Sunlight, Fire & Quail: Thinning, Frequent Fire Brings Bobs Back to the Woods

Why do we need to do prescribed fires in our woods? It’s a question that both foresters and wildlife biologists get, especially this time of the year, when there is smoke from prescribed fires wafting through the air.

Fire has been an important part of the landscape throughout time. Over the eons entire, wildlife-rich, fire-dependent

Pine stand with a 50-square-foot basal area on a 2-year burn rotation

Pine stand with a 50-square-foot basal area on a 2-year burn rotation

ecosystems developed in fire-prone settings. Fire was (and is) as natural and needed as the rain. Native Americans, early settlers and landowners into the 21st century saw positive results — on wildlife and vegetation — of natural fire and disruptions that thinned the forest. They replicated it successfully to improve both. In more recent times, burning on the landscape was abandoned in favor of total fire suppression. Combined with a cultural reluctance to purposefully manage forests, bobwhites and other species have been pushed out of much of the forested landscape.

But that is changing. More public land managers in states in the bobwhite’s core range have adopted an ecosystem management approach and private landowners have those models – and results — to see.

Prescribed fire can be defined as “a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk.” Prescribed fire is applied on the landscape by trained professionals using a written plan that guides them on how to safely burn to accomplish their goals. Landowners and natural resource managers conduct prescribed fires for many reasons. They include improving wildlife habitat, reducing hazardous fuels, managing competing vegetation, perpetuating fire-dependent species, controlling insects and diseases, and more.

Not all prescribed fires are the same though. If you are a landowner wanting to create better habitat for wildlife on your property, especially bobwhites, prescribed fires need to be more frequent and in more open savanna-like forests or grassy woodlands.  

Now, I bet you are asking why these fires need to be in open forests. To maximize quail habitat, there has to be both sunlight on the ground and fire. You must ensure that these two ingredients reach the ground in the right mix to maximize the potential for that habitat. And this approach will work on pine and mixed pine and hardwood stands.

Today, most forest stands have a closed canopy with little or no sunlight reaching the forest floor. Quail and many other species require a vigorous and diverse herbaceous ground cover which includes a mix of native warm season grasses for nesting, forbs for seed and insect production, and scattered clumps of woody shrubs for protection from weather and predators. Without abundant sunlight reaching the ground none of these habitat components will develop.

One rule of thumb is that when you walk through your woods, you should have sunlight on your head-and your boots- half the time. To get these open stands of forest and to allow sunlight to reach the ground, commercial timber harvest and thinnings have to occur. These timber harvests can provide income for other land management expenses prior to final harvest. But to achieve enough sunlight on the forest floor for these purposes, thinning needs to be heavier than your typical forest management thinning … but that allows the remaining trees to grow faster and straighter, creating a more valuable timber product in the end if that’s what the landowner desires.

In southern yellow pine forests most commercial thinnings are done down to a basal area of 75 – 80 square feet. To improve and maintain habitat for bobwhites, pine stands should be thinned and maintained at a basal area at 50 square feet or less. Hardwood stands would need to be thinned and maintained at 30-40 square feet of basal area.

Basal area is a common term used to describe the average amount of an area (usually an acre) occupied by the tree stems. It is defined as the total cross-sectional area of all the stems in a stand measured at breast height, expressed as square feet per acre. So that all measurements are standardized tree diameter is typically measured at 4.5 from the ground or approximately breast height. This is referred to as diameter at breast height (DBH).

Subsequent and frequent applications of prescribed fire – generally every 2-4 years, depending on the situation – are necessary to clear the duff on the forest floor, bare some of the soil, increase soil surface temperature, release nutrients and allow the native grasses and forbs already in the seed bank to germinate. In areas where prescribed burning may not an option, some of its benefits can be achieved with mechanical and herbicide treatments.

Best results will require repeated applications of fire at regular intervals. Quail habitat will not be maintained with only a couple fires, or fires at infrequent intervals. In addition, neither thinning alone nor fire alone will provide the desired understory development, composition and structure, especially for bobwhites.

Finally, if you want to investigate this opportunity further, please contact a local wildlife biologist or a professional forester with experience in both wildlife habitat management and timber production.


