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Native Grass Gazette: “That One Thing”

Preface

I had the joy and privilege of filming and producing the Firing Up Your Beef Production video. Aside from being an avid hobby photographer, which is one reason why this project was so enjoyable, I met some of the most genuine, sincere and interesting people. During the interviews, it was obvious each and every one, in their own unique way, had a passion for what they were doing and the land they were on. This has been a rewarding project.

 

If you were a ranch owner and cattleman in the Great Plains and there was one thing you could do to halt and/or reverse woody encroachment, increase your carrying capacity, increase water availability, increase animal performance, increase forage quality and quantity, reduce parasites, improve grazing distribution, improve range health and protect against wildfire, would you do that one thing?

According to the ranchers and researchers interviewed in the recently released NBCI video, Fire Up Your Beef Production – A Ranchers’ Perspective of Prescribed Burning for Range Management, that is precisely what prescribed burning does.

Ranchers who are using prescribed fire on their ranches to improve their beef production shared their experiences for the filming of Fire Up Your Beef Production. It became apparent after the second interview there was a common theme developing … all the ranchers, in their own way, were saying the same things about woody encroachment control, water availability, carrying capacity, forage quality and quantity, range health and other topics. It was a script that was writing itself.

The focus of the video is on the ranchers but researchers were included to throw a little science in for those who want to hear that aspect, though in the real world most folks find those ranchers who are practicing what they preach to be very credible and, in the end, this video is targeted to ranchers.

The ranchers are the stars of the video. After all, when you get quotes like…

 “…springs started to flow again.”

“The thing with prescribed burning and grazing management is we’ve been able to run more cattle through the ranch which increases the bottom line significantly.”

“Range condition has definitely improved, (we have) a lot more tall grass than we used to and just all around better plant health.”

…then how can you go wrong? Ranchers are telling their own stories of how they use prescribed burning on their own ranches to improve their operation. These testimonials are sure to resonate with other ranchers who view this video.

The National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Grassland and Grazing Lands Subcommittee charge in developing this video was to target it to ranchers, knowing if prescribed burning is implemented along with grazing management, bobwhites and other grassland wildlife will benefit. Wildlife enthusiasts are likely to ask why there isn’t more about bobwhites or wildlife in the video. Again, wildlife managers and bobwhite enthusiasts are not the target audience for this video, though there is plenty a wildlife manager could learn from hearing these landowners tell their experiences. Keep in mind, ranchers trying to make a living are the target audience.

Moving outside of our traditional NBCI promotion circles, cattlemen’s associations, grazing lands coalitions, associations of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, prescribed burn associations and several other groups received the news release announcing the video, and, of course, our traditional network of contacts. The video, in both long and short versions, is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/user/BringBackBobwhites/videos. Entities interested in obtaining copies for group screenings may contact Alyssa Merka at amerka@utk.edu for copies on DVDs or flash drives.

This project wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the ranchers, but there were many other people involved in the background who coordinated site visits for filming, set up the interviews, provided drone footage, answer the call for “b-roll,” reviewed our effort and provided quotes for our news release, and on and on. I am going to attempt to list everyone who had a hand in this project in one way or another. I apologize in advance for any omissions.

The state quail coordinators in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska… Robert Perez, Derek Wiley, Jeff Prendergast and Jeff Lusk, respectively.

All of the ranchers: Linda Evans, Jerry Hunter, Cody Sander, Ted Alexander, Brian Alexander, Tom Carr and Greg Hurlbut.

Crew of many others: Alex Lyon, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT); Allen Wilson and Reading Benefit Fire District, KS; Ken Brunson, The Nature Conservancy-Kansas; Barth Crouch, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition; Craig Woods; Oklahoma State University (OSU); Russel Stevens, Noble Research Institute; Blayr Gourley, OSU; Chris Schenck, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) ; Kyle Banowsky, TPWD; Carol Baldwin, Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, Kansas State University (KSU); Aleksey Sheshukov, KSU; Tom Gross, KSU; Dan Donnert, KSU; Eva Horne, KSU; John Weir, OSU; David Engle, OSU; Brian Teeter, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever; Alva Gregory, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; Mike Remund, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; Chuck Stanley, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Troy Smith, KDWPT; Society for Range Management; NBCI staff.

