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The Importance of Scientific Wildlife Research

I have heard some folks say, “What do you all need to waste money on studying this or that species for? You know everything you need to know to manage for quail (or grouse, or bears, or whatever it may be). All that money could be going into habitat management.” Well…I am glad the people who discovered penicillin did not declare, “We’re done here. We’ve got this whipped.”

Ecosystems are not static. They evolve, conditions change and the need to continue to do sound wildlife research will always be with us. I have also heard a few folks criticize researchers for always ending their presentations by saying “More research is needed.” Exactly! It most certainly is. Questions are answered, but many times new questions arise and this is how our society has advanced through time…upon millions of building blocks, all beginning with hunches, and ending in discoveries. And… one rule (of several key ones) I have in life, I never trust anyone who claims to know everything about anything.

Scientific research is an ongoing need, even for bobwhites.

It’s been said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied birds in the history of wildlife science. I am not sure who counted the studies and compared them to other species, but it is probably high on the list. Regardless, we are still learning and new questions come up routinely. For instance … on our National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program Model Quail Focal Area we hear lots of quail during the summer, but we hear very few during our fall counts and the hunters using the area find very few in winter.

Have they died? Are they using the cover very differently than hunters imagine? Do they move off the focal area in search of something they are not finding within it? Are surviving quail simply much better at avoiding hunters than generations past? Have their habits changed over the last decades (meaning 30 or 40 generations for quail) in order to survive in an evolving ecosystem? And, more importantly, can we learn something by studying the situation that might lead us to management decisions that would be good for quail and quail hunters?

Scientists sometimes use the terms “anecdotal” or “ancillary observation” to describe things they or others have observed in nature that are not part of scientific testing. A simple example might be one in which a person observed quail feeding in a partridge pea patch many times. They assume the quail are feeding on partridge pea seeds. But without further examination, it cannot be said with any certainty that is why they are there. They can say “based on anecdotal evidence, I feel quail like partridge pea.” But, many other things grow in conjunction with partridge pea, and it is also a great attractant for insects, upon which quail would rather feed than anything. But this “hunch” can be tested by scientific study, such as trapping quail in the area, and examining crop content and drawing a conclusion that quail do like partridge pea, but as much because it has good structure and attracts insects as for other reasons.

This also leads us to a term called “replication.” In a nutshell, just because you test an idea in one area, or one situation, does not mean what you find there can be applied everywhere. To be truly good, a study requires replication in a wider variety of circumstances.

Scientific ability also evolves and old findings sometimes need re-testing. I can’t recall the class, but one of my professors “back in the day” made a comment that “Mother Nature was very good at fooling people into believing things that were not true.” A classic example of this is the case of the cotton rat being labeled as a bad predator of quail eggs.

Back in the 1920s, using the best techniques available at that time, the famous quail biologist Herbert Stoddard (of Tall Timbers Research Station and prescribed fire fame) stated that cotton rats were bad predators of quail eggs. Managers since that time have worked under that assumption. But recently, researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station, using modern techniques which included remote video cameras set up on hundreds of quail nests discovered beyond doubt that cotton rats do not prey on quail eggs very often at all, they merely clean up egg shell fragments left by other predators that destroyed the nest and eggs before them.

Further, they discovered that cotton rats serve as “buffer” prey for quail and that the higher the cotton rat density, the lower the quail predation – all other factors being equal (this information can be found in the new Tall Timbers Quail Management Handbook available for purchase on their website www.ttrs.org ). Quail managers on modern quail plantations now try to manage to increase cotton rat abundance. A note – Herbert Stoddard was ahead of his time and right about the vast majority of what he studied….but like most of us he was not right 100% of the time.

On our focal area, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are the primary species of concern (and rightly so because they are endangered and quail are not). Other questions we have are: How do we tweak habitat management to benefit quail without being detrimental to RCWs? Can we adjust the size of prescribed fire units, making things better for quail without harming RCWS, or reducing the total amount we need to burn each year to sustain the RCW ecosystem? If the quail are staying on the area and not dying or moving away, where are they during winter? And what can be done to increase the critical winter escape cover we find them using?

We have a study proposed to help us answer these questions. We’ll use two other areas for comparison to give our study more “strength.” Time will tell if the funding comes through. No matter what happens we hope that our constituents, and even some in our own profession, continue to see the value in wildlife research. And further – that it will also be recognized that state wildlife agencies are the best liaison between our research universities and our state wildlife user groups. No one understands or works harder for our constituents than we do.

It’s Time for a Native Plant Policy at USDA

It is time for the US Department of Agriculture to embrace a native vegetation standard across all its agencies and programs. Such a move will be good for the birds, the pollinating bees, the monarchs and many other butterflies. And for soil health, water quality and clean air. And for taxpayers. And, yes, also for producers and landowners.

