From the Farmhouse to the White House: Remembering Rocky Evans, Co-Founder of Quail Unlimited

Joseph Roswell Evans, co-founder of Quail Unlimited, died December 9, 2016 at 66 years old in Augusta, Georgia.  Much better known as “Rocky,” he and Jerry Allen launched the nation’s first national quail conservation organization in 1981 in Edgefield, South Carolina.  Rocky served as its executive vice president, face and fervent voice for 28 years until his retirement in 2009.

Prior to 1981, Oklahoma State University had convened two periodic quail research symposia to share and publicize scientific findings. But QU was the first national force for quail conservation that brought the plight of declining bobwhites and other quail to the attention of tens of thousands of hunters, biologists and agencies across the country. QU also was the first to undertake the task of trying to do something about quail declines at a large scale by raising sportsmen’s dollars to hire a national network of professional biologists who worked with local chapters, state and federal agencies, and researchers.  Those biologists collectively became one of QU’s most valuable and enduring contributions. The annual QU conventions provided a forum for hundreds of sportsmen and chapter leaders at local and state levels to interact with agency biologists, quail researchers, outdoor writers and others.

The rest of the bobwhite conservation world caught up in 1995 with the formation of the Southeast Quail Study Group and completion of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative in 2002. Those developments added state wildlife agency authority, a stronger technical foundation, long-range bobwhite conservation vision, and large-scale strategy to bolster the grassroots work begun by QU. This strategic organization enabled mutual support and collaboration among QU and its sportsmen, state wildlife agencies, quail researchers, and other conservationists at a national scale. 

That opportunity for mutual support culminated at a pivotal moment in 2006, when Rocky and QU stepped up to pledge critical three-year financial support for the NBCI.  “Quail Unlimited is proud to be a partner … in meeting the financial demands necessary to help ensure the long-term success and viability of the NBCI.  Our whole organization including our staff, chapters and members strongly endorse and support the NBCI goals,” Rocky said at the time. That timely contribution by QU solved a crucial funding problem and enabled the NBCI to blossom, to better serve the nation’s entire bobwhite community in the long run. Unfortunately, the QU national organization did not fare as well, peaking too soon under the weight of a complex web of leadership and management challenges. Three years later, Rocky retired amid controversial circumstances and imminent bankruptcy of the organization. 

Upon reflection benefitting from the passage of time, it becomes clearer that Rocky’s aspiration for a broad, cohesive movement for quail conservation was 20 years ahead of its time. When the states and the rest of the quail conservation world began standing up, QU was already trapped in a declining trajectory, unable to capitalize on the new national attention and synergy. The state of bobwhite conservation might now be brighter if the timing of the two trajectories has been better aligned. But a piece of Rocky Evans’ bobwhite conservation legacy lives on in the NBCI, as the next generation endeavors to build on what he and QU set in motion.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: New PIF Conservation Plan Reinforces Bobwhite Urgency

Partners in Flight (PIF) recently released a comprehensive revision of the network’s landmark 2004 North American Landbird Conservation Plan.  Formed in 1990 with the vision to keep common

Partners in Flight new conservation plan

PIF’s new conservation plan

 

birds common, PIF initially focused on unique and overlooked needs of migratory forest interior songbirds but has gradually broadened to consideration of the full spectrum of North American landbirds.  Bobwhite folks long have actively engage the PIF community, motivated by the power of unity and the reality of shared habitats among numerous priority species.  PIF folks have been receptive, responsive and mutually engaging, resulting in minimizing the old game/non-game attitudes and barriers that once impeded collective action and progress. 

The 2016 PIF Plan (www.partnersinflight.org) provides updated information, a refined assessment of priority species and conservation urgency, regional profiles (by joint ventures) and highlights on interesting species or initiatives.  As it illuminates that many of the steepest recent declines are among grassland birds, the Plan includes a full-page spotlight on the NBCI and bobwhites, and the native grasslands habitat overlap with priority songbirds such as painted bunting, dickcissel, scissor-tailed flycatcher, field sparrow and loggerhead shrike.  Bobwhites are a priority in 11 joint venture features, with pictures and discussion in at least two of those, while the Plan also highlights priority status of other declining resident game birds in numerous places, further erasing old divisions.

More important is the substance of the new Plan’s findings.  Six species of resident game birds “earned” spots on the PIF Watch List of species of continental concern:  Gunnison sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, mountain quail, scaled quail, greater sage-grouse and greater prairie-chicken.  Bobwhites “earned” a spot near the top of the PIF list of Common Birds in Steep Decline, with an 83% population decline since 1970.