I hope I got everybody. Thank you!

Shell’s Covert: I Still Love the Bobwhite Quail

I have been off on a much needed break for a bit now. After 21 years with DGIF and over 25 working with quail, burnout can ensue. While home the other day I was doing some “cleaning out” when I found a 1998 issue of Virginia Wildlife. In it was an article I had written titled “A Quail for the Heart.” It reminded me of the many reasons I continue to enjoy this job. It reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for, too.

For wildlife professionals my age (54), the last decade has been a little confusing. We have lived and worked during a time of rapid change in our society and profession. What professional statisticians like to call “demographics” – meaning the makeup and interests of our human population –has changed. The short story is folks are less connected to the land now, less likely to spend time outdoors and much less likely to hunt and fish than they were 50 years ago. This has translated into declines in revenues for many state wildlife agencies and the last decade has seen great effort expended to seek remedies. Some have been found, but no perfect fix exists.

One thing many of us realized quite some time ago is that our constituency is very diverse now, and we need them all to succeed. And we believe they need us, too, in order to truly have the kind of future they desire. At some point in the lives of many people they find something is missing. For many, what is missing is a connection to nature and their ancient roots.

Our “Quail Team” has embraced the idea of partnerships quite well. We call ourselves the “Quail Team” quite frankly because it is much easier to say than “early-succession habitat / species team.” And we simply have not struck upon a better name (if you can think of one, please let us know). In the back of our new quail and early-succession species recovery plan (available at this link:  https://bringbackbobwhites.org/about-us/nbci-statescoordinators/virginia-nbci/  then click on the tab for the plan – thanks to NBCI for working with states to create these pages) is listed 35 partners from a very diverse array of entities that we work with and rely on routinely. And we have a team of private lands wildlife biologists with impressive backgrounds that include remarkable knowledge about songbirds, deer, pollinating insects and plants. I am proud of the small role I have played in helping them in their careers, but they have helped each other a great deal more than any of their managers have, like a true team. Our goal as cooperative managers via DGIF, NRCS and CMI has been to allow them to work to their strengths, and encourage and facilitate them when we can.

With all this partnership though, and much talk about the huge declines in upland gamebird hunters, I fear our upland gamebird hunting constituents might worry they are being forgotten. My main reason for writing this post is to assure them they are not being marginalized. In our new “quail plan” – in quotes because it is much more than that – we identified several key areas where significant improvement is needed, and one of those is our efforts to continue to recruit and support upland gamebird hunters. Maybe this phrase has been overused, but “it is not a zero sum game.” This means that we do not have to either be “game species” managers or “non-game species” managers. The more I work in this job the more I realize how important what some call the 80:20 rule is. Written about in the most recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, this rule states that when bringing diverse partners together, focus on the 80% of things you agree on and forget about the 20% you might disagree on. Whether your favorite species is the monarch butterfly, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the southeastern fox squirrel or the bobwhite quail – there is a good chance their habitat needs are similar. And it will only be through the “strength in numbers” that evolves when we come together with a common message that allows us to “move the conservation needle” in the right direction. Ouch – enough quotes!

As for myself, I have a new bird dog puppy on the way. I look forward to picking her up in late August. I have been too long without a puppy to love and train. I am looking forward to that bonding process again that unless you have experienced it you may not understand. It is hard to put into words the feeling you get when you see something as tiny, dependent and innocent as a Llewellin Setter puppy develop into an independent, hardworking companion that lives for you and to hunt upland gamebirds. There is some luck and magic involved in this process. Special touch is required to understand how to keep a bird dog enthusiastic and pointed in the right direction. You have to guide them, but you have to keep it fun. You have to allow them to train themselves as much as you train them and you have to be forgiving of mistakes. In short, it is not altogether different to how we might raise a child, or how we ourselves might like to be “trained” to do things we have the heart and instinct to do but not the experience.

