field of young planted hardwoods that sported a robust native herbaceous community between the rows. A minute later the bird sang again, causing my mental hard drive to search its archives… darned if it didn’t sound just like a painted bunting, but that seemed too unlikely. I parked the truck, got out, listened and looked. Field sparrows, yellow-breasted chats, eastern towhees, dickcissels, and indigo buntings were singing all around … and a Bell’s vireo cut loose close by, the first of the year for me. Finally, as I was about to leave, the mystery bird sang again. I searched more intensely and finally found it, a painted bunting perched near the top of a young oak tree, singing its head off, brilliantly illuminated in the sunlight. I high-fived myself right there in the road because PABUs are rare sightings for me; plus, who could ever tire of seeing them?!

That’s when the first bobwhite whistled.  Then another; and another.  I soon counted four bobwhites singing in that same area with the painted bunting along with all the other early-successional songbirds that typically share habitats with bobwhites.  Some – such as the painted bunting, eastern towhee, field sparrow and Bell’s vireo – have Continental Concern Scores equal to or higher (worse) than the bobwhite’s, according to the Partners in Flight Species Assessment Database.

This memorable birding moment was a gratifying example of some of the NBCI’s core tenets: 

– Habitat still makes bobwhites; 

– Create enough of the right habitat in the right locations, and bobwhites likely will come and thrive, as will lots of their songbird neighbors; 

– Wildlife managers have the technical knowledge and ability to restore bobwhites, as well as grassland and early successional birds.

This moment also illustrated a confounding dilemma of the societal challenges of bird conservation:  the greater bird conservation community long ago decided that public conservation land in this particular region is not intended to benefit bobwhites. Nor migratory birds like painted buntings, field sparrows, or Bell’s vireos that share the bobwhite’s early successional and grassland habitats.  Regardless of its demonstrable management potential for this set of priority early successional habitat species, this land has been deemed to be devoted to bottomland hardwoods and wetlands.  With the realization of the planned obsolescence of this ephemeral-by-design habitat before me, the memorable moment turned bittersweet. 

In about five years, this quality early successional habitat, and the community of priority resident and migratory birds that it supports at this location, will be gone.  Probably for good.  Just as planned by the greater bird conservation community’s deliberate trade off.  And that final song of the last individual among these species at this site will demonstrate another core tenet of the NBCI:  unmanaged or neglected bobwhite (and painted bunting, and field sparrow, and Bell’s vireo) habitat soon will grow out of it.

Beltway Bobwhites: Taking a Fork in the Trail Toward a Brighter Future for the Bobwhite

 

Jack Ward Thomas

Jack Ward Thomas

Jack Ward Thomas is on my mind as I pen this article, because he very recently passed away. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934, Jack was an extraordinary leader in the wildlife profession, starting with his first job as a wildlife biologist with the Texas Game Department in 1957 after graduating from Texas A&M. He then forged an amazing career in wildlife research with the US Forest Service, was an advisor to the President of the United States, and in 1993 became the first biologist to be appointed Chief of the Forest Service. Later, he became the Boone & Crocket Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Jack grew up hunting bobwhites on his grandfather’s farm near Handley, Texas. In his fascinating memoir “Forks in the Trail: a Conservationist’s Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership” Jack recounted his career by telling fascinating stories, often using the metaphor of encountering a fork in the trail during critical decision points in his career. At the fork in the trail there was a post with two directional signs. One fork led to the “rest of your life,” the other to “no longer an option.”  In reflecting on his amazing career in conservation, Jack asked “Looking back, what are the actions of which we are proud? What do we regret? Then we can look forward and contemplate the next fork in the trail, better informed as to our personal and societal decisions. It is well to remember and ponder the words on that post at the fork in the trail: ‘No longer an option’.”

I believe we are rapidly approaching a fork in the trail that will determine the future of the bobwhite and our quail hunting heritage across the country. The decisions made during the next few years in Washington, DC about agriculture and wildlife policy likely will determine the future viability of this beloved species.

We are rapidly approaching the time when “no longer an option” could become the reality for bobwhites in much of Texas and throughout most of the rest of their historic range. Bobwhite populations have been in sharp, steady decline during the last half century due primarily to landscape-scale habitat loss and degradation. Changes in agricultural practices during that period have destroyed large expanses of native grassland and rangeland on which the bobwhite depends.