From the Farmhouse to the White House: NBCI Report from the North American Wildlife Conference

The NBCI Management Board’s semi-annual meeting occurred March 17 at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Pittsburgh. Attendance and participation included several state wildlife agency directors, deputies and chiefs, as well as non-government organizations and federal agencies. Chair Nick Wiley (Executive Director, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) and Co-chair Jim Douglas (Director, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) led the meeting.

The two-hour agenda included a Director’s Report; an update by Ken Duren, who is handling the NBCI’s habitat assessment training project; a report from the National Bobwhite Technical Committee by its Chair, Chuck Kowaleski; and concluded with a hefty discussion about funding future for the NBCI.

The Director’s Report began with a pointed update on the tepid enrollment of the year-old center-pivot corners practice in the Continuous CRP’s CP33 habitat buffers. This prize achievement of the NBCI is a $250 million quail habitat opportunity, sitting on the table, unused. After one year, enrollment totaled less than 16,000 acres … out of 250,000 acres authorized and funded by the USDA Farm Service Agency. Highlighting this shortcoming stimulated animated discussion among the states and NGOs.

Some NBCI projects (listed on a new informational flyer) briefly highlighted included the:

  • “Then and Now” historic aerial imagery project to examine long-term landscape changes;
  • Informational video for forest landowners (nearly complete): “Sunlight, Fire and Quail”;
  • US Forest Service’s increasing interest in the NBCI and grassland habitat restoration, with some concern about whether states are ready for the sudden USFS interest;
  • “Butterflies, Birds and Bees” proposal by NBCI to FSA;
  • “This American Land,” PBS documentary in production, expected to be aired in autumn 2016;
  • Overhaul of the NBCI website, freshly completed;
  • Upcoming featured appearances of the NBCI at two prominent outdoor media conferences;
  • Coordinated Implementation Program update;
  • Revising the foundational CIP manual;
    • creating a comprehensive series of habitat assessment manuals and training tools;
    • near-completion of the online database and mechanism for states to enter CIP data;
    • implementation grants in progress to help states develop CIP focal areas;
  • “NatiVeg” phone app now in production, to aid resource managers in restoring native vegetation;
  • Request by Partners in Flight to join a strategy retreat for implementing the 2016 continental land bird plan (which resulted in a PIF offer for an NBCI page in their new plan);
  • Assessment of NBCI performance by all NBCI states, to be conducted spring/summer 2016.


Future NBCI Funding

The second half of the board meeting focused on the status and future of NBCI base operational funding. The NBCI is halfway through the initial 3-year commitment by many states of enhanced Pittman-Robertson funds; now is the time to begin considering the next steps. The board discussed various funding options, opportunities and responsibilities, but circled tighter around the basic notions that bobwhites are a state resource, the NBCI is the states’ initiative, PR remains a viable funding mechanism, and the burden is on the states to keep the NBCI operating at the desired level.

The board agreed it needed to get ahead of the curve, developing a funding strategy by the September 2016 meeting, so that final arrangements and state commitments could be secured by March 2017. To facilitate development of the funding strategy, the board agreed to convene a bobwhite leadership summit before its September meeting. Stay tuned.

Click for Update Fact Sheet

Click for Update Fact Sheet

NBCI Management Board Presentation

Click for NBCI Management Board Presentation in PDF format

Shell’s Covert: Paw Paw Crosses the River

My father-in-law, Harry Byrd Elam, Sr., passed away last Thursday night, March 31, 2016. He died in the house he was born in back in 1932. From that you might guess he lived an uneventful life, but a lot happened during those 83-plus years between then and now.

Though Mr. Elam was known by his middle name to most who knew him, he was known as “Paw Paw” to his 10 grandkids (one of which belongs to my wife and me). Few people can claim to live in the small community named for their ancestors, but the Elams are from Elam, Virginia, and still own most of what came to them by a 400-acre land grant from King George II in 1745. (We liked to call Paw Paw the “Mayor of Elam” – population about 11).

That too is one line that does not tell much of the story. As with many families, time takes a toll, and land gets divided among siblings. If close watch is not kept, acres soon dissolve and wash away like dirt in a heavy rain. Paw Paw moved back to his childhood home to raise his family back in 1970 and set about rebuilding the land base. By the time he died all the original land, and some more, had been secured.

