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Teaching a Landowner to “Fish”

I’ve been making landowner site visits and writing wildlife habitat management plans since I was a graduate student back in early 1990s. I wrote my first “real” management plan for a very large property in southeastern North Carolina in early 1995. If they knew how little I knew then, they might have used that plan to start a fire. But it worked out. I did have sense enough to do my homework and write them a decent plan. Recently, I have been in the role of filling in for several vacant private lands biologists. I had to knock the rust off my skill set, but I am back in the swing. It’s been good for me, and hopefully for the landowners that I have helped over the last year or so. It also led me to reevaluate how we help landowners. The old adage about it being better to “teach a person to fish, rather than just give them a fish” applies here very well.

Sometimes a landowner will tell you right up front, “We just want the cost-share money, tell us what to do to get that.” But overwhelmingly, just the opposite is true, and I hear “We don’t really care about the funding, we just want to know what to do and how to do it.” They may be willing to use the funds to achieve their goals if necessary, but the funds are not their primary motivation. So what is our role as biologists trying to help them? I think our biggest role is to provide them a learning opportunity that ultimately allows them to better be able to help themselves. In my job, there is no better moment for me than when a landowner has that epiphany—the light comes on, and you know from that point on they understand what to do and how to do it.

To get the most out of a site visit, a landowner needs to get to know their land, and they need to try to start understanding the species they are interested in. They also need to start developing their wildlife goals. By telling the biologist in advance the species they are interested in, both parties can do their homework before the visit. The words I “dread” (if that is the right term) are, “We don’t know what we want to do, we just want to do something for wildlife.” A noble and deeply felt sentiment for sure, but not very insightful. To be honest, most biologists are too busy to develop goals for a landowner from scratch. We do need a little bit to go on.

Step one in developing a good wildlife management program involves the landowner studying their land, thinking about what they would like to see more of, and developing some goals. The biologist, upon reviewing the goals and the land, may have to inform the landowner that their goals and land base/situation are not compatible. However, most of the time, they are in sync.

Step two requires that the landowner study the species and their habitat requirements. This maximizes the efficiency of a site visit. The more informed the landowner is, the better they are able to ask the right questions.

Step three requires the landowner to evaluate their property and the surrounding lands. A good place to start is to obtain aerial photos—some close ups that depict the primary property, and others that show a wider view of how their property fits into the landscape.

The “landscape context” is difficult for some to understand. Your property does not exist in a vacuum. It can be in a landscape that is largely mature hardwood forest, mature pine forest, mixed pine and hardwood forest, suburban dominated, mixed stage forest and cropland, mostly cropland, or sometimes mostly pasture and hay land. Unless you own several thousand acres of contiguous land, your management will not be independent of the lands that surround you. Many species need larger acreages to persist through time. This does not mean that a small group of animals can’t survive on your fifty acres, but for a population to survive through time, a landscape that supports multiple groups of those species allowing immigration, emigration, and genetic exchange is required.

It is during this third step that the biologist’s services are most critical. Chances are your studies have led you to as many questions as answers. It is time to call a biologist and ask for a site visit. You might explain to them your basic land type, acres, goals, and observances. On their site visit, the biologist should listen to your goals, make notes, examine aerial photos, and most importantly, go out on your land with you to assess the current situation and begin making recommendations.

If they are good at what they do, it will be done in a way that is educational and not condescending. The biologist’s goal should not only be to show you what to do, but also to help you understand why you are doing it. Then you may be able to see why, where, and when it needs to be done again in the future, as wildlife management is rarely static. The biologist will help you identify what professionals call “limiting factors.” Basically, a species needs certain habitat elements to survive and thrive, and if any are missing or are not found in enough quantity, they “limit” the species’ ability to survive on your property.

The biologist should provide you a written management plan, which may take them several weeks to develop depending on their workload. The management plan may include many things such as:

  • a property description,
  • a list of your management objectives,
  • the current status of the lands and areas to be managed,
  • and, most critically, detailed management recommendations and guidelines that provide the landowner the knowledge to accomplish specific tasks.

