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Shell’s Covert: Seeing Through the Smoke…Responsible Fire Application

A well contained prescribed burn With residual smoke. Photo: Marc Puckett

I remember the first prescribed fire I participated in as a new Game and Inland Fisheries employee almost 24 years ago. It was September. I’d had no formal fire training, did not know what a “pack test” was, and the only personal protective equipment (PPE) I had on were leather gloves. There was no written burn plan, no pre-fire safety briefing (other than a statement “Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t do anything stupid”), and very little else in the way of planning. We did have hand held radios. One other thing we had going for us was there were some “old hands” in charge. These guys had a lot of experience, a knack for understanding fire and the confidence to develop a burn plan on site the day of the burn. They looked out for us “newbies.” The burn was also in a remote area with good man-made and natural fire lines in place.

That particular burn went well. But anyone who has practiced prescribed fire knows they do not always go well. An old saying that I think applies is “Failing to plan, means you are planning to fail.” I’m not knocking those old timers. I learned a good bit from them, but as we sit here 20% of the way through the 21st century, more training, planning and care is required to insure we can continue to apply fire into the foreseeable future – particularly in the increasingly populated east. You will now find our staff much better trained and equipped. And we strive to improve. Continued professional development is the mark of a true professional, whether in the public or private sector. It is up to all of us to responsibly apply fire.

What does that mean? First, I think it means recognizing that your actions as a fire leader don’t just affect you and your immediate team. Mistakes made in today’s society could affect everyone trying to apply fire in an entire state or region. Burn managers need to assess every burn for its value in relation the potential costs if something goes wrong.

In my opinion, an agency or organization should not undertake more acres of burning than can be well managed on a fire rotation through time. Rather than trying to maximize acres burned, the goal should be to maximize acres burned well with a very specific purpose. In my opinion it should mean exactly the same thing to private landowners.

One of the most impressive uses of fire through time I have seen is a pine stand managed by Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division in Sussex County, Virginia. The approximate 150-acre tract has been burned 9 times in 18 years. It is a true demonstration of how fire needs to be applied properly over time to establish a wonderful fire adapted native plant and animal community. In my opinion, this is how all agencies should approach their fire programs. Focusing on areas where it makes the most sense and that are most conducive to fire over the long term. And those areas should provide critical habitats for species in need. And they should serve as examples for all to see, becoming prime educational venues.

Another huge component of responsibly burning means worrying as much about smoke management as about the fire itself. We have weather forecasts available to us that are very detailed down to the hour of the day for several days. These forecasts allow us to be able to understand how smoke will disperse, where it will go and when and where it will come back down. Ideally the weather will allow us a long enough window to complete the burn, and provide for smoke dispersion well after the fire itself has died down. Real thought has to be given to smoke, not just during the fire, but the night after it, and in the following days if fuels are expected to smolder. The old attitude of “Well, a little smoke won’t hurt them”, or “They’ll get used to it” needs to disappear.

Prescribed burning is a fantastic teambuilding activity, but it should never be applied just for that purpose. Part of the teambuilding should include a discussion of why the fire is being planned. Future burn practitioners should begin to learn the lesson very early that we are not out burning just because it is fun. With massive declines in pollinating insects, songbirds and many other organisms being very recent in our news, it should not be too hard to explain that we are burning to recover ecosystems that are critical to our planet.

We all know Smokey the Bear and how effective he has been in wildfire prevention. We need a similar mascot in the prescribed fire community that actively promotes the wise use of prescribed fire. In order for all of us to be able to continue to apply one of the most cost-effective wildlife management tools in our toolbox, we need to be doing as much public relations work as we do prescribed burning. And we all need to be aware of the image we project when we talk about fire when among our constituents. Wildland fire fighting has its own language and approach. I admire all wildland firefighters, and firefighters in general. But I think more care needs to be used in making sure the public knows the difference between the world of wildfire and prescribed fire.

 

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Work Worth Doing – Don McKenzie’s Farewell

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt

We built something from nothing. Over the last two decades, the bobwhite quail community started from scratch and created a force for a worthy mission: stemming the decline and starting the restoration of the northern bobwhite and numerous companion species.

