Donald F. McKenzie
Bobwhite conservation found hope in March 2002. That month, the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) was published by the Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG), on behalf of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA). The nine years since have fundamentally changed the quail game.
Sometimes a crisis is necessary. Even as conservationists were proudly heralding myriad other wildlife restoration success stories throughout the mid and late 20th century, a half century of land-use changes had quietly reduced quail populations to un-huntable levels in many parts of their range. By the end of the 20th century, this “unfinished business” of wildlife conservation resulted in the fading of an American culture and a treasured rural heritage.
Certainly, some did recognize and try to act on the problem earlier. Quail Unlimited formed in 1981 to alert and organize sportsmen to the growing problem. Dr. Lenny Brennan’s 1991 technical paper, “How can we reverse the northern bobwhite population decline,” began stirring other professionals, who developed the first framework for collective action two years later at the Quail III Symposium.
Breck Carmichael went a big step further in 1995, by convening more than 60 bobwhite managers for the inaugural meeting of the SEQSG in South Carolina. These first steps were foundational, but a crisis of this magnitude demanded far more.
The turning point came in autumn 1998, when the SEAFWA Directors—lead by Gary Myers, Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency—charged the SEQSG to develop a regional recovery plan that would restore bobwhite populations to 1980 levels across the Southeast. That charge from the top of the very agencies on whose shoulders the authority and responsibility rested was the key that launched the movement.
The resulting NBCI, inspired by and modeled on the groundbreaking North American Waterfowl Management Plan, represented many “firsts” in bobwhite conservation.
For the first time, the SEAFWA Directors’ charge to the SEQSG provided authority and guiding purpose to the technical experts.
For the first time, the southeastern states broke from a half-century tradition of independent, fragmented efforts, standing up as a group to provide united leadership.
For the first time, more than 50 quail experts took decisive action across the region, stepping outside their academic comfort zones to develop visionary population recovery goals and habitat restoration objectives needed to reach those goals.
For the first time, dozens of states and their conservation partners were uniting to solve a common problem too big for any one or any several.These profound firsts produced a long and broad array of unprecedented achievements, far too many to list here. But for the NBCI, none of the following example accomplishments likely would have occurred:
Such positive results created additional opportunities, heavier demands and increased expectations for collective action which, in turn, required state-centered infrastructure and capacity that did not exist. The states and the bobwhite community forged ahead with another round of “firsts,” selecting the University of Tennessee as the national operational center for the NBCI, and expanding all components of the Initiative to range-wide in scope.
The SEQSG now is the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC), while the original SEAFWA Directors’ NBCI Committee has grown into the national NBCI Management Board.
These successive and reinforcing rounds of organization and progress attracted the attention of grantors that have funded professional specialists to spearhead implementation of priority NBCI needs, further accelerating progress on behalf of all the bobwhite states and partners. This new NBCI capacity is the first-ever national infrastructure to provide collective state-based leadership and capability for a resident game bird conservation initiative.
This phenomenal bobwhite conservation progress since 2002 owes much to many. One merits special mention and thanks. Dr. Ralph Dimmick, recently retired from a prominent bobwhite research career at UT, was the right man at the right time to lead the original NBCI planning team. When few believed a plan would matter, and when even fewer were prepared to go out on a limb for a strategic approach requiring academic-straining assumptions and estimates, his professional credibility, willingness to lead, and persistence were irreplaceable in leading the bobwhite world to a place it had never been, but had to go.
When it was time to revise and update the NBCI, many more people and states were ready to engage. This 2nd edition of the NBCI—renamed the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative in acknowledgement of its new broadened scope—is a light-year beyond the first, culminating 8 years of progress, experience and lessons learned. The advancements of this plan are a tribute, first, to the expertise and foresight of the coordinators of the revision process—Dr. Bill Palmer and Dr. Theron Terhune, of Tall Timbers Research Station. Just as important, this vastly improved new NBCI is the result of a ten-fold increase in the number of biologists involved and invested in the strategic planning process—more than 600 biologists across 25 states, including many non-game bird specialists.
The original NBCI was a paper plan, though it never was allowed to sit idly on a shelf. This new NBCI no longer is a paper plan. It is a dynamic, interactive web-connected geographic information system database—the NBCI Conservation Planning Tool (CPT)—created by a innovative combination of satellite imagery, landscape databases and professional biological judgment. It is designed to aid planning and implementation efforts from the national to regional to state to local scales. The new NBCI identifies high, medium and low-priority areas for bobwhite restoration, to help agencies and organizations more effectively target and pool money, people and effort, to demonstrate meaningful successes more quickly, more reliably and more frequently. Eventually, the NBCI CPT can be adapted to support and integrate habitat accomplishments tracking and bird population monitoring databases across all states, which will be additional “firsts” in bobwhite conservation.
The original 2002 NBCI changed the game for bobwhite conservation; this revised NBCI will raise our game. National momentum for bobwhite conservation has grown to a point that quail enthusiasts now are beginning to speak of hope and possibilities. Indeed, there is hope. We largely know what to do; we largely know how to do it; the new NBCI shows us better than ever where to do it.
Range-wide bobwhite restoration may not be easy, but it is doable; we simply must work together with common vision, unity and perseverance to make it happen.