These may include attachments with more detail. For example, you may be advised to control encroaching invasive species along a field edge. There are very good extension publications that provide the necessary steps and detail to accomplish the task. The plan may also include a section on how to evaluate your progress, but this should also involve follow-up site visits from the biologist when you have questions in subsequent years. Some plans may include a detailed timeline for when tasks need to be accomplished. This is particularly true when financial incentives programs are being applied. But never forget, actions need to be based on habitat conditions, which vary. This means you have to go out and look, evaluate, and modify actions as dictated. Be careful to not always follow a cookie-cutter approach. The relationship between a landowner and their biologist should be interactive and as long-term as is necessary. Many landowners do eventually “fledge” and develop their own understanding and ability to a high level. As biologists, our goal should be to “fledge” as many as we can in our careers.

Shell’s Covert: She’s Just an Old Bird Dog

One day I looked at my old bird dog as I left to go on a business trip. She was there at the fence wagging her tail and looking at me to see if she could read what might come next. Her eyes seeking mine, her expression one of anticipation. They decipher our features better than any facial recognition technology available. When I got in my truck to leave her ears dropped, and her tail wagging slowed but she was still looking after me as I drove over the hill and out of sight. This wasn’t too long after 9/11 and I had to fly, making several layovers and connections. It was a tense time as those who lived through it know. As I drove along I had a thought that I’ve had several times over the years. “What will become of my dogs if I don’t come back?” But even deeper than that came the recognition that they’d never know why I did not come back. And for some reason that is the saddest thought I have ever conjured up with regards to my own demise. The older I get the easier it is for me to understand my own “departure.” It will happen…hopefully later than sooner, but as certain as water flows downhill. And though I have a daughter, and a wife and am still lucky enough to have a Mom and Dad, a sister, many friends, and on and on…nothing troubles me more about my own passing than the thought of my dogs at the fence waiting for me to come home and me never making it back.

That sounds stupid I’m sure, but if you think about it, all my human family and friends would know, or be able to have it explained to them, why I never made it home. But you could never explain that to the dogs. One day you were there, another day you were not, but they’d seen this before. You’d been gone before and you eventually came back. Maybe after two days, or two weeks, or in the case of some of our military service members maybe after a year…but you came back. (But, of course, not everyone came back). And it occurred to me, too, every time a vehicle’s tires crunched the gravels on my driveway from then on…they’d always believe it was me coming down the farm road. I will say this thought has helped me make some good decisions over the years, not always, but more often than not. And so it seems to me that is the truest definition of faith and hope that I can imagine. Their belief that we will come home, if not today, then next week, or next year…but we will come home. For those who say dogs don’t feel the things we feel, I disagree. And they’ll be there in my version of Heaven, along with all the faithful.

This happens in reverse sometimes, too. For any of you who have ever had a dog disappear…and after searching every back road, placing lost dog adds in every paper, on every telephone pole and in every country store for miles to no avail, that haunting, heaviness in your stomach of not knowing what happened never fully leaves. It wanes with time, but maybe on the prettiest day of the year, dropping out of the cobalt blue sky from somewhere beyond…a vision of them appears, time stops and for a second there is an understanding. None of us ever know for sure when we leave a friend, a family member or a pet whether it is the last time we’ll see them. Most likely it is not, but sometimes it is. And so the older I get the more I try to follow the best advice I have ever gotten about upland bird dog training in my life, “always end the session on a high note.” That little anecdote can be applied to pets, family members, friends, foes and the land itself. It’s not always an easy thing to do in these polarized times, but it’s worth trying. Life is short, be kind…and have faith…in whatever way that it means something to you.

