‘Net Gain’ is the Holy Grail for Quail

Our quest to restore bobwhites to huntable levels across much of their historic range—by restoring suitable habitats on scores of millions of acres—is such a daunting task it’s hard to know where or how to begin.  It helps me to break such monumental tasks into strategic pieces.

#1 Stop the Bleeding

The duck guys figured it out first. At a landscape scale, their wetland restorations would not make much difference in duck populations if ongoing wetland losses continued to exceed wetland gains. Thus arose the concept of “no net loss/net gain,” providing a framework for strategic thinking and action under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

A net gain of wetland habitat could not be achieved until wetland losses were dramatically reduced. Put another way, stemming wetland losses was just as important to reaching the goals of the Waterfowl Plan as fostering wetland restoration.  Both sides of the equation are vital. In this respect, bobwhites are just like ducks.

Every acre that is planted or re-planted to unsuitable habitat makes our quail restoration job harder.  Consider a popular suite of invasive, exotic, sod-forming forage grasses that render scores of millions of acres unsuitable to bobwhites across most of the species’ range.  Still today, Bermuda grass, tall fescue, old-world bluestems, bahia grass, etc. are being planted on open lands at a rate far exceeding the rate at which quail conservationists can restore native grassland habitats.  Just because quail managers are expert at restoring habitats does not mean we are gaining; bobwhites still are suffering a “net loss.”

An Historical Perspective – Part 2 of 2


Part 2 of 2

A new quail era begins.  Part 1 overviewed the excitement and drama of the early NBCI years.  Part 2 brings us Duckbill Quailbeyond that euphoria, through cold realities and, finally, to a higher plane.

The 2002 NBCI charted daunting challenges for the still-young Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG).  On the upside, it energized the quail folks. The SEQSG annual meeting had long been a perennial downer, as state after state dutifully reported declining populations every year, with little hope for change.  But by 2004 and 2005, the NBCI had helped the SEQSG achieve formerly impossible feats and the tenor changed for the better.

States Embrace New Quail Initiatives

In addition to valuable new habitat programs described in Part 1, the number of state quail initiatives increased from 2 to 18. Several states began creating or strengthening private lands programs, and reallocating money and staff resources to quail.  More quail organizations arose, while others began prioritizing quail for the first time.  Bobwhites became a national issue, especially as the first “NBCI success stories” emerged.  Life for state quail biologists became high profile, fast-paced and demanding.

While observers were impressed at so much progress so quickly, they also wondered how could this momentum be sustained, much less expanded, to “raise our game” to the next level?

‘Duck Guys’ Provide the Model

The duck guys provided the example. The North American waterfowl management community is better organized than any wildlife conservation niche in the world—an international treaty; organization by flyways and joint ventures; long track records of interstate, regional, national and international collaboration; multiple federal agencies to provide umbrella oversight, coordination, funding, research and expertise; a powerhouse NGO capability; multiple federal programs providing crucial funding for habitat restoration; and success that proved the formula.  If only the quail guys could get as well organized, we could muster the power to solve bigger, tougher problems.

The bobwhite world always lacked that kind of organized muscle, but it was time to start developing it. We invested the period 2006-2010 in growing and grounding the national bobwhite conservation infrastructure.

  • The SEQSG grew and matured from a southeastern regional group into the one national technical group, the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, representing all states in bobwhite range.
  • The small southeastern committee of state wildlife agency directors overseeing the NBCI grew into the national NBCI Management Board, composed of some four dozen conservation leaders across the country.
  • State wildlife agencies selected the University of Tennessee as the permanent “home” of the NBCI, to secure enduring logistical support and capacity for growth.
  • The NBCI strategic plan, itself, grew from 22 to 25 states, changing from the “Northern” to the “National” Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.
  • Finally, the original plan was revised by more than 600 biologists from those 25 states, and was converted from a paper to a digital GIS-based plan on the cutting edge of conservation planning technology.  (This new NBCI 2.0 strategic plan was unveiled last month in Kansas City, to rave reviews.)

At first, this organizational progress may sound like bureaucracy.  To the contrary, it means capability.  These steps to unify, organize and elevate the national bobwhite community already have caught the attention of those with money to contribute, allowing the NBCI to hire its first four highly qualified experts in critical disciplines to help the states and partners to advance and accelerate the Initiative. 

The bobwhite conservation world is developing muscle.


Don’t Confuse ‘Inputs’ With Success

We are well into our second year of implementing the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative and we’ve had some success, especially in terms of measuring “inputs.” We can say our biologists and partners have made close to 600 site visits and placed several thousand acres of new habitat on the ground. They have visited with landowners who control over 75,000 acres of land. But you have to be careful measuring — and touting — “inputs.” It’s much harder to measure “outputs,” otherwise known as “results.” Claiming success based on measuring inputs is akin to a bird dog trainer measuring their success based on numbers of dogs “trained.” “Hey Mr. Smith, I heard you’ve trained 376 bird dogs … is that true?” “Well, yes, it is young man, now mind ya, none of them will hold a point, retrieve, or ‘whoa’ very well, but I’ve run that many through here.” Our ultimate goal, of course, is to measure an increase in quail populations in an area as large as a county, or perhaps a region, of our state. Along with that, we’d love to see more folks out in the field chasing a bird dog and finding more quail. Ultimately, we would like to reverse the downward spiral in the number of bird hunters. This summer and fall will be our first opportunity to start measuring “outputs,” and we are optimistic, so stay tuned.

Welcome to Shell’s Covert

Welcome to the recently-created website of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. What you see here is the result of NBCI’s creation of a blogging platform to give a voice to state quail/small game coordinators’ efforts with quail management in their respective states. And I’m proud to be a part of the NBCI efforts.

Marc and ShellThis is my first “blog,” so bear with me. It is named after my first bird dog, Shell, who will be 17 on May 30th – Lord willing. For more about us, click HERE to read my article “Listening Closely to an Old Bird Dog,” printed with permission of Virginia Wildlife Magazine.

I am 48 years old and my first bird dog is almost 17…wait a minute…that means I started bird hunting in 1993. That was the year before I bought Shell as a penniless grad student. Seriously, we shared food from time to time…LOL.

An Historical Perspective of Bobwhite Conservation


Part 1 of 2

President George W. Bush stood on a farm in southern Minnesota in August 2004 to announce a new agriculture conservation practice specifically designed for bobwhites and grassland birds.  This unprecedented presidential attention to bobwhite conservation culminated a years-long effort to raise the game for restoring a treasured species in long-term decline.

For decades, bobwhite conservation agencies, institutions and organizations conducted research and small-scale quail projects independently and in relative isolation.  The result was a vast body of scientific knowledge and management experience virtually unmatched in the history of wildlife conservation.  Over those same decades, range-wide bobwhite populations declined continuously.

Biological and management expertise are essential requisites to wildlife conservation.  Clearly, however, such expertise is not enough, by itself, to restore quail.  Not until the community of bobwhite experts gathered from their separated positions across the Southeast to organize, collaborate and strategize did their wealth of knowledge and expertise begin to gain conservation traction.

Quail managers have demonstrated repeatedly that we know how to restore and manage quality habitat to produce more birds on just about any specific piece of land.  Meanwhile, millions of acres of habitat have slowly, subtly been degraded by changing human uses of land in dozens of states.  The resulting landscape now is largely unfriendly for bobwhites and a multitude of other grassland birds.