Paw Paw's Fescue Field_RESIZED

Paw Paw’s Fescue Field

Mr. Elam’s father died when he was a teenager, and one might think options for a young man were limited under such circumstances, but Mr. Elam joined the Army, obtained money for school, and came home to attend Hampden-Sydney College. Though a farmer at heart, he loved math and physics. He graduated with a degree from Hampden-Sydney in physics in 1960.

Though a man of few words, sometimes he would tell us a story or two. He once described to me working towards his degree in physics. By the time he graduated only two remained in the major – him and one other fellow. He told me “the other guy was a lot smarter than me, I got lost in quantum mechanics.” And, this quiet and unassuming farm boy went on to work toward a Master’s degree in engineering studies from the University of Virginia.

Before moving back to his childhood farm, he moved away and began life as an optical engineer. He designed optical systems for periscopes in U.S. Navy submarines and traveled the world over working on them. He also worked for Sperry Rand Space Division at NASA’s Goddard Space station leading design work on orbiting telescopes. But his heart was always back home, and after moving back in 1970 he never left again. He drove an hour and a half each way to Charlottesville every Monday through Friday for over 20 years to continue his career as an engineer. During that time his kids tell me he never missed a ballgame any of the four of them were involved in, always finding time to coach their teams and support his community.

As for me, I knew Paw Paw as a gardener, and most of what I came to know about him was shared in the occasional story he told me while I helped the little bit I could around his garden. He planted what I like to refer to as a “depression era, feed-a-family garden.” In short, it tended to be big. Once he told me, “Come by this evening if you have time and help me set out a few tomato plants” – which to him meant 50 or more. Have you ever seen how many tomatoes one plant can produce? Imagine 50 plus.

When I first visited my future wife’s family farm, all I saw was fescue, as green and pure a stand as ever grew covered the 100 acres of fields – which was hard to take as a quail biologist. But though I have never been known as the sharpest fillet knife in the drawer, I was at least smart enough to know that in the beginning of a new relationship it was probably not the brightest of ideas to start off criticizing Paw Paw’s fescue fields.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about the farm. When Mr. Elam moved back with his wife Joanne (a force in her own right), the farm was in a state of disrepair. The fields where his Dad, a full time farmer, had once grown corn, wheat and tobacco, had grown up into thickets of sumac, sweetgum and blackberry brambles. In his eyes the farm he had always taken great pride in had become unsightly.  So he singlehandedly undertook the transformation of those fields back into productive farmland. With nothing more than a chainsaw, tractor and fire he cleaned up those fields and planted them to fescue. But as with much of Paw Paw’s life, there was still more to the story.

This is what he told me once as we sat by his garden. “When we moved back here, these fields were a mess, Buddy. But I got them cleaned up. It took a while. Sawing, chopping, pushing with the tractor and burning, it was some real work. Once I got them cleaned up, I restored an old wooden-paddled combine of my Dad’s and I combined the last good patches of fescue we had to get seed. Then I bought two electric seed cleaners and between the two of them I got one running good and I cleaned the seed myself. And I planted these fields back with seed from the fescue my Dad sowed here years ago.”

After he told me that story, I had to stop and think about it for a long while. I still think about it often. It told me a lot about Paw Paw and his love of self –sufficiency. He could have run down to Southern States and bought seed like everyone else. It also taught me a lot about how much pride people take in their land. And it made me rethink my approach to landowners.

Yesterday afternoon after Paw Paw was laid to rest, as we gathered with family and friends at my brother-in-law Harry Junior’s home, I found myself sitting on the front porch. As Uncle Emery Wilkerson was leaving he stopped to talk to me. Uncle Emery is 95 now, but he still stands straight as an arrow and looks like he could go bird hunting tomorrow if he wanted to. He is an “old time bird hunter” and every time he sees me, he likes to talk quail. “Marc, I remember hunting up here at Byrd’s back when the farm was grown up. There were quail and woodcock everywhere. We’d park the sedan by the first tobacco barn and hunt all day, maybe cross over onto Buck Phillips’ place, too. We had some shooting in those days.” I just grin knowingly.

By-the-way,  I never had the heart to try to talk Paw Paw into letting any of the fields grow back up. My wife and I were lucky enough to buy land that borders their family farm and to have shared together the last 13 years living on a farm where three generations still thrive. We are thinning our pines and allowing our own place to produce quail cover. As for Paw Paw’s fields, maybe someday we’ll plant some pollinator cover around the edges. While Paw Paw hated a weed, he would have understood the value of wildflowers to pollinators.

