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.

Beltway Bobwhites: NBCI Plans Study of Federal Ag Programs’ Impact on Upland Game Bird Habitat

Bobwhitechick_MDOC

Bobwhite Chick (MDOC)

With the 2014 Farm Bill nearly half-way implemented — with mixed results for wildlife — NBCI is already thinking about how to make the next Farm Bill more bobwhite friendly!

While strides have been made to benefit some wildlife using conservation programs, biologists continue to document the decline of upland game birds throughout North America due in large part to agricultural development. Upland game bird populations are declining due to large-scale land use changes that are having profound impacts on wildlife habitat conditions on private farms, rangelands, and forests.

In fact, federal agriculture programs may be contributing to the decline of upland game birds by promoting or supporting large-scale land use changes in rural landscapes over many decades. However, we believe the decline of upland game birds may be reversed or mitigated while maintaining desirable agricultural production through (1) minimizing federal agriculture policies, actions and incentives that negatively impact upland bird habitats, and (2) better targeting and application of conservation practices to enhance native grassland and forest habitats.  The next few decades may afford the best opportunity for federal policy to halt the declines of upland wildlife species, stem localized extinctions, and restore populations enough to avoid widespread extirpations of upland game birds.

To address these declines, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) plans to team with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) on a study to document the long-term impacts of federal programs on upland game bird habitats on non-industrial, private working lands. This information is needed to better inform agricultural program decisions for the Farm Bill, due for Congressional re-authorization in 2018. Upland game birds provide a unique lens through which to study the effects of rural land use changes, as (1) this group of birds does not migrate but spends their entire lives dependent on one relatively small area of land, and (2) bird population health and habitat conditions are often well-recorded by state game departments.

The study will describe the direct and indirect effects of federal agriculture programs on private working lands that produce renewable commodities affecting native grassland habitats, upland forest habitats, and populations of upland game bird species, including quail, turkeys, pheasants, and  grouse. The study will address commodity, conservation, and crop insurance programs, practices, policies, and infrastructures of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, and Extension Service. The study will consider the history of agriculture policy and its impact on upland habitats, from the origins of federal support for commodity agriculture to the present. In so doing, it will specifically look into the wildlife effects of USDA commodity, working lands, conservation reserve, and crop insurance programs which directly or indirectly incentivize upland habitat loss on native grassland, rangeland, forestland and cropland.  In addition the study will also consider the efficacy of the department’s easement and partnership programs which are intended to protect, restore, and enhance wildlife habitat.

The final report will quantify the nature and extent of how federal agricultural programs have directly and indirectly affected quail and other upland game birds and their habitat on the native grasslands, rangelands, forests, and croplands of the United States. The study is sorely needed to inform members of Congress as they make the critical decisions regarding how future federal agriculture policy and funding will continue or reverse the decline of bobwhites and other upland birds across the rural American landscape.

Federal Forest Management into the Next Decade… Can We Move Beyond the Rhetoric?

Decades of reduced harvest, aggressive fire suppression, lack of prescribed fire and poor livestock grazing practices, coupled with drought and invasive species eruptions, have left millions of acres of federal forestlands in unhealthy conditions.

Many of our public forests provide little native grassland and young forest habitat for bobwhites and other species that depend on these habitats. These conditions increase risk of severe wildfires and threaten watersheds that provide drinking water to millions of Americans. I, along with Dan Dessecker, policy director of the Ruffed Grouse Society, led a special session at the 81st North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference recently to explore the past and current situation regarding forest management on public lands and address needed administrative and legislative reforms to improve active forest management policy and better address multiple objectives on public forest lands.

The current level of active management on federal forest lands is insufficient to address the scope and scale of forest health issues and fuel reduction. In addition, the majority of the U.S. populace resides east of the Great Plains, as does the majority of our federal elected officials, often creating a disconnect and different values for our federal forestlands. The future for forest ecosystem management is now uncertain based in part on the lack of current and improbable future social consensus concerning desired outcomes for public forestlands; the need for significant financial investment in forest ecosystem restoration; a lack of integrated planning and decision tools; and a disconnect between the existing planning process, congressional appropriations, and complex management and restoration problems.

There is clear scientific evidence indicating that the ecological integrity of our nation’s public forest lands and the social fabric of nearby rural communities are imperiled. It is essential to make federal forest land management policy relevant to all interests so that the necessary statutory, regulatory, and fiscal fixes can be applied.

Can we move beyond the rhetoric (“mandated timber harvest targets”, “benign neglect,” “stripping environmental regulation,” “analysis paralysis,” “unnecessary litigation”) and address this reality? Balanced, common sense legislation and administrative processes that allow for science-based active management of our public forestlands to conserve wildlife, enhance forest health and protect water quality while meeting society’s needs and interests is a lofty but achievable goal.

The presentations provided different perspectives on the broad reach of current forest management policies. Speakers focused on the past, present and future of forest conditions and management on public lands as well as what forest science is telling us about the condition of our forests. A panel composed of leaders of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy and Weyerhaeuser Company spoke about how to balance forest management through national policy reform that can benefit wildlife and other natural resource values. The Wildlife Management Institute will publish a record of this session later this year.