The most disconcerting findings arise from PIF’s innovative new “half-life” analysis, predicting the period in years for a species’ current continental population to decline by half.  Of PIF’s 24 Common Birds in Steep Decline, the shortest predicted continental half-life is for bobwhites:  10 years.  Further, of the 86 species on the new PIF Watch List, only one species has a shorter predicted half-life than bobwhites:  scaled quail.  Finally, of all 448 North American landbird species included in the new PIF Plan, none have shorter predicted half-lives than bobwhites and scaled quail.  The Plan also illuminates predicted bobwhite half-lives by joint venture: 

Joint Venture

Predicted Bobwhite Half-Life (years)

Appalachian Mountains

7

Atlantic Coast

13

Central Hardwoods

12

East Gulf Coastal Plain

13

Gulf Coast

21

Lower Mississippi Valley

10

Oaks and Prairies

6

Playa Lakes

9

Rainwater Basin

9

Rio Grande

5

Upper Mississippi River / Great Lakes

9

 

This thought-provoking PIF half-life approach to assessing the conservation urgency of bobwhites and other declining species is simply sobering.  But the new PIF Plan can and should be motivating, for it highlights urgent common interests among diverse, capable bird conservation groups.  PIF, NBCI, joint ventures, federal and state agencies, and non-government organizations have collective capacity to make positive change if we can double down on our collaborations.  Meanwhile, half-lives are ticking away.

From the Farmhouse to the Whitehouse: A Bobwhite Convergence

An uncommon bobwhite convergence occurred in mid-February in Kansas City, MO, demonstrating a high level of hope that continues to burn among passionate quail hunters and conservationists. The occasion was the 2016 National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, February 19-21, at the Kansas City Convention Center, hosted by Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever (PF/QF). Following establishment of its affiliated Quail Forever organization in

NBTC Steering Committee meeting in Kansas City

NBTC Steering Committee meeting in Kansas City

2005, Pheasants Forever has expanded their pre-existing annual convention to place increasing emphasis on quail. Upon QF’s 10th anniversary in 2015, the organization made a marked commitment to raise its game by more overtly and strategically engaging the states and the broader bobwhite conservation community. PF/QF’s enhanced focus on bobwhites began with an expanded quail emphasis at this 2016 convention, including a high-profile “Quail Summit” focused on bobwhite conservation. QF made a next key step by inviting the Steering Committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) to hold its annual winter meeting at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, instead of the normal meeting location on the University of Tennessee campus. QF offered numerous accommodations to reinforce its overture. Following acceptance of the QF offer by the NBTC Steering Committee, QF then worked with the NBCI to accommodate a full NBCI staff meeting at the Kansas City event, complete with a complimentary NBCI booth on the convention floor. Thus for a week, Kansas City hosted a rare convergence of the nation’s leaders in bobwhite conservation. The national staff of the NBCI met in private for a two-day organizational strategy session. Then the NBTC Steering Committee convened for two days of reports, reviews, guidance and decisions on behalf of the 25 bobwhite states and non-state conservation partners. These two internal bobwhite conservation business meetings were followed by 2½ days of Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic events, in which myriad conservation agencies and organizations, as well as sporting businesses, participated. The combined effect was energizing. NBCI staff was able to have conversations with many QF members, chapter presidents, etc. Across the board, our conversations were substantively about habitat rather than “silver bullet” shortcuts to the bobwhite problem, a testament to QF’s conservation messaging to its members. A National Park Service official also sought us out for an extended conversation about continuing to move nationally down the cooperative path we blazed with the NBCI focal area project at Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas, the first on NPS property. NBCI also met with a biologist involved in the upcoming establishment of two bobwhite focal areas in Illinois. One of the most difficult challenges confronting bobwhite conservationists is the pervasive erosion of hope for successful restoration. Yet the enthusiastic convergence of so many dedicated, determined bobwhite aficionados – professional wildlife managers, hunters and other conservationists – was a welcome and needed shot of adrenaline. The occasion also was a key reminder that where so many hopeful people remain, hope remains as well. March 2, 2016

From the Farmhouse to The White House: Home Run or Fly Out for Bobwhites?

Home runs are uncommon in wildlife conservation policy; but when one happens, it can be a game-changer. Much of the future for large-scale bobwhite restoration depends on improving federal habitat conservation policy. Thus, policy is a high priority for the NBCI, even though demonstrable accomplishments are few and far between and require extensive amounts of time and work to achieve.

The NBCI and its stalwart community of bobwhite conservationists hit one out of the park one year ago this month. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) finally – after 19 years of technical recommendations and urging by the bobwhite conservation community and the NBCI – approved stand-alone eligibility for corners of center pivot-irrigated crop fields into the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). FSA authorized 250,000 acres for immediate enrollment of pivot corners into the CCRP as a variant of the CP33 field border practice. This $250 million wildlife conservation value comes as a federal “free pass” to the state wildlife agencies and their partners, courtesy of FSA, through the persistence, hard work and leadership primarily of the NBCI and the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC).