As long as I am in this job role, and alive on this earth with the health to do it, I’ll be a proud “bird hunter.” You might say I was born into it.  When I entered this world back in “those good old days” on a cold November Sunday, my Dad brought my Mom a meal of pan fried wild quail as she recovered in the hospital. A peer once said to me “Marc, the quail is never going to be everyman’s bird.” I have thought about that for many years now. I am not sure any bird will ever be everyone’s bird. But I can assure you of this – the bobwhite quail is this man’s bird, and will continue to be a primary reason I come to work every day.

The “Art” of Grassroots Bobwhite Conservation

Feel-good stories about bobwhite conservation come too infrequently, thus beg to be shared and appreciated widely.

I have maintained from the origins of the NBCI that the grassroots level at the bottom of the metaphorical pyramid is the foundation of bobwhite conservation.  Without the vibrant grassroots power of local sportsmen’s chapters, nongovernment conservation organizations, landowners, biology clubs, prescribed fire associations, birdwatchers, hunters, etc. – unified effectively with a common vision and coordinated strategies – the NBCI mission of widespread bobwhite restoration cannot succeed.

Add “student artists” to that list of grassroots bobwhite conservationists.

“Our mission at Bobwhite Innovative is to use our creativity to help conserve and protect the bobwhite quail population by creating and selling wildlife paintings of these amazing creatures to raise awareness. We will donate 75% of our profits to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. We are a small business that started as a high school Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project (SAEP) and hope to grow into something bigger.”

Madison Shell, a motivated high school student artist in Simpsonville, South Carolina, developed a special interest in bobwhites that soon was followed by a personal commitment to use her talents to help conserve the troubled bird.  Her high school’s Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project provided the launch pad for her proposition to paint pictures of bobwhite quail and sell them, donating the profits to an organization dedicated to preserving the bobwhite population.  Madison did her own research on organizations dedicated to bobwhite conservation, and contacted NBCI early this year to pitch her idea. 

NBCI has now established a business partnership with her new enterprise, “Bobwhite Innovative,” in which NBCI is helping feature her artwork and she is donating 75% of her proceeds to support NBCI’s bobwhite programs.  Madison has since created her own website to highlight her artwork and her conservation mission:

Our mission at Bobwhite Innovative is to use our creativity to help conserve and protect the bobwhite quail population by creating and selling wildlife paintings of these amazing creatures to raise awareness. We will donate 75% of our profits to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. We are a small business that started as a high school Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project (SAEP) and hope to grow into something bigger.

“Through cooperation, education, and teamwork, we hope to impact the bobwhite quail population positively,” Madison pledges on her website at www.bobwhiteinnovative.com.

The bobwhite veterans among us are accustomed to – though still grateful for – the typical, stalwart grassroots conservationists who have carried the flag for decades.  But there’s something especially gratifying and encouraging about the passion, personal motivation and action of Madison Shell, offering hope that a new generation of conservationists just might be out there, ready to join and carry on the cause for bobwhites and all the other songbirds and pollinators that share its habitat.  The bobwhite’s future feels a bit brighter now.

Shell’s Covert: Housing Development Quail Management

Housing development quail cover – note wide roads and openings, these pines can still be thinned more heavily to help fund management. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

This is a true story about a man devoted to quail management. I won’t give his name or tell you exactly where his property is other than – it’s in Central Virginia. About a decade ago he began managing a 60-acre tract. His property truly represents maximizing habitat work. He has sought advice from many professionals. Most importantly, he took action. His farm is a showcase and he has from 2 to 4 coveys on that 60 acres year in and year out (don’t let anyone say you cannot contribute to quail recovery on small acreages – it is possible, but depends at least in part on what types of lands surround your land). Over the years he expanded his landholdings, his management and his quail population. His main goal is not hunting quail, though he does like to have a hunt or two each year.

Last year he approached me about a new tract of land he was thinking of buying a few miles from his existing property. He wanted my opinion on its “quail potential.” I met him and as we drove into the property I thought to myself “someone is already managing this land intensively for quail.”