Anderson Creek Wildfire: Devastating loss, ecological challenge, societal challenge, glimpse of history, revitalization

I have been captivated by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Partly because I was in that region of Kansas this last summer and met several ranchers from the area. My thoughts and prayers go out to those ranchers, though I barely know them, I am concerned about their safety and livelihood. The other part of my captivation is, well, it’s fire and fire captivates me.

Many you may not even be aware of the Anderson Creek Wildfire, but it is getting plenty of news coverage in my part of the country. The wildfire is now being reported as the largest in Kansas history (at least recorded) and among the largest in the U.S. The fire began last Tuesday (3/22) in Wood County in northwest Oklahoma and quickly spread north into central, southern Kansas into Comanche County pushed by 30 mph winds with gusts to 60 mph, then with a westerly wind shift into Barber County. It continued to burn through Saturday (3/26) until mostly extinguished by a blanket of snow on Sunday (3/27). Cities as far away as Memphis and St. Louis reported smelling smoke from the fire. Estimates have the size of the fire at roughly 620 square miles or about 400,000 acres.

Figure 1 Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Figure 1: Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, 3/24/16, 11:42 AM. Oklahoma Forestry Services.


This area of Kansas is known as the Red Hills or Gypsum Hills. The terrain is characterized by gently rolling plains to rolling hills and mesas heavily dissected by rugged canyons. The flatter more level ground, where enough soil exists, is mostly dryland wheat with some irrigated crops and the rest is mixed grass prairie rangeland. Much of it heavily infested with red cedar. Based on this description you can imagine how difficult it would be to fight wildfire in this type of terrain with a heavy fuel load. Firefighter reports were of an active fire line 30 to 40 miles long.

Figure 2 Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas

Figure 2: Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas.


Devastating Loss

At this time there haven’t been any estimates of livestock loss. It is known some livestock has been lost, but how many? Ranchers have been too busy trying to save their structures and fences, and really haven’t had a chance to examine the damage to their herds. In other cases, they are still trying to roundup their cattle. Amazingly though, there have been numerous accounts of livestock surviving the fire, with reports of cattle or bison standing in scorched pastures in the aftermath, apparently no worse for the wear. Some are speculating that the new calf crop hasn’t fared so well, choosing to hunker down rather than escape the fire. Critical infrastructure, primarily fence, has been one of the biggest casualties. One rancher ventured to guess thousands of miles of fence have been destroyed; if fence posts were wood, and in the fire’s path, they’re gone.

Ecological Challenge

Almost immediately the Kansas Livestock Association sent out a call for hay donations to help support ranchers who lost all their hay or forage to the wildfire. Ranchers and farmers, being who they are, responded in a big way; by Saturday KLA called off the request stating they had enough hay and were running out of storage.

As notable and generous as donated hay is, and I’m sure the ranchers who need it are grateful, there is an underlying concern. Throughout the majority of the burned area is native rangeland, what if donated hay is from Caucasian or old world bluestem pastures, or fescue pastures or contaminated with sericea lespedeza? Where that hay is fed those sites will be contaminated by the introduced species and range quality will be diminished. A short-term solution will lead to a long-term problem.

Perhaps ranchers can consider using source identified hay, where they know they won’t be contaminating their rangeland. Another alternative would be to utilize fields of wheat in the area until the range grows enough to put cattle back. Sure, it is likely the wheat crop will be lost but the value of keeping rangeland quality should be worth that consideration. It is also important to remember that this time of year the rangeland will be greening up within days following this wildfire and that grazing could be possible within just a few weeks. Admittedly it’s not the best scenario for grass health, but one that with proper management (long-term rest) following defoliation will provide sustainable forage.

Societal Challenge

Drive through the Gyp Hills and it is obvious fire has been excluded from much of this landscape for years from the scattered red cedars to outright cedar forests covering the landscape. Prescribed fire is just beginning to gain acceptance in the Gyp Hills of Kansas. In the last few years the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association has formed and has been slowly converting prescribed fire disciples. And though they are believers, the Gyp Hills PBA is still only burning 10,000 to 15,000 acres annually. One of their largest hurdles has been the local fire departments. I am fearful this wildfire will set back the recent advances in gaining acceptance for prescribed fire. In addition to inappropriately reinforcing difficult attitudes with fire departments, a wildfire of this magnitude is likely to cause those fearful or uninformed to dig in their heels. Hopefully that isn’t the situation and a case can be made for prescribed fire being beneficial and one way to help minimize these types of catastrophic events.