The many passionate, dedicated, and intrepid biologists of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee created and continue stoking the fires of their restoration strategy, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Breck Carmichael stepped up immediately, leaping off the starting line in 2003 and setting a brisk pace as the first-ever NBCI Coordinator. In 2004, he and the NBTC handed the baton to me. I’ve put everything I have into it ever since.

Day-to-day, our progress usually has been difficult to see. But looking back through the years, it is obvious we have exceeded all expectations in building a national movement! Together, we:

  • made bobwhites a national conservation priority;
  • created a national model for resident game bird conservation;
  • built NBCI’s national capacity to “lead, leverage, and enable”;
  • catalyzed more and better conservation by states and numerous partners;
  • created new federal conservation practices for grassland birds and bobwhites;
  • elevated bobwhite conservation to levels no one previously thought possible.

For example, after eight years of undaunted hard work, NBCI and the NBTC finally got one of our flagship objectives, Natives First, into the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report. That unprecedented victory will be a tectonic shift for the long-term future of bobwhites in agricultural landscapes. And it is our victory!! If not for the NBCI and NBTC, it would not have happened.

Life offers few opportunities for a person to be part of something this big and this worthwhile. Every one of us should feel proud to be a part. I know I am deeply honored to have had the privilege of leading NBCI for the past 15 years; to have been intimately involved with NBCI from its very beginning 21 years ago; and to have been actively associated with the NBTC for all its 25 years.

There comes a time for everyone when we have been in a job long enough. If we are lucky, we will recognize that time and be able to act on it. Several times in recent years, I have stated publicly that when we get Natives First language in a farm bill, I should retire, for there can be no more profound accomplishment for bobwhites than establishing a native vegetation standard at USDA.

My time has come. I announced to the NBTC’s 25th Annual Meeting in Carbondale, Illinois that I am retiring from NBCI on October 1, 2019.

The NBCI and NBTC are in a transitional period, ready for and poised to step up another level. New skills, creative ideas, and boundless leadership energy are needed to adapt to and address myriad NBCI challenges ahead. The NBTC Steering Committee, the NBCI Management Board, the University of Tennessee, and NBCI staff are already working hard to develop a transition plan to keep NBCI and our movement going and growing, in one form or another.

I have been blessed with numerous priceless friendships developed over 25 years with this tight-knit community of bobwhite fanatics. I thank each of you sincerely for your dedication to bobwhites, for your support through all these years, and for your friendship.

I especially want to tip my hat and thank the staff of NBCI for your unceasing hard work, for breaking new ground with every pioneering step forward, for your willingness to take a chance on working for an unproven concept built on soft money, for sharing an ambitious vision, and for putting up with my eccentricities as a boss.

I want to thank the University of Tennessee for 11 years of foundational support that have been vital to enabling NBCI’s growth and success. Thank you, also, to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program for working with NBCI, the states, and UT to create a unique new funding mechanism that can empower important new regional initiatives. Thank you to the federal agencies—e.g., Farm Service Agency, National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service—that are rallying to the cause of restoring native grassland habitats and species. Thanks to the many non-government organizations who bring unique capabilities and add immense value to bobwhite and grassland bird conservation. Finally, thank you to the states that comprise the NBTC and the NBCI Management Board that have created, supported, and led a movement that has become bigger and stronger than the sum of the parts.

The upcoming period of transition will test the strength and endurance of the prototype machine we have built. My confidence is high that the NBCI and the bobwhite movement will emerge stronger than ever. Indeed, it must, for we have barely begun to address a generational conservation challenge that will require monumental perseverance.

From wherever my next chapter is based, I will continue to be your loudest cheerleader as all of you continue your hard work at work worth doing, restoring our beloved bobwhite. Sammy and Teddy are counting on you!

Sammy (right) and Teddy (left)

Shell’s Covert: Managing Expectations (…or a Pollinator Planting is NOT a Pollinator Garden)

When I graduated high school, my dad offered me some choices of graduation presents. We were not wealthy by any monetary measure, not by a long shot. So his offer to take me to Canada on a fishing trip meant expenses our family would feel. But off we set on a 26-hour road trip one way, four of us in an International Scout packed to near bursting like a tick on a hound dog in summer.