The pines had been thinned substantially, in some places almost down to what we call “quail density,” about 40 to 50 square feet of basal area per acre.  All the logging roads had been widened with nice sunlight getting in along the 30-to-50- foot expansions on both sides of the roads. It appeared multiple logging decks had been used when thinning this tract and each had been expanded into small clearings of an acre or more and already planted with legumes. A lot of the hardwood encroachment had been controlled in the understory mechanically. All that was really left to do was start a burning regimen in the pines (which has since been done), and a combination of a liming, fertilization and discing regimen on the clearings … and he’d have 200 acres of prime quail cover.

“Who has been managing this land for quail?” I asked. He grinned and said “No one, this is a failed housing development project.”

It made perfect sense then. The roads had been widened to accommodate increased vehicle traffic and paving. The small clearings were to be house lots. Enough pines had been left to provide some aesthetics and shade for new homes. I don’t know whose development it was, and I feel bad for them. I don’t want to be accused of making light of anyone’s bad luck. But for the quail on this area, their misfortune was a boon. It also made me realize that maybe I should consider new ways in which to describe “quail cover” – picture a new 5-10 acre average lot size housing development in a piney woods area without the houses, lawns and pavement. By the way, when the owner allowed a good bird dog man to hunt the tract for the first time this past winter, they found five coveys of quail in a few hours – further proof to me that quail do find new habitats and can do well in them.

In a recent article in Quail Forever Magazine by Tall Timbers Research Station researchers Clay Sisson and Dr. Theron Terhune presented evidence on how important managed clearings can be within a pine ecosystem as quail brood-rearing cover. I suggest you visit their website for more information and consider supporting their organization and subscribing to their e-newsletter (http://talltimbers.org/welcome-to-tall-timbers/ ).

This fallowed corn field is now providing great brood-rearing cover. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

Primarily, they found that these clearings made superior brood-rearing cover compared to either burned or unburned thinned pine stands under poor or acidic soil conditions. The main reason – properly managed clearings produced far more insects than surrounding pine stands. I followed up with Dr. Terhune by e-mail and he provided me this information: “The need for brood fields and the proportion of fields required is dictated by soil type. Basically, the lower the soil quality the higher the percentage of fields needed. In very low quality soils we recommend 25-30% fields. Average desirable field size is 1.5 to 2 acres and should range from 1 – 4 acres and not larger than 5 acres.  However, in higher quality soils burned piney woods often provide adequate brood-rearing habitat.”

In many parts of Virginia’s coastal plain, the soils are either sandy, which means they do not hold nutrients very well, or they are acidic. Likewise, many soils in the piedmont, though heavier than coastal plains soils, can be very acidic. This varies by site. The main lesson is to get to know the soils on your land. You can contact an NRCS soil conservationist at your local USDA Service Center for more information on your land’s soil.

Further reading of their articles led me to other findings such as how the quality of these fields tends to decline over time. There may be some need for liming and fertilization which can be expensive. Most recently the staff of TTRS has experimented with using rotational agricultural plantings and incorporation of legumes to “rebuild” these fields, as opposed to fertilization. As with all quail management, the key is rotation. The fields can be rotationally disced, or rotationally planted with agricultural crops or legumes. The key is not planting the entire field every year. There is nothing that makes brood-rearing cover quicker than fallowed crop lands.

What should you do? First, get to know your soils, have soil tests done on clearings and lime and fertilize according to recommendations to start. There are many ways to approach soil testing, but the best in my opinion is via your local Cooperative Extension Service. You can decide on how many fields, and whether to use planted crops or simple rotational discing based on your time and budget. If you do not think your burned piney woods are producing quail like they should, check the soils and consider incorporating multiple brood clearings.

The Native Grass Gazette: Ready, Set, BURN!!!

Prescribed burning in grasslands during the growing season as a management practice has been quietly taking place for a number of years, primarily by out-of-the-box thinking land managers. It is only recently that researchers have been looking at the practice and others are beginning to take notice. I suppose you could say it is in the early adoption phase.

Many are skeptical that a burn can be conducted during the growing season. After all, how can something that green burn? What about fuel moisture and the humidity? Typically, those are higher than what we normally conduct burns under. Then there are others concerned about the loss or damage to flora or fauna, and while those concerns are warranted, if the burn is planned and implemented properly, those impacts are minimal.