This premium bobwhite habitat practice has high potential to make something good out of nothing. In pivot-dominated landscapes, the unirrigated, marginal corners can comprise more than 20%of the total landscape acreage. Thus, this new practice can increase suitable habitat from about 0% to 20% of the center pivot landscape for bobwhites, certain grasslanPivot Corner Chartd birds and pollinators. For context, consider that the new NBCI focal area program – the Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) – sets a threshold of 25% of a landscape in suitable habitat as the minimum needed to sustain a wild bobwhite population. This new pivot-corner practice alone has the capability to transform a habitat-devoid landscape to grasslands that can support bobwhites.

But the best opportunity – even when presented on a silver platter – is no better than its implementation. Some 17.5 million acres of pivot-irrigated cropland exists across 24 of the 25 NBCI states (West Virginia is the only NBCI state with no center pivot irrigation). Yet, one year after this long-sought practice was established, only 15,470 acres of corners have been enrolled, total, across the 24 states. Texas admirably leads the nation with 8,240 acres of pivot-corner enrollment, more than all the other states combined.

Undoubtedly, many reasons can and will be pointed out for this paltry level of enrollment and habitat creation. But the bottom line is a prime, hard-earned quail habitat opportunity is being missed. The NBCI and NBTC have done our job, meeting or exceeding expectations. We created a huge new opportunity and secured major federal funding for the states to create bobwhite habitat. To promote the practice, the NBCI created a customizable informative flyer for use by the states and has publicized it in multiple ways.

Now it’s up to the states and our federal and NGO bobwhite conservation partners to hit the ball out of the park. Aggressive collaboration among USDA field offices, landowners and local agricultural and conservation organizations is imperative to realize the benefits of center pivot corners for bobwhites, other grassland birds, pollinators and producers. This is no time for our community to strike out on this long-needed and hard-earned pitch down the middle.

January 25, 2016

From the Farmhouse to the White House: ‘It’ Brings ‘They’… Nat’l Parks for Quail

Quail biologists often paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come” – usually to emphasize the importance of suitable habitat as the foundation of quail populations. From an NBCI point of view, it and they can have additional and equally important meanings:

it can mean a vision, a strategy, an initiative, an organized alliance, or a planning tool;

they can mean partners, manpower, political supporters, or funders.

It is the NBCI vision and unified 25- state strategic plan and its landscape-scale restoration feasibility assessment. It is the growing initiative that is providing unprecedented leadership and national-level capability for implementation. It is the increasingly organized and strengthening alliance of state wildlife agencies, non-government organizations, research institutes, universities, other conservation initiatives, and other state and federal agencies. It is the NBCI’s new Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP), designed to catalyze effective bobwhite focal areas across the states. The broad community of bobwhite conservationists has built all this.

They now are beginning to come, in varied forms, some unexpected.

A chance observation of a 2014 federal public notice for a new vegetation management plan led to phone calls, which led to a meeting, which led to a unique and previously unforeseen formal partnership for bobwhite and grassland bird restoration. The first official NBCI focal area in Arkansas was established last month on Pea Ridge National Military Park (NMP), a 4,300-acre unit of the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service (NPS). See announcement HERE.

I am confident that the NPS had been on the minds of very few NBCI states or quail partners. Likewise, I feel sure that bobwhite restoration has not been on the minds of many NPS employees or administrators. But because the states and the bobwhite community first built it, we have earned the NPS’s attention. They now are coming to be an active partner in a common cause.

Why the NPS?

Due to its overall preservation tradition on national parks, wildlife managers generally overlook the NPS as a potential wildlife conservation partner. But the agency’s national battlefields are different, with a primary cultural mission tied to a specific point in time. The NPS now recognizes that most national battlefields are not authentic representations of the landscapes on which the memorialized event occurred. Vast, mowed fields of fescue are inappropriate, because Civil War-era cattle grazed native forages (fescue hadn’t even been discovered); 19th century forests had been widely thinned out or cut over; fire was common on the landscape; and farm fields were small by today’s standards. In general, the 19th century eastern landscape was bobwhite habitat.

Pea Ridge National Battlefeild

Pea Ridge National Battlefeild

More importantly, the NPS now is beginning to act to restore more authentic historical landscapes; i.e., bobwhite habitat. The leadership and staff of Pea Ridge NMP plan to eventually restore more than 2,500 acres of the park into native grassland, savanna and open woodland, all of which will be burned frequently. As a result of the new partnership, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is prepared to assist on the park, as well as on adjacent acreages of willing private landowners, to create a bigger quail-friendly landscape. Meanwhile, students and faculty from the nearby Northwest Arkansas Community College already are counting quail and songbirds on the park, while the local Benton County Quail sportsman’s club is prepared to contribute additional resources. With so much help, the Park’s restoration vision can be accelerated, improved and elevated into what could become a bobwhite and grassland bird management showcase, consistent with its cultural mission.