Our expectations were high after years of seeing the pictures in all the popular outdoor magazines, all of which we subscribed to. The brochure of our camp of choice had shown freshly painted, immaculate cabins, shiny new boats, guides and stringers full of fish. But upon arrival we found dilapidated, mouse-infested, leaking cabins, a run-down camp store, beat up boats … and no guides. We also caught very few fish. It was still a fun adventure, but our expectations had not been met. Maybe they had been unrealistic?

Lately, I have found myself talking more and more to landowners who have been disappointed in their wildlife plantings. Many times these plantings have been “pollinator projects.” It has reached a point where some conservation professionals have become hesitant to promote pollinator plantings. I have planted quite a few myself – meaning me with partners out in the field preparing seed beds, mixing seed, and conducting multiple site visits for follow-up on multiple projects. I have enjoyed varying degrees of success, but would generally rate 90% or better as projects with good results. And in most cases, where results were not good, we had cut corners on proper establishment techniques. There are some keys to getting good results that I will mention later, but right now I want to address managing expectations.

Pollinator plantings are not pollinator gardens. Accept the fact that a few “weeds” will come up on their own. Many are great for wildlife.

I fear some wildlife professionals might be guilty of over-selling, or improperly selling, pollinator planting projects. First off, just about every picture a landowner sees of pollinator plantings is one showing a beautiful field of wildflowers in perfect bloom, many times with bumblebees or butterflies on some of the spectacular flowers. This is not helped by magazines that foster the utopian view of such plantings. This sometimes does happen, but guess what – in most cases when you plant wildflowers, the native seedbank – meaning those seeds naturally in that soil for perhaps decades, will also join the party. Believe it or not – not all of them have beautiful flowers. Ragweed, for example, often shows up. There is not a better plant in the world for quail, but it ain’t pretty and does nothing for pollinators. Horseweed is another common culprit of “plainness.” A few landowners go aghast that flowers other than yellow, red and blue somehow show up in the plantings. This year, common fleabane with tiny white flowers was ubiquitous in many pollinator plantings I saw. While it is not real showy, it is used heavily by a lot of small native bees.

I think one thing that can be done to manage expectations is to use a variety of photos to promote these plantings, not just the perfect ones. Landowners need to know that pollinator plantings are not “pollinator gardens.” Professionals also need to highlight the value of some of the non-planted “weeds” that show up for free. Basically, we just need to be honest about expected results, possible issues, and the need for long-term management, which may include addressing non-native invasive plants, too.

So here are a few of my suggestions for those interested in developing successful pollinator plantings (or other wildlife plantings in many cases).

  • As the landowner – avoid the utopian vision of how the project will turn out. Pollinator plantings require a lot more than “just adding water.”
  • Scout the site properly and look for potential invasive species that could derail a project. If the proposed site is infested with Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, Bermuda grass, or other such hard-to-manage invasives, consider another site if available. If not, be realistic. Will the expense and time required to address such sites “pay off” in the end? One way to deal with the invasives would be to plant the area to an herbicide compatible crop for several years to gain control over the invasives well before starting the pollinator planting.
  • Have patience. Properly preparing for and implementing a pollinator planting can take a couple years if it is done correctly. The project may require several herbicide treatments, and/or cover crop plantings to get the area “right” for pollinator mixture seeding.
  • Prepare a very good, firm seedbed. This usually requires culti-packing before and after seeding if planting on disked ground.
  • Make sure you have the time and equipment to properly implement the planting, or have the means to hire a wildlife planting contractor that is knowledgeable and capable of seeing the project through.
  • Learn to identify “good” weeds and wildflowers that you do not plant, and accept them as welcome and free additions to your plantings.

If a pollinator garden is truly what you want, pick a small site that can be weeded by hand, because over time that will be required. Most pollinator gardens are also implemented using potted plants, not seeds. Work with a good biologist to develop a list of plants you’d like to have and develop a plan for how they should be arranged. The plan should include sources and best planting times.

My last piece of advice involves being honest with yourself. If you want to be in the quail business, or even in the pollinator business, and you cannot tolerate a few native weeds and some unkemptness to your property, you may want to reconsider and spend your time and money elsewhere.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Old Croaky’

Upon my front porch last week early on a Saturday, by 0600, I was out enjoying the fact I was off, and at home. I live in the country for a reason. City folks might pay to spend a week at my house and consider it an outback adventure. This day and age what passes for hardship would be our poor cell phone coverage and slow internet. After a week at our place, I can see an urbanite hustling into their car and scurrying back to the city decrying the abhorrent conditions and seeking a refund. “Not enough biscotti, shadegrown freshly ground coffee, or peach flavored beer” perhaps being stated as reasons for restitution.