USDA does not keep good data on introduced versus native plantings. But reading between the lines of USDA data on just one program, NBCI estimates roughly 1.25 million acres of aggressive, introduced vegetation that provides poor habitat was subsidized on private lands across the bobwhite’s range in 2014 by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. In contrast, NBCI’s annual habitat management inventory documented only about 750,000 acres of private lands bobwhite habitat management fostered by state wildlife agencies that same year (https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbcis-bobwhite-almanac-state-of-the-bobwhite-2014-is-now-available). Across USDA, multiple programs in multiple agencies are working at cross-purposes with themselves: supporting native grassland restoration while subsidizing the spread of aggressive introduced plantings for agricultural and conservation purposes that replace and degrade native habitats. Bottom line: bobwhites and many other at-risk grassland species still are losing ground every year.

The waterfowl conservation community figured out decades ago the fundamental dilemma of such an imbalance. A potent concept, known as “No Net Loss / Net Gain,” highlighted the need for a two-fold approach to restore ebbing waterfowl populations. Minimizing wetland losses was necessary before wetland restorations could catch up and begin rebuilding the continent’s total wetland habitat acreage. The duck guys acted and fixed their problem by supporting legislative and regulatory policy reforms for wetland conservation.

The quail/songbird/monarch/pollinator guys should take heed. The nation’s native grassland habitats and wildlife populations cannot be stabilized or restored until the federally subsidized losses and degradation are minimized. Quail conservationists have been talking about this problem for many years, with no traction and no resolution. Meanwhile, the major federal public land management agencies already have adopted native vegetation policies – US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service. Even the USDA Forest Service has a native vegetation policy. But not USDA’s agriculture agencies.

Natives First is NBCI’s national leadership effort to reform USDA’s decades-long tradition of relying primarily on aggressive plants introduced from other continents for conservation and production programs. Natives First would establish a new standard at USDA, so that native plants that provide high-quality wildlife habitat would become the default preference for all publicly funded financial and technical assistance programs. Note that our concept is not called “Natives Only.” We know some introduced plants that are not aggressive can provide suitable habitat for some wildlife. We also recognize some specific, narrowly-defined situations may require reliance on introduced plants that provide poor habitat. But those examples are, and should be treated as, just the exceptions.

NBCI is circulating a letter to Congress asking for a native vegetation standard at USDA to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. That community letter has been signed by 50 partners, and more are asking to be added. NBCI also has established a Natives First Coalition, a more enduring alliance of partner groups committed to this cause for the long term. Check out NBCI’s website (https://bringbackbobwhites.org/conservation/natives-first/) and our Natives First Facebook page for more information. We invite you, we need you, to join the Natives First Coalition.

The dire native grassland decline has been 75 years in the making; it won’t be solved overnight. But until a native vegetation standard is established at USDA, the problem won’t be solved at all. This is big ball. Adoption of Natives First by USDA could be the single most important conservation action to tilt the nation’s private land playing field in favor of restoring at-risk grassland wildlife.

Native Grass Forage: The Long Road Back, One Step at a Time…

By Dr. Pat Keyser

In working here at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Native Grasslands Management (for nearly a dozen years now), I have focused on trying to develop a body of research that addresses two basic things – how native grasses work in forage production systems and how wildlife respond to them in that setting. Both issues are important from where I sit. If they have no value to producers – as a forage, not as a conservation tool – then it really does not make a great deal of difference how valuable they may be for wildlife conservation. No one will use them. On the other hand, if they produce great forage, but have little or no value for wildlife, then the conservation community may need to look for other places to spend its energy.

On the forage side, we have done a great deal of research, published that research, and have made the results available in popular formats including technical bulletins, web blogs for our Beef and Forage Center, articles in forage trade journals, a large number of training sessions for professionals, and workshops for cattlemen. My goal in all of this is to be sure the forage community understands what native grass forages are, what they are not, how to best integrate them into existing production systems, and hopefully, to de-mystify them. Really, if we can get folks to simply look at them objectively as another forage tool – with their own strengths and own weaknesses – we will have done ourselves and forage producers (in MHO) a good turn. And for the conservation community, this same information will hopefully help us to understand their role more clearly and provide landowners with better information.

Needless to say, this is a long journey. And unfortunately, as I have told many of you through the years, I often encounter cultural resistance to the idea of native grass forages. Maybe it’s like trying to convince a setter man to run pointers, or a Vols fan to pull for Bama? Whatever it is, it can be disheartening. Part of that long road. At other times though, it can be encouraging, when things seem to come together, when there are signs of progress.

Here is a brief story about some of that progress – small steps

Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show “on the cover of the Rolling Stone”

along the road. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember the song about the “the cover of the Rolling Stone,” a strange song about a band that figured they would have arrived, had finally made it, if they could only get their picture, you guessed it, “on the cover of the Rolling Stone” (for all of you young punks out there who have no idea what I am talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ux3-a9RE1Q – 8.9 MM views to boot!)

