By Mark D. Jones
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
The following blog is the ending text of Part Two of two articles recently published in the January/February and March/April 2012 issues of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. I hoped to address questions from landowners, the public, and hunters about “what has happened to bobwhite quail in our state” as well as provide some thoughts on moving forward to do something about the decline. Most of this information will be of no surprise to biologists, but conveying it to the general public remains a challenge for us all. Both articles can be read in their entirety at the following links
There are two bobwhite worlds that exist today. In one world, intensive habitat management does produce bobwhites given adequate landowner commitment, finances, and acres. Scores of these areas exist throughout the South, and we have many here in North Carolina. The average hunter will not set foot on these, and if you have access to such areas count yourself among the fortunate few. What we should learn from these areas is that there is no mystery about how to produce quail – the challenge is paying for it over larger areas.
That leads us to world number two: “The Real World.” This covers the vast majority of quail range where common land use practices are driven by economics that determine the fate of quail. Lands are managed here by farmers, ranchers, and forest owners in ways they believe are economically sound. Whether biologists, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts agree with this management does not matter. Putting food on the table, sending children to college, and paying the loan on the tractor, truck, and seed comes first. I say this with no disrespect because I think most Americans would do the same.
To address quail in this “Real World,” we are left with two options. One is to directly pay landowners for quail-friendly habitat. That has been done to varying degrees in many states, but it is expensive and rarely sustainable over the long-term. Some experts believe this is the future of quail management and the only chance for the species. Time will tell if they are right, and at least we have this option.
I still have hope of another promising option. If adopted, it would be more sustainable over time and benefit more acres, people, and other wildlife species. It involves finding economically sensible alternatives to current land management practices. No-till planting, filter strips on cropland, conversion of sod-forming fescue and Bermuda grass to native bunch grasses, and thinning and burning of woodlands are examples quail biologists know well. These practices benefit not just quail but also a host of declining species.
Unfortunately, these and other practices are not common on a high percentage of our landscape. Perhaps we have not identified the right practices or presented the right economic arguments. Clearly, we have a long way to go in terms of reaching out to landowners and developing reasons for them to change standard practices. We must continue to search for more information about economically smart land management alternatives and hope for a little luck along the way.
For quail and associated species to ever recover, government agencies, quail hunters, songbird enthusiasts, and landowners must all work together to find these economically sensible reasons for private landowners to do things differently. Changes must address practices on crops fields, pastures, and forested lands. It will take a combination of persistence, hard work, and planning for bobwhites to once again return to prominence in North Carolina and throughout their range in the South.
By Mark Jones
Supervising Wildlife Biologist
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
Most of you have probably heard of the program called “CRP” administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, is a national program that began in 1985 and was designed to retire highly erodible cropland from commercial production, and protect soil and water resources in the process. Land owners are paid an annual rental rate and management cost share on these acres, and the acres retain all cropping history in case farmers wish to farm them again in the future when contracts expire.
Millions of acres of cropland were planted in grasses and trees across the nation under this program. A welcome incidental benefit of the program was increased populations of waterfowl, pheasants, other upland game birds, grassland songbirds, and other wildlife in the Midwest and West.
However, the early program was not designed specifically for wildlife. Changes to federal laws through the 1996 Farm Bill theoretically elevated wildlife to the same priority level as soil and water under CRP. This was a policy change that was difficult to make a reality on the landscape in many states. While there are some small exceptions, overall the program has been better for wildlife in the Midwest and West than in the South and East. Native grasses—and even certain exotic cover types—in dry regions further west have provided exceptional habitat, while CRP in the South has been dominated by fescue (an exotic) and loblolly pines planted at high density and not managed for good ground cover.
CRP is just one of many Farm Bill programs but very widespread on the North Carolina landscape. In 2010, we had 122,000 acres enrolled in CRP, most in loblolly and fescue. Approximately 16,000 acres expired in 2009, and 9,400 (including 841 acres of fescue and 7,396 acres of loblolly) were enrolled for a net loss of over 6,000 acres. The potential to encourage improved habitat during re-enrollment was enormous if we could have required/encouraged mid-contract management (thinning and fire) on the loblolly, and conversion to native grasses of the fescue. However, most acres were simply re-enrolled “as is” with no improvement.
The lack of adequate management on CRP has been primarily due to federal agricultural policy designed to place acreage enrollment goals ahead of benefits to soil, water, and wildlife. These policies will only change through coordinated efforts from wildlife constituent groups from around the state and country.
We have some CRP loblolly pines on their third contract with no management for wildlife for 20-25 years. These trees have provided little or no wildlife benefit for most of their life spans and certainly have not met all three CRP objectives (soil, water, and wildlife) as required by federal rules since 1996.
Think about that!
I want to make sure our readers understand the magnitude of CRP in terms of acres of potential habitat that we are losing a chance to improve each year. We have 12,851 acres of CRP set to expire in 2011, 10,815 acres in 2012, and peak at 15,493 acres in 2015. Each of these expirations is also an opportunity to re-enroll trees that are thinned and burned or convert fescue to native grasses rather than simply re-enrolling tracts with no changes.
If future CRP sign-ups proceed like those for recent decades and thousands of acres of pines and fescue are re-enrolled without management to improve the wildlife value of the tracts, we will lose the opportunity to improve habitat on millions of acres of lands throughout the Southeastern United States.
As conservation groups continue to focus on efforts to address declining species that need early successional habitats, perhaps more thought should be given to this issue.
A typical CRP pine stand in North Carolina, with no ground cover
for wildlife. (Photo by John Isenhour)
By Mark Gudlin, TWRA Private Lands Liaison
The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is based on the concept that large scale habitat restoration is the primary key needed to restore bobwhite populations on those portions of our countryside that are amenable to management.
Landowners have great opportunities for assistance in their habitat restoration and management for bobwhites and other wildlife. Fortunately, properly designed and managed habitat focused on bobwhites benefit many other game and nongame species as well.
The first step – getting technical assistance – is free. There are several downloadable publications located on the TWRA website (navigate through the home page via the “For Habitat Conservationists” button , or go directly to it at www.twraprivatelands.org. The TWRA and NRCS (USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service) have several private lands biologists that will meet with you to visit your property and develop a management plan you’d be willing and able to implement. In addition, there are several programs that offer a minimum of 75% cost-share reimbursement for approved habitat work for which you might qualify.
Creating bobwhite habitat does not guarantee bobwhites will respond. Being in an area where quail already exist gives you a big jump. How much usable habitat you have on your farm, what habitat exists on nearby properties, predator populations (including feral cats), weather, and how you manage the habitat you restore can all influence how quail and other wildlife respond. But if you’re willing to give it a try, we’ll help you all we can. On the Habitat webpage, click on “Who To Contact for Technical Assistance” and contact one of the TWRA or NRCS private lands biologists.
We’ve had success with many landowners. The more habitat you (and hopefully your neighbors!) can put on the ground will give you a better chance for the same.
(November 9, 2011)