Thankfully, I never plan to do any time sharing, and my house is for me and my family to enjoy. My front porch is a wildlife mecca at times. I particularly enjoy spring, as I mark the first calls of migrating birds. I think none have a more beautiful song than the orchard oriole. I see deer, squirrels and rabbits daily. And have occasionally seen bears, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Yellow-billed cuckoos seem especially numerous this summer. And I get to watch blue-grey gnatcatchers sometimes. Now these are birds that never sit still. They flit from limb-to-limb combing branch after branch for insects. I suppose they stop at nightfall. At dusk and dawn I hear many Chuck-Wills Widows, and have been fortunate to see a few. They are larger than whippoorwills and impressive in flight. I am not sure why it seems they have increased in number and their close relative, the whippoorwills, have declined? Off this same porch I watched a hummingbird once sit in the top of my redbud tree. About every five or six seconds he would dart rapidly upwards, snatch something out of the air and then return to his branch. On closer observation I noticed a cloud of gnats about 10 feet above him. I realized he was getting his fill of them. I was surprised to find upon investigating that hummingbirds eat a lot of insects. Yes, they love nectar, and they’ve become addicted to sugar water in feeders, but they can make a living on insects in a pinch. It is amazing what we could all make do on once the veneer of luxury is eroded away.

But this post is about the bobwhite I call “Ole Croaky.” I have heard him for two years now off my front porch, and say “him” singularly because he has his own call (that said, there is no certainty it is the same male bobwhite). You have to be close to hear him, within a hundred yards I’d say, if not closer. Reason being, he sounds as if he has the proverbial “frog in his throat.” There are the three clear syllables common to all bobwhite calls (yes three, but only two can be heard if you are not close “bob-Bob-Whiiiiittte!”) but each note is a muffled, scratchy poor substitute for a bobwhite whistle. His effective search radius for a female bobwhite must be very small, and whether they’d actually even recognize his call or not, I don’t know … and if so, they may have no interest as his call may be some ecological measure of fitness. Who knows how quail think? I think I know what they need, what kind of cover they are typically found in and how to produce it…but I don’t know how they think.

Ole Croaky got me to thinking, though. It made me wonder about all the hurdles quail, or any other organism out there, has to face on a daily basis to survive and reproduce. As biologists we tend to focus on things that kill quail outright, but we don’t give as much thought to things that, while they may not kill a quail, or even a quail chick,  may inhibit some vital activity, like finding a mate, or getting enough food, etc. It made me wonder why Croaky’s call had gone awry. Did he ingest a grasshopper and have it get stuck in his crop, and after a few weeks went back to calling normally? Did he have some kind of parasite or infection? Was it a genetic defect? I don’t know. I assume it is not common, because I have not heard this call very often (one other time years ago in Cumberland County), but then if I was not close enough to hear them, how many did I pass by?

I know you are wondering “Where the heck is he going with this?” So if you are still reading, it is this … like a good friend of mine from Georgia likes to say “It’s hard to know what you don’t know.” I fear we live in a world where fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what’s going on outside. And as biologists we get into the mental equivalent of wagon wheel ruts in an old country road. Back in the old days, wagons would rut a road, and then they’d take a horse drawn grader and pull them down by dragging them, and so on and so on until you couldn’t see the wagon above ground anymore. I still find remnants of those old wagon roads from time to time while hunting in remote areas. I wonder sometimes if our entire profession (wildlife biology and research) is in such ruts in some ways. I guess my main reason for saying all that is to say this – I hope we can all challenge ourselves as individuals to get out of those ruts. Let’s not become unbending patrons of the current dogma. Let’s not assume we know it all. And let’s turn the iPads off from time to time, and get out of the truck and walk … and slow down long enough to think. After all, most of learning is about figuring out the right questions to ask…and that comes from simple observation most of the time.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: A Tectonic Shift

Major wildlife conservation policy gains come infrequently. Even rarer are victories so profound as to cause tectonic shifts in the conservation arena. The NBCI’s flagship Natives First concept, included for the first time in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report, is a victory that can shift the tectonic plates in favor of grassland birds.