So when I got an email with a piece on native grasses forages as the lead story of an e-version of a major forage magazine recently, I figured maybe we had finally arrived. Not seriously, just a stray thought in my mind. But how that story got to this magazine is interesting.

Our field tour on native grasses – a producer’s farm where he has been managing switchgrass pastures for about 5 years.

In June, I hosted a professional meeting attended by forage Extension and Land Grant folks across the southeast – a meeting that moves around from state to state each year. As the host for TN, I got to plan the full-day field trip. After having been deep in the Bermuda/Bahia belt for the last 4-5 meetings, I decided I would give them a pretty good dose of native grasses. After all, it was what I have been working on and I have seen very little (none?) of it on the tours those other states have hosted. So we visited several native grass grazing projects and the feedback was very positive. I think these 70 or so forage professionals really enjoyed seeing something different, something they were not that familiar with.

One of the attendees on this tour was the editor of the previously mentioned forage magazine (~40,000 subscribers, mostly serious, innovative, forage growers) who ended up doing two stories based on the conference. One was based on the research that one of my PhD students (Kyle Brazil, a former NBCI team member) is working on – grazing native grasses and grassland birds – and the other on a producer who has been managing switchgrass pastures for several years. (Both articles are posted at http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/manage.htm under ‘Current Articles’.) It was the second one of these that had been sent out on the email version of the magazine. So not only did 70 forage professionals get first-hand exposure to native forages, but two articles were mailed to about 40,000 folks likely to have more than a passing interest in this subject. Not a bad day!

But the fruit from that conference and tour seems to keep coming. Another attendee at this meeting was a colleague from Mizzou. He was interested in our work, enough so to invite me out to Columbia to conduct a seminar on campus that was attended by most of their forage team. That seminar generated some great conversation and I think, gave some of these folks who have worked in fescue for years some food for thought.

One of three experimental pastures established in Missouri

As a side benefit, I got to visit Linneus (Mizzou’s main forage research area) where I got to see the three NWSG pastures they established last year in support of a grazing project proposal we have been collaborating on (an exercise that resulted from my trip out to the Mid-MO Grazing Conference back in 2013 when I set up a side meeting with their main forage researcher).

While at Linneus, I was able to spend a good deal of time with their station manager discussing NWSG forages/management (we will be in very good hands there if the project is able to move forward!). In addition, my faculty host and I conspired to start some native grass forage research at the Beef Unit there at Columbia, work that appears to be moving forward with some help from MDC. Also, as a result of this initial visit, I have been invited back this winter to conduct an in-service training with all of their forage and beef agents.

Like most of you, I seem to spend most of my days stubbing my toes, tearing out my hair, and going through various cycles of despair and hopelessness. So it’s kind of nice to see things work out like this. I guess this is the way we hope this whole system would run. But regardless of the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the road back to a world where native grasses can play a role on our farms is a long one, one that will be traveled one step at a time.

Center Pivot Corners Produce Birds

While enjoying a frigid Holiday season quail and pheasant hunt near Pratt, Kansas, with friends and colleagues Joe and Lucas Kramer, and NBCI grasslands coordinator Jef Hodges, the critical importance of properly managed center pivot corner habitat for upland birds was clearly evident.

We hunted across a vast agricultural landscape of private land dominated by center pivot irrigation, mostly planted to corn and soybeans. The late season hunt produced many birds, much to our delight and that of our Brittany and Boykin spaniels and chocolate lab. The pivot corners were covered in dense native grasses that held pheasants and corners that were adjacent to farmsteads provided the necessary protective cover for bobwhites. The irrigated ag lands provided the necessary high-energy crop residue that the birds require during cold weather.

These pivot corners exist because of the Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practice. Originally established by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in 2004, with the support of NBCI and state agency wildlife professionals, it currently allows enrollment of pivot corners with and without a buffer around a field perimeter. Center pivot corners are now recognized for the valuable habitat they can provide in irrigated farmland regions for the benefit northern bobwhites, prairie-chickens, pheasants, mourning doves, wild turkeys, meadowlarks as well as Monarch butterflies and pollinators, many of which are declining due to widespread habitat loss.

An allocation of 500,000 acres of CRP pivot corners was approved by FSA to benefit wildlife and qualified producers who, in return for enrolling in the program, may receive bonus payments and annual rental payments between 10 and 15 years.

There are many thousands of acres of Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds center pivot corners still eligible for funding by FSA, via the Conservation Reserve Program. This habitat should be on the landscape providing more excellent upland bird hunting opportunities like we enjoyed while in Kansas.

Interested landowners can enroll pivot corners in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program at any time by contacting their local Farm Service Agency office at offices.usda.gov or visit the website at www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation.