Glimpse of History

As I monitored the daily progression of this wildfire I couldn’t help but think of how landscape scale burns like this happened regularly before man tried to suppress fire. And it was these exact conditions, low humidity – high winds, that propelled and accelerated fire across the landscape. These historic fires would burn for days and consume hundreds of thousands of acres before being naturally extinguished by precipitation or loss of fuel.


If I could offer anything to the ranchers affected by the wildfire, I offer the assurance that their range will be better. They will see greater forage growth this summer, better animal performance and better range health. It may not seem too positive right now, but give it a few weeks and, aside from the resources needed to repair fences, things will be better than they have seen in years. Killing the cedars alone will result in millions of gallons of available water for forage growth and range recovery. Studies have shown a single cedar tree consumes 33 gallons of water a day. To make math simple, over a 100-day growing season that is 330 gallons. It only takes killing 3,030 cedar trees to save a million gallons of water. I can guarantee you multiples of 3,030 cedar trees were killed by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Springs that haven’t run in years will once again. Ponds will fill up and creeks will flow. Grasses will grow and animals will flourish.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

P.S. Anderson Creek Wildfire, thank you for the great sunsets.

Bird's eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

Bird’s eye view of the wildfires in Barber County



Introduction to the Native Grass Gazette

My first post is to introduce myself to you with a little bit about my background.

I don’t know for sure where my appreciation for prairie/grasslands came from, but I suspect it has always been a

part of me. I grew up, and still live in, the pre-settlement prairie region of west central Missouri known as the Cherokee Plains. All my formative outdoor experiences came from the rivers, streams and prairies (and yes, some woodlands too) of the region.

My earliest recollections of prairies, as a kid, come from Memorial Day weekends on my grandparents’ farm in St. Clair County, Missouri, where my cousins and I would frolic through the pastures and pick wild strawberries. I remember too, summer prairie hay harvest; an annual ritual during which my grandfather and all the neighbor men gathered to assist, my grandmother bringing mason jars of iced tea to the field for refreshment and a “harvest hands” lunch, big as any holiday meal. A few years later, highway construction en route to my grandparents’ farm detoured us through prairies where I remember seeing and marveling at prairie chickens in flight.

After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, my first introduction to prescribed fire was in 1980 when I helped an employer burn off some switchgrass he had planted. My father tells me differently, that the burns on our farm in the early 70’s were “prescribed” but somehow that’s not the way I remember it. Swinging a wet gunny sack as fast as you can to swat out fire, running to the well pumping another bucket full of water, then returning to the fire line didn’t seem “prescribed” to me. On second thought, it probably was prescribed … just not “controlled.” Regardless, the fire bug bit and I am an admitted pyromaniac; not recovering, mind you, practicing.

In the mid-80’s my work with the Missouri Department of Conservation had me planting native grasses. This was during the first two years of CRP and the department had a program that provided a native grass drill and operator (me) to encourage landowners to plant native grasses instead of tall fescue. During two years working that program I planted about 2,500 acres. I’ve been planting native grasses ever since. I’ve lost track but it is now somewhere around 30,000 acres or more.

In the late 80’s into the early 90’s I gained 10 years experience planting, managing, harvesting, buying, storing, cleaning, packaging, warehousing and marketing native grasses and wildflowers for a native grass seed production business during the 5 years I was employed by them. I then went to work as the Great Plains Regional Director and Biologist for Quail Unlimited where I stayed for 15 years. Most recently I owned and operated my own natural resource consulting and contracting company. Since taking this job I have turned that business over to a manager and my son.

I am honored to have the position of NBCI’s Grasslands Coordinator and am excited about the possibilities. There is a long list of things to do that has been developed by the Grassland and Grazing Lands sub-committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, all focused around advocating for native grasses, grasslands and prescribed fire. My task is challenging indeed, but I embrace that challenge and look forward to the opportunities ahead.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!


February 15, 2016