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Shell’s Covert: Paw Paw Crosses the River

My father-in-law, Harry Byrd Elam, Sr., passed away last Thursday night, March 31, 2016. He died in the house he was born in back in 1932. From that you might guess he lived an uneventful life, but a lot happened during those 83-plus years between then and now.

Though Mr. Elam was known by his middle name to most who knew him, he was known as “Paw Paw” to his 10 grandkids (one of which belongs to my wife and me). Few people can claim to live in the small community named for their ancestors, but the Elams are from Elam, Virginia, and still own most of what came to them by a 400-acre land grant from King George II in 1745. (We liked to call Paw Paw the “Mayor of Elam” – population about 11).

That too is one line that does not tell much of the story. As with many families, time takes a toll, and land gets divided among siblings. If close watch is not kept, acres soon dissolve and wash away like dirt in a heavy rain. Paw Paw moved back to his childhood home to raise his family back in 1970 and set about rebuilding the land base. By the time he died all the original land, and some more, had been secured.

Paw Paw's Fescue Field_RESIZED

Paw Paw’s Fescue Field

Mr. Elam’s father died when he was a teenager, and one might think options for a young man were limited under such circumstances, but Mr. Elam joined the Army, obtained money for school, and came home to attend Hampden-Sydney College. Though a farmer at heart, he loved math and physics. He graduated with a degree from Hampden-Sydney in physics in 1960.

Though a man of few words, sometimes he would tell us a story or two. He once described to me working towards his degree in physics. By the time he graduated only two remained in the major – him and one other fellow. He told me “the other guy was a lot smarter than me, I got lost in quantum mechanics.” And, this quiet and unassuming farm boy went on to work toward a Master’s degree in engineering studies from the University of Virginia.

Before moving back to his childhood farm, he moved away and began life as an optical engineer. He designed optical systems for periscopes in U.S. Navy submarines and traveled the world over working on them. He also worked for Sperry Rand Space Division at NASA’s Goddard Space station leading design work on orbiting telescopes. But his heart was always back home, and after moving back in 1970 he never left again. He drove an hour and a half each way to Charlottesville every Monday through Friday for over 20 years to continue his career as an engineer. During that time his kids tell me he never missed a ballgame any of the four of them were involved in, always finding time to coach their teams and support his community.

As for me, I knew Paw Paw as a gardener, and most of what I came to know about him was shared in the occasional story he told me while I helped the little bit I could around his garden. He planted what I like to refer to as a “depression era, feed-a-family garden.” In short, it tended to be big. Once he told me, “Come by this evening if you have time and help me set out a few tomato plants” – which to him meant 50 or more. Have you ever seen how many tomatoes one plant can produce? Imagine 50 plus.

When I first visited my future wife’s family farm, all I saw was fescue, as green and pure a stand as ever grew covered the 100 acres of fields – which was hard to take as a quail biologist. But though I have never been known as the sharpest fillet knife in the drawer, I was at least smart enough to know that in the beginning of a new relationship it was probably not the brightest of ideas to start off criticizing Paw Paw’s fescue fields.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about the farm. When Mr. Elam moved back with his wife Joanne (a force in her own right), the farm was in a state of disrepair. The fields where his Dad, a full time farmer, had once grown corn, wheat and tobacco, had grown up into thickets of sumac, sweetgum and blackberry brambles. In his eyes the farm he had always taken great pride in had become unsightly.  So he singlehandedly undertook the transformation of those fields back into productive farmland. With nothing more than a chainsaw, tractor and fire he cleaned up those fields and planted them to fescue. But as with much of Paw Paw’s life, there was still more to the story.

This is what he told me once as we sat by his garden. “When we moved back here, these fields were a mess, Buddy. But I got them cleaned up. It took a while. Sawing, chopping, pushing with the tractor and burning, it was some real work. Once I got them cleaned up, I restored an old wooden-paddled combine of my Dad’s and I combined the last good patches of fescue we had to get seed. Then I bought two electric seed cleaners and between the two of them I got one running good and I cleaned the seed myself. And I planted these fields back with seed from the fescue my Dad sowed here years ago.”

After he told me that story, I had to stop and think about it for a long while. I still think about it often. It told me a lot about Paw Paw and his love of self –sufficiency. He could have run down to Southern States and bought seed like everyone else. It also taught me a lot about how much pride people take in their land. And it made me rethink my approach to landowners.

Yesterday afternoon after Paw Paw was laid to rest, as we gathered with family and friends at my brother-in-law Harry Junior’s home, I found myself sitting on the front porch. As Uncle Emery Wilkerson was leaving he stopped to talk to me. Uncle Emery is 95 now, but he still stands straight as an arrow and looks like he could go bird hunting tomorrow if he wanted to. He is an “old time bird hunter” and every time he sees me, he likes to talk quail. “Marc, I remember hunting up here at Byrd’s back when the farm was grown up. There were quail and woodcock everywhere. We’d park the sedan by the first tobacco barn and hunt all day, maybe cross over onto Buck Phillips’ place, too. We had some shooting in those days.” I just grin knowingly.