Growing season burns often create a burn mosaic, leaving valuable habitat for insects and pollinators as well as creating additional edge. (Jef Hodges)

 

First, as long as there is residual dead material from previous years’ growth, lush, green native grasses will burn during the growing season. Surprisingly well, in fact. The key is enough residual old growth to be fuel for the fire. Without that, it won’t burn – except under extreme circumstances under which you shouldn’t be conducting a prescribed burn anyway. Second, fuel moisture is much higher in the new green growth but fuel moisture in the dead residual material is much lower, though not as dry as during the dormant season; humidity varies greatly from west to east and relative to rainfall zones but is usually higher than during the dormant season as well. These two factors combined actually make growing season burning safer and less work than dormant season burns because the fire is less volatile, much slower moving and easier to extinguish.

Finally, to address the potential loss or damage to flora and fauna, burn only a portion of the total area within the field or planning unit. While burning during the growing season will damage some plants and animals, if areas are left unburned, they will serve as refuges, thus not eliminating entire populations of susceptible species and providing sources to repopulate the burned area.

I will provide a personal example of how growing season burning can create biodiversity. I don’t recall exactly when, but somewhere around 2000 I decided to try a growing season burn on an old big bluestem seed production field that was no longer productive. I conducted the burn in late July. The first thing I noted was the regrowth the bluestem put on after the burn. Within just a few days, bluestem shoots were emerging from the ground and by the time of our first frost plants were 12 – 18 inches tall.

From the bobwhite management perspective, this is an ideal height for nesting cover the next spring and the residual leaves can provide nest building material. The following summer I saw a number of different forbs begin to show up, ones which I’d never noted before. The balance of grasses to forbs was shifting. After several years of growing season burns the area is now a mixture of grass and forbs with about a 50:50 ratio of the two.

Recent research supports my unscientific observations. Researchers are finding nearly two times the plant biodiversity in growing season burned plots compared to unburned and even traditional spring burned. They are also finding more insect abundance.

This is the same field used to show the mosaic burn pattern of a growing season burn but this photo was taken the spring following the August burn. Note the mixture of grasses and forbs. The flowering plants are foxglove beardtongue. (Jef Hodges)

June is a good time to start planning your growing season burns, in preparation for late July or August. If planning to burn CRP as a mid-contract management practice be sure to check with your state about the primary nesting season dates and be sure to burn outside of those. If not burning CRP, burning can be conducted anytime, just be sure to leave unburned areas as refuges.

NOTE: there is always concern about destroying or disrupting bobwhite or other grassland bird nests with growing season burns. Weigh the risks against the benefits when deciding when to burn, keeping current habitat condition in context. If the grasses are thick and rank with lots of accumulated litter, odds are against quail nests or broods being present, whereas newly burned areas will provide ideal nesting in the future.

You should also prepare your fire guards. If mowing, mow them regularly to keep them functional. Fire guards mowed a few days before the burn don’t function very well; duff from the mower is likely to carry fire. Bare dirt fire guards left idle can grow up in annual plants, providing brood cover and high energy food sources later in the season.

Other considerations about growing season burns:

  • Growing season burns are easy to control and take minimal effort for those involved, however, it is important to recognize that heat can be an issue and everyone involved needs to stay hydrated and aware of their physical wellbeing.
  • Growing season burns spread out the workload and allow for more burn days in a year instead of trying to pack all your burns into a 6 to 8 week spring burn season, thus increasing capacity.
  • Growing season burns are very, very smoky. Smoke management is extremely important.
  • Growing season burns are slow. Allow 2 to 4 times as much time to complete burns as with similar sized dormant season burns.
  • Growing season burns when timed just before seed set can suppress sericea lespedeza and limit its spread.
  • Growing season burns provide good woody plant control.
  • Growing season burns provide spikes in forage crude protein just as burning does with spring burned native pastures.

There are many benefits to growing season burns, but also a number of precautions. Consider each on their own merit, weigh your objectives and begin planning your growing season burn.

Growing season fires are very smoky, so smoke management is extremely important. (Jef Hodges)