Unfortunately, national policies are contributing to this loss. The introduction of aggressive exotic grasses, intended to boost livestock production, and the intensification of row cropping have replaced or eliminated the native plants that provide the nesting, brood rearing and protective cover on which quail depend. Conversion of native habitats to “tame” vegetation has led us to a fork in the trail. What are we prepared to do?  Will we commit to take the necessary action to reverse the policies that have created the bobwhite decline, or will we continue down the trail where wild bobwhites are no longer sufficiently abundant to sustain hunting… i.e., “no longer an option?”

There is hope, however. Thanks to the generosity of Park Cities Quail, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is working hard in Washington, DC to persuade our federal agency leaders and members of Congress to take the trail that will change the course of agricultural policy to restore bobwhite habitat and reverse the bird’s population decline. We’re doing this in part through changes to the practices that are funded through the federal Farm Bill that is reauthorized about every five years. Park Cities Quail has generously funded an NBCI professional in DC who is laser focused on identifying ways to revise current federal policies to benefit bobwhites. Examples of this work include educating congressional staff by holding tours of farms and ranches that are restoring and managing grassland habitat for wildlife. Getting congressional people out of their offices and onto a farm or ranch to meet with the producers and see how the practices are applied on the ground are real eye openers for policy makers.  The NBCI plans to hold congressional tours in key bobwhite states in 2017.  

The NBCI also is making important progress in engaging federal agencies in bobwhite conservation actions. As a result of our work, the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior have formally endorsed NBCI’s coordinated quail conservation strategy and have pledged support for bobwhite habitat restoration on private and public land. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and Forest Service are all pitching in like never before. And the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are beginning to take action. Each agency is providing funding and/or technical assistance to put quail habitat on the ground. Plans to establish official quail focal areas are being made for National Forests, National Military Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. The Forest Service has already pledged at least $100,000 to implement bobwhite habitat restoration actions on National Forests and plans are being made to increase funding for doing so on surrounding private lands.

With further regard to private lands, we’re encouraged with the progress that state wildlife agencies and quail conservation groups are having in signing up landowners into the new NBCI-initiated center pivot corner habitat practice that amounts to a new $250 million value for quail habitat. Financial assistance to landowners for enrolling center pivot corners habitat was approved in 2015 under the Conservation Reserve’s habitat buffers for upland birds practice (CP33).

The NBCI also is working with the Farm Service Agency to develop an exciting new Butterfly, Bees and Birds Initiative that will make sure bobwhites and other grassland birds are included in the USDA effort to enhance conditions for Monarch butterflies and pollinators. Under the NBCI proposal, multi-species habitat would be enhanced via prescribed grazing, prescribed fire and otherwise making plantings more effective for these beneficial critters.

These are but a few highlights of the recent progress that NBCI, our 25 state and additional NGO partners have been able to make for bobwhites by having an Agriculture Liaison working diligently in Washington, DC thanks to the generous financial support of Park Cities Quail. The NBCI would gratefully welcome any additional pledges of support from other quail conservation groups as we aspire to follow Jack Ward Thomas’ vision of a fork in the trail leading to a better future for bobwhites and the people who enjoy them.

Native Grass Gazette: 2 Upcoming Meetings of Importance to the Grassland Community

July 17-20 the 24th North American Prairie Conference kicks off at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Information about the conference can be found online at: http://nap2016.illinoisstate.edu/. This year’s theme is From Cemetery Prairies to National Tallgrass Prairies. The conference includes plenary and breakout sessions on Monday and Wednesday with a number of field trips to choose from on Tuesday.

The 10th Eastern Native Grass Symposium is in Evansville, Indiana August 29-31 at the Tropicana Hotel. Follow discussions and announcements about the symposium on the Eastern Native Grass Symposium Facebook page, along with an agenda. Conference registration and information is online via Eventbrite service. Hotel registration can be made by calling 800-544-0120 and using the group code: GEGGSYM. This block of rooms has been set aside for Monday – Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis. The symposium rate is $89 per night and reservations need to be made by July 29.

Anyone interested in exhibiting or sponsoring the symposium should contact me at jhodge34@utk.edu.

Meetings like these provide an opportunity to meet and network with many other like-minded people, hear the latest news related to grasslands and help shape the direction of future grassland issues. Don’t miss an opportunity to be educated, make new friends and be involved in the process.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!