Shell’s Covert: The Last Bird Hunter

The year is 2047. The old man, now in his early eighties, struggles up over the ridge top, out of breath and wondering if he’d pushed himself this time too far. Maybe he’d die right up here in these laurels where he’d brought down many grouse and woodcock over the decades before it all began falling apart. That would be an end that suited him. He’d felt alone for so long now anyway save for his dog. The dog kept him going. He just wanted to outlive his last dog so he could make sure the old friend lived out his days in the woods. The thought of himself dying before Buster…well, he would tear up picturing the old fellow wandering aimlessly in the mountains for days until starvation overcame him. So he always quit a little before he was on his last breath.

Of course, what would it matter if they both died right here, right now? Who would care, or even know he was the last bird hunter? His way of life peaked in the mid-20th century, well before he was ever born, some would say. And in spite of valiant efforts by many agencies and non-governmental groups to “save” upland bird hunting, it died anyhow.

At first, there was a lack of birds, and scientists scrambled for a few decades piecing together the whys of the decline. There were many. Some could be addressed … like habitat loss…but in the end the innate quest for expansion by human beings led to increasing pressure to produce food and fiber. And this led to less and less land to set aside to be managed for wildlife.

The production of food and fiber in the best days of bird hunting actually was what produced the highest number of birds ever known…just by accident. And no one could have ever imagined it wouldn’t always be so good. For a couple decades, old bird hunters blamed wildlife agencies and private entities for not caring enough, or working harder, or cutting more timber, or using fire more. Toward the end of their lives though, they came to a sad realization…in all but the most remote parts of our land, or some of the wealthiest, you simply could not manage enough to offset the loss of the accidentally created habitat of yesteryear. The intensity with which land now had to be managed to meet basic human needs left little space for wildlife. But it hardly mattered anymore.

The decline in upland bird hunting…well, all hunting, really…was only partly due to lower game populations. Society changed, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly every year. Reality became increasingly replaced by virtual reality. The human mind expanded, as the human leg muscle declined. Going outside became something folks did just to get to their newest mode of computer-guided transportation. People could place a device over their faces and experience virtual reality giving them sensations beyond anything they felt while walking through the woods following an old raggedy dog around trying to kill something.

The old man had shut down years ago. He’d seen it coming. At some point, any species that goes extinct first takes a wrong evolutionary turn or two. And, of course, the vast majority of them don’t realize it. He’d realized that the further removed we became from the earth that produced us, sustained us, the lower our chances of ever persisting as a species. He knew it was beyond bird hunting. He finally gave up on cell phones when it reached the point that you had to subscribe to a company and get a new phone delivered every week with the latest installments in order to communicate. The few people who knew him thought he was either very brave, or completely nuts, for venturing more than a few hundred yards from his house without phone communication ability. They had never read about Lewis and Clark, or Livingstone, or Teddy Roosevelt on the River of Darkness.

For a few decades, he’d also made his life working for an agency. He had done all he knew how to do to try to right the ship, so to speak. But he was a biologist, not a psychologist, or an outreach specialist. He’d blamed himself and been blamed by others for not doing enough. He’d lain awake at night for years wracking his brain into a fever…what is the magic bullet? Or how many smaller things can we try to maybe add up to more bird hunters again, more quail, more grouse, more woodcock. Should we use pen-raised birds to promote upland bird hunting? Should we try fall pre-season release on some of our WMAs?

He’d written articles about how to become a 21st Century Bird Hunter. He’d often wished a movie mogul would make a movie about bird hunting similar to the great movie built around a family’s struggles and their love of fly-fishing for trout. After “A River Runs Through It” was released, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of fly-fishers.

He never gave up until the day he retired. They did see some successes, though limited geographically. He’d also seen an uptick in habitat management interest over the years. But this was accompanied by an uptick in the need for other critical agency jobs such as human/wildlife conflict resolution. And he’d seen a continued decline in the number of wildlife professionals per capita in most states. He and all of his colleagues lived the adage “more with less.” He did find some hope in the fact that there were a lot of bright young biologists sharper than he ever was coming along.

But after he retired he reached the conclusion that the best thing he, and all the remaining bird hunters, could do to keep bird hunting alive, was to keep going themselves. To keep talking about it, writing about it, and living it. Every time he saw an old bird hunter hunting alone he’d ask them why they did not try to find a protégé. Every time someone complained to him about how bad things were going he’d ask them “What have you done to help today?” Every time someone saw his dog, he’d tell them not only about the breed, but about its history, and then about the dog’s life itself.

Someone asked him once “Why do you care if bird hunting survives? What’s it matter to you? You have birds now, and a dog, so why waste your time on people who don’t want to live your life?” He touched the young man on the arm softly, then grabbed a bit of the cloth of his shirt, just enough to make sure he was listening and he said “Because I see where we’re headed when it’s gone.”