Shell’s Covert: 20/20 Vision

Our “quail team” has now marked 10 years in service to the Commonwealth’s private landowners, who are the key to achieving long term conservation goals. Our entire team thanks all of Virginia’s wildlife habitat-minded landowners who have assisted in the quest to make Virginia a better place for quail, monarchs, native bees, and songbirds. I’d also like to share my deeply felt thanks and goodwill to all 11 of the private lands wildlife biologists who have given a substantial part of their lives to wildlife conservation in the last decade—most especially Andy Rosenberger, who is our sole remaining original private lands wildlife biologist, and whose mentorship to the entire team over the years has contributed immeasurably to our success. Thanks also to the dozens of agency, NGO, and other partners we have worked with. We joined forces with them to conserve and increase Virginia’s early-successional wildlife. We’ll elaborate a great deal more on this in our 10-Year Milestone Edition of the Bobwhite Bulletin which will be printed and available this spring for all our partners.

Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Summary of Accomplishments (in conjunction with our partners)
Fiscal YearSite VisitsNew
Contacts
Management
Plans
Managed
Habitat
Total Farm
Acres Owned
20102512351041,16821,080
20115404062705.35481,972
20124293972955,14532,955
20134541643005,64941,160
20143751962297,84451,843
20155032833951,75165,650
20164292023086,97965,804
20175682812982,01263,099
20186253102704,34447,700
20195082362142,26839,156
Totals4,6822,7102,68342,514510,419

The numbers above only tell the technical story. Our team, or family as we sometimes feel, has undergone all of the trials of life common to human existence as we labored diligently on the good days and the bad to bring the best habitat technical assistance to Virginia’s landowners as we knew how. The “stats” never tell the whole story. Our team has represented the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech to the very highest level.

I also want to mention that our team has not limited our work to private lands. We have helped DGIF and many partners with public lands habitat management planning, implementation, and education, including assisting on prescribed fire crews whenever we can. I do almost all my hunting and fishing on public lands and have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for those who work on our publically accessible lands. In the case of DGIF, our wildlife area managers continue to do a phenomenal job on our 44 Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) with a relatively small staff.

The synergy between public and private lands conservation is critical to the 21st century’s wildlife.

In the case of our private lands team, our goal was to ensure that we developed a program where our biologists could truly focus on the private landowner. First and foremost, our goal has been to become increasingly adept at providing the best technical assistance and habitat management advice possible. And not just for quail, but for any of the goals a landowner may have in mind for multiple wildlife species.

We have also tried to continue to simplify the financial incentives program sign-up process for them. All this involves continual training and professional development. With over 80% of Virginia in private ownership, this investment just makes sense. And while we were working on our own improvement, the things we learned have also helped our public lands biologists. Cross training is imperative. We all learned, and continue to learn, from each other. New information on how to establish pollinator plantings, how to control non-native invasive plants, how to combine quail management techniques, and how to monitor species through time benefit everyone on all lands regardless of where they were developed. And as always, we keep up with the latest trends in quail management from the entities that are the tip of the spear with regards to quail research.

Private Lands Biologist Andy Rosenberger leading a landowner workshop.

Private Lands Biologist Andy Rosenberger leading a landowner workshop.

Our public lands are also developing. The value of our WMAs as public educational tools is an aspect I think we have yet to fully tap into. Our staff, whether private or public lands oriented, continue to improve and seek professional development. That is the mark of a true professional, the desire to continue to improve and take ownership in making it happen. Our agency’s ability to conduct prescribed fire, and the skill with which we apply it, has improved markedly over the last decade and continues to improve. The technical resources we provide staff and landowners has also improved (witness the latest in “Beyond the Bonfire,” https://www.vafirecouncil.com/).

Our team’s hope is that over the next decade, our public and private lands managers will cross pollinate more and more, and our WMAs will become increasingly utilized for public and partner habitat management education. Our public lands should be flagships for conservation practices, whether they be new practices and management methods, or practical applications of tried techniques used to correct some of our past mistakes, which we have made over the years. Most important in my mind is the fact that the more understanding and acceptance we have among Virginia’s private landowners about the management techniques we use, the more acceptance and understanding we’ll also have from them concerning the management of our agency lands. This will become increasingly important as our agency lands come closer and closer to the suburban/wildland interface.