The concept is straightforward: establish a native vegetation preference standard for all USDA agricultural conservation and cost-share programs. That is, reverse the traditional USDA default of relying on aggressive introduced vegetation from other continents by making native vegetation the first choice for publicly funded programs, unless there is a specific compelling reason not to. The USDA agriculture agencies are the only federal conservation agencies lacking a native vegetation preference policy.

Across the bobwhite range, some 90 million acres of “improved” pasture—established to near-monocultures of introduced forages from other continents—have been encouraged and subsidized by USDA. These 90 million acres provide poor habitat for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds, and are lost conservation opportunities for bobwhites, most grassland birds, and pollinators. Likewise, USDA soil and water conservation practices on croplands still rely heavily on aggressive introduced vegetation that minimizes wildlife habitat opportunity, even though native plants provide similar or better soil and water conservation benefits as the exotic plants.

In the 1980s, federally subsidized wetland drainage and conversion was still standard business. Waterfowl conservationists were slowly accelerating the pace of wetland restoration, but couldn’t keep up with the continuing wetland losses. Waterfowl groups engineered a bold effort to shift the playing field in their favor, convincing the George H.W. Bush Administration to institute a “No Net Loss / Net Gain” federal policy for wetlands. This policy succeeded in reducing wetland acreage losses to a point that wetland restoration caught up and began overtaking the losses, reversing longstanding trends. “No Net Loss / Net Gain” was a tectonic shift for wetlands.

Serious bobwhite conservationists understand and are united about native vegetation being as important for bobwhites as wetlands are for ducks. Native vegetation won’t automatically provide good bobwhite habitat, for ongoing active management is necessary to maintain the habitat quality. However, every acre dominated by aggressive introduced grasses such as fescue, bermudagrass, smooth brome, bahiagrass, weeping love grass, and old world bluestems is automatically a poor quality acre for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds.

The old rationales for clinging to aggressive exotic species are obsolete and wearing thin. New localized varieties of natives are continually being developed and produced for more ecoregions. Establishment of new stands of natives now is routine technology. Profitable management practices for native livestock forages are being developed. A dependable, predictable demand (such as would be created by a federal native vegetation preference policy) would enable seed producers to address lingering supply and cost concerns. The increased resource benefits of natives for soil, water, and wildlife would improve benefit/cost ratios for public expenditures. Finally, a new generation of resource conservationists is more aware of the values and willing to use native vegetation.

NBCI conceived and developed Natives First in 2011. National leadership in Washington, DC, by then-NBCI staff Bridget Collins and Kyle Brazil quickly began raising attention to the foundational problem and advancing the native vegetation preference concept among USDA leadership. NBCI and the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) have since been persistently shepherding a slowly growing national native vegetation movement of determined bobwhite and grassland conservationists. The tectonic plates shifted when then-Chair of the House Agriculture Committee Michael Conaway (R-TX) heard NBCI’s case, and he and his congressional colleagues included unprecedented instructions to USDA in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report:

“The Managers recognize the benefits of native vegetation to improve water and air quality and enhance soil health. By encouraging the adoption of native vegetation seed blends, USDA programs are supporting habitat restoration for the northern bobwhite, lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, other upland game birds, songbirds, monarch butterflies, and pollinators. The Managers encourage the use of native vegetation where practicable.”

It took eight years of persistent education and advocacy by NBCI (led in recent years by Jef Hodges and Tom Franklin, with vital support from the Park Cities Quail Coalition) and the undaunted professionals of the NBTC’s Grazing Lands/Grasslands Subcommittee to achieve this milestone victory. This language is a gentle start down an important path, and may need to be reinforced in the next farm bill. However, I contend that no other single federal policy improvement could have as much long-term value for bobwhites and grassland wildlife in agricultural landscapes as this Natives First victory.

We bobwhite folks have earned the right to celebrate and enjoy this hard-earned moment, so I will be sure to toast all my quail colleagues and friends tonight! But only briefly. We have been in this game long enough to know that an improved federal policy is only as good as its effective implementation at the national, state, and local levels… and that effective implementation requires the bobwhite community’s continuing advocacy and vigilance.