With the NPS centennial in 2016, the agency is keen to do some strutting, and is prepared to spend some extra money in the process. Thus, the NBCI already is working with Pea Ridge and regional NPS administrators to expand this unique partnership to the national level. Of all the federal and state land management agencies across the bobwhite’s range, the NPS is emerging as ripe for real partnerships and major progress in a short time. A quick Google count indicates up to a couple dozen national battlefields across several states that might be fertile opportunities. For example, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Gettysburg NMP just met to begin discussions about establishing that state’s first NBCI focal area using the Pea Ridge partnership as a precedent.

So, why the NPS? In short: (1) it has land; (2) it has native habitat restoration ambitions on battlefields; (3) it has management staff and funds (though never enough); (4) it is a willing partner; (5) it increases the total size of the nation’s quail restoration pie; (6) parks are prime places for public education on why and how native grassland habitat management benefits quail and grassland birds; (7) NPS leadership may ignite interest – or at least a competitive spirit – in other land management agencies that can join the nation’s grassland bird restoration effort.

What about hunting?

Having led with the fanfare, let’s dispense with the elephant: quail hunting on NPS lands is an unlikely outcome of NBCI focal areas on park lands. That reality may initially seem inconsistent with the NBCI’s vision and #1 principle: widespread restoration of huntable populations of wild bobwhites. In a tiny frame of reference, I might agree. In the all-important big picture, however, lack of quail hunting opportunity on NPS lands is a small tradeoff for such a valuable restoration collaboration.

Consider:

  • Disturbance and harvest – including the risk of overharvest – will not be a confounding factor in achieving and documenting quail population increases;

  • NPS quail focal areas may be used as sources of wild quail for future translocations;

  • NPS leadership and partnerships – and especially quail population success – can stimulate interest and action by surrounding landowners, where hunting likely will occur, resulting in an expanding landscape-scale effect;

  • Absence of public hunting on NPS lands eliminates the political difficulty of mediating among conflicting and competing sportsmen constituencies.

Given the current situation of declining bobwhite populations in every single state in which the species occurs, quail folks need more successes in the near term, wherever we can find them. The NPS is capable of making real conservation contributions toward near-term, habitat-based bobwhite success stories.

Bobwhite folks across 25 states built it, and now they are coming … almost as if we had planned it that way!

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Something to Prove

Area 51 is no match for the range-wide bobwhite decline as fodder for public speculation and skepticism of authority.  Even as the most of the nation’s bobwhite experts are actively collaborating on the NBCI, applying the state of the science to develop and implement long-range, habitat-based solutions to begin restoring huntable populations, the president of an Arkansas energy company recently wrote a prominent op-ed in the state paper, asserting (without scientific evidence) his quail solution:  reintroducing red wolves, cougars and bobcats.  I appreciate that he cares enough about quail to write.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Bobwhite Therapy

We both smiled brightly for the first time since he left. 
The weekend visit from our son, Patrick, was welcome and very pleasant; but short. We are exceedingly fortunate that we actually still like both our college-age kids; they, in turn, still seem to appreciate us. But there is a very real downside of such a mutually enjoyable relationship. His return to Knoxville on Sunday for the final weeks of the University of Tennessee’s spring semester left behind a melancholy void. 
I normally can never find time to do all the things I want to do.That day, I couldn’t seem to find anything I wanted to do with all the time. Only the threat of overnight storms finally moved me off the deck swing and over to the mower in the half-finished yard. 
Just as I reached the mower, I heard a sound so unexpected it didn’t even register at first:
 Bob WHITE!

From the Farmhouse to the White House: End of Innovative Quail Experiment (Now We Know More)

More than a decade ago, the bobwhite folks reached consensus that we needed an effective voice in Washington, DC to represent quail habitat needs in federal conservation policy. Too many longstanding problems and missed big opportunities for quail had been rooted in uninformed decisions made in Washington. 
During 2009, NBCI and our partners were pursuing two funding opportunities simultaneously:  approval as a “Keystone Initiative” of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a Multistate Conservation Grant.  Both avenues aimed to establish a DC policy position for the NBCI.

Omens – I Want to Believe (From the Farmhouse to the White House)

I’m not a very supernaturally inclined person.

Why sure, I recognize that Murphy’s Law is an inviolable law of nature; I’ve got enough scars to prove it. And of course I’ve learned many times over not to utter a peep on those infrequent days afield when I happen to have a string of good shooting; that lesson was reaffirmed just this past holiday season while hunting Mearn’s quail with my family in Arizona. I was silently nurturing a 2-day perfect shooting streak until my son, Patrick, made a big deal about my shooting … out loud … to the rest of the family. I missed the very next shot. Beyond such examples, I dismiss the supernatural.