 

December 2019: Back in the Hunt

Dear Quail Hunters:

It is with great happiness that I write this note to share with you how nice it is for me this year to be “back in the hunt.” My dog, Tilley, is doing well. Just a little over 2 years old, she is smart, happy, biddable, friendly to all (humans, dogs and about everything else), hunts very well, stays in close, listens, has a knack for finding birds that are moving and is just generally a pleasure to hunt with.

Tilley on a woodcock point, crouching like a setter should do. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

Those of you who have gone without a good dog for a few years like I did know what I mean by being “back in the hunt.” Upland bird hunting is not the same when you don’t have a dog in the running. Tilley is still a work in progress. Her backing manners need some work. But I like a dog that adjusts and relocates, as long as they are right and not bumping birds. Of course I don’t take much credit for the way Tilley turned out (other than I spent time with her every single day, rain, cold, heat or snow – every day…the gift of time). Most of it was good lineage, and the rest was due to a patient friend of mine who helped me train. He’s trained enough bird dogs and labs to fill a football stadium over the years. You know who you are. Thanks!

Speaking of hunting, we have been out a number of times this year. We have witnessed some really good dog work. I won’t go into detail here – some of it was worthy of a magazine story, but one I’ll likely never find time to write. The older I get the more I just try to be in the moment. I take fewer photos and feel less and less need to let the world know about anything I experience. Maybe someday when I am too old, or too sick to get out myself, and if my memory still serves me, I’ll write some of these stories for the simple reason they might bring a smile to an old bird hunter’s face, or spark a kid to give bird hunting a try. In the meantime, there’s already a lot more sand in the bottom of my hour glass than in the top and I plan to spend as much of what I have left out doing what I love, not talking about it. I’ll see you out there sometime.

Also – this link will take you to the annual State of the Bobwhite report – many thanks to John Doty and all who made it happen again this year. It is no small feat. The work it describes ongoing on behalf of bobwhites and their habitat cohorts is monumental.

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbcis-bobwhite-almanac-state-of-the-bobwhite-2019/

Lastly, just a few inadequate words to say thanks to three men who spent most of their adult lives working diligently in the world of wildlife conservation. Longtime NBCI Director Don McKenzie stepped down from the position after 15 years at the helm. The list of NBCI accomplishments under his tenure is long and well noted in the State of the Bobwhite Report. For those of us in this business we know the moniker “swimming upstream” is an understatement. Don “fought the good fight” and left “nothing on the field” and speaking as one who knows that feeling, it takes a toll. Thanks to Don for giving it all he had – no regrets my friend.

Lifelong, well known, quail and turkey scientist and Science Coordinator and Assistant Director of NBCI since 2010, Tom Dailey, retired in September. Tom spent a highly productive career working for Missouri DNR for decades, before retiring from there and joining NBCI full time. I don’t know how old Tom is, but I suspect he worked into his 70s with passion right up to the end. His knowledge, integrity, ability and humility were unparalleled. I suspect he is out bird hunting today with one of his grandkids. Thanks, Tom, for all you did for bobwhites!

And long-time wildlife conservationist in Washington DC, Tom Franklin, retired and stepped down from his NBCI position of Agricultural Policy Director also at the end of September. Tom spent several decades working for The Wildlife Society in Washington. He later joined the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership as Washington liaison. Part way into that role, NBCI picked up half of Tom’s salary and time and for nearly a decade he represented the interests of bobwhite enthusiasts in Washington helping see through several key habitat initiatives, including CP-33 Center Pivot Corners being allowed under the Conservation Reserve’s Buffers for Bobwhites program. This inclusion has literally helped establish thousands of acres of early-succession habitat in states with large scale center pivot agriculture. This was but one of the things Tom helped accomplish by knowing how to communicate with politicians in our Nations’ Capitol. Thanks for all you did Tom and happy hunting!

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: Public Lands Paradise

A Happy Dog and Bird Hunter on Public Lands in Virginia

These last few days have put just enough crisp in the air to make me begin to feel the tingle in my stomach when I think about getting my 2-year old Llewellin setter out in the brambles again. The swish of bird pants on briers, the smell of wet leaves and creek bottoms, and the unfettered joy of seeing a young bird dog running free is almost close enough to touch.

“If only I had some place to go,” you say. Huh? In my best Jersey accent, “Yuse Godda be kiddin’ me!”

Chances are there is a good public lands upland bird hunting opportunity within no more than 45 minutes of where you live. That is if you enjoy the scouting and adventure as much as I do. If not, go buy yourself one of these new electronic “wall popper” games, get another bag of chips and some dip, and keep lengthening your belt size on your couch.

I upland bird hunt almost exclusively on public lands. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to go, don’t have to call ahead, and don’t have to worry about owing anyone anything in return for my access. They are our lands, yours and mine. A recent issue of the Quail Forever magazine was dedicated to public lands. “Hunt America: The Public Lands Issue” arrived at my home a few weeks back, not long after the Upland Bird Hunting Super Edition. Both were excellent. Kudos to Quail Forever on their magazine work.

The latest issue gave me the idea for this blog and I’ll try not to plagiarize their content, but I do want to make some of the same points … and maybe a few new ones. The issue focuses on a few germane topics: public lands hunting should matter to all hunters, especially upland bird hunters, we should all advocate for public lands, they should be kept public, and opportunity is ample on public lands across America. Even in the heavily populated East.

Most public hunting lands in Virginia also tend to be large enough that if you show up and someone is in your favorite spot, there is another place just down the road that will be almost as good. There’s room to roam! I hunted the Jefferson National Forest extensively in my youth (the better spent part of it anyway). The sheer joy of having hundreds of thousands of acres at my disposal and the energy to explore it was exhilarating. Find a map, get an old 4-wheel drive vehicle and set out. We’d leave before the sun made any heat and come home well after the moon was making shine, and never leave “the Jeff” all day.

We found a lot of special places along the way – some I still go back to and some I may never see again except in my dreams, but we never ran out of new sections to explore. And all of that without GPS, Google Earth and cell phones…I wonder what we could do now if we were still in our 20s? Maybe you are? What are you waiting for? Check out the USFS Young Forest Finder at this link: https://dgif-virginia.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=189fab6e47cc4de089a6eec6750ea187&utm_source=dgif_hunting_page .

Here in Central Virginia we have multiple DGIF-owned Wildlife Management Areas. Most are in the 2,000 to 4,000-acre range, not so large that they can’t become well known to you in a few seasons. Our agency manages 44 WMAs comprising over 225,000 acres well distributed throughout the state. The area managers work hard for you every day and they want you to use their areas. They take pride in them. Information about them can be found at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wma/ .

In addition to those areas, the Department of Forestry also has some large publicly huntable areas – their State Forests. The Appomattox-Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward-Gallion States forests are about as central in our state as you can get. These three state forests alone represent over 40,000 acres of public lands. More information about all the state forests as well as regulations pertaining to them can be found at: http://www.dof.virginia.gov/stateforest/list/index.htm .

Most of Virginia’s military bases also offer ample public hunting opportunities with certain restrictions. And don’t forget about the over 40,000 acres of hunting lands surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kerr Reservoir (26 wildlife management areas – many offer some form of upland bird hunting). Or all the opportunities on State Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and others. Not all these lands offer upland bird hunting, but many do. Information about all these lands can be found through our agency’s website at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations/publiclands/ .

I had a hunter friend text me last winter. He had spent the day hunting one of our wildlife management areas in Central Virginia. He found six coveys of quail that day, along with some woodcock. Another life-long “old time” bird hunter I know found 56 coveys hunting public lands over the course of the season – in Virginia. These are men I know and trust. These stories are not made up.

The common denominator among the successful bird hunters I know in the modern era is hard work and passion. They wear out their boots before the seats of their pants. I encourage you to make use of all the modern scouting tools at your pleasure, but don’t forget in the end it will take a substantial investment of your boot leather to have success.