By-the-way,  I never had the heart to try to talk Paw Paw into letting any of the fields grow back up. My wife and I were lucky enough to buy land that borders their family farm and to have shared together the last 13 years living on a farm where three generations still thrive. We are thinning our pines and allowing our own place to produce quail cover. As for Paw Paw’s fields, maybe someday we’ll plant some pollinator cover around the edges. While Paw Paw hated a weed, he would have understood the value of wildflowers to pollinators.

Anderson Creek Wildfire: Devastating loss, ecological challenge, societal challenge, glimpse of history, revitalization

I have been captivated by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Partly because I was in that region of Kansas this last summer and met several ranchers from the area. My thoughts and prayers go out to those ranchers, though I barely know them, I am concerned about their safety and livelihood. The other part of my captivation is, well, it’s fire and fire captivates me.

Many you may not even be aware of the Anderson Creek Wildfire, but it is getting plenty of news coverage in my part of the country. The wildfire is now being reported as the largest in Kansas history (at least recorded) and among the largest in the U.S. The fire began last Tuesday (3/22) in Wood County in northwest Oklahoma and quickly spread north into central, southern Kansas into Comanche County pushed by 30 mph winds with gusts to 60 mph, then with a westerly wind shift into Barber County. It continued to burn through Saturday (3/26) until mostly extinguished by a blanket of snow on Sunday (3/27). Cities as far away as Memphis and St. Louis reported smelling smoke from the fire. Estimates have the size of the fire at roughly 620 square miles or about 400,000 acres.

Figure 1 Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Figure 1: Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, 3/24/16, 11:42 AM. Oklahoma Forestry Services.

 

This area of Kansas is known as the Red Hills or Gypsum Hills. The terrain is characterized by gently rolling plains to rolling hills and mesas heavily dissected by rugged canyons. The flatter more level ground, where enough soil exists, is mostly dryland wheat with some irrigated crops and the rest is mixed grass prairie rangeland. Much of it heavily infested with red cedar. Based on this description you can imagine how difficult it would be to fight wildfire in this type of terrain with a heavy fuel load. Firefighter reports were of an active fire line 30 to 40 miles long.

Figure 2 Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas

Figure 2: Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas.

 

Devastating Loss

At this time there haven’t been any estimates of livestock loss. It is known some livestock has been lost, but how many? Ranchers have been too busy trying to save their structures and fences, and really haven’t had a chance to examine the damage to their herds. In other cases, they are still trying to roundup their cattle. Amazingly though, there have been numerous accounts of livestock surviving the fire, with reports of cattle or bison standing in scorched pastures in the aftermath, apparently no worse for the wear. Some are speculating that the new calf crop hasn’t fared so well, choosing to hunker down rather than escape the fire. Critical infrastructure, primarily fence, has been one of the biggest casualties. One rancher ventured to guess thousands of miles of fence have been destroyed; if fence posts were wood, and in the fire’s path, they’re gone.

Ecological Challenge

Almost immediately the Kansas Livestock Association sent out a call for hay donations to help support ranchers who lost all their hay or forage to the wildfire. Ranchers and farmers, being who they are, responded in a big way; by Saturday KLA called off the request stating they had enough hay and were running out of storage.

As notable and generous as donated hay is, and I’m sure the ranchers who need it are grateful, there is an underlying concern. Throughout the majority of the burned area is native rangeland, what if donated hay is from Caucasian or old world bluestem pastures, or fescue pastures or contaminated with sericea lespedeza? Where that hay is fed those sites will be contaminated by the introduced species and range quality will be diminished. A short-term solution will lead to a long-term problem.

Perhaps ranchers can consider using source identified hay, where they know they won’t be contaminating their rangeland. Another alternative would be to utilize fields of wheat in the area until the range grows enough to put cattle back. Sure, it is likely the wheat crop will be lost but the value of keeping rangeland quality should be worth that consideration. It is also important to remember that this time of year the rangeland will be greening up within days following this wildfire and that grazing could be possible within just a few weeks. Admittedly it’s not the best scenario for grass health, but one that with proper management (long-term rest) following defoliation will provide sustainable forage.

Societal Challenge

Drive through the Gyp Hills and it is obvious fire has been excluded from much of this landscape for years from the scattered red cedars to outright cedar forests covering the landscape. Prescribed fire is just beginning to gain acceptance in the Gyp Hills of Kansas. In the last few years the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association has formed and has been slowly converting prescribed fire disciples. And though they are believers, the Gyp Hills PBA is still only burning 10,000 to 15,000 acres annually. One of their largest hurdles has been the local fire departments. I am fearful this wildfire will set back the recent advances in gaining acceptance for prescribed fire. In addition to inappropriately reinforcing difficult attitudes with fire departments, a wildfire of this magnitude is likely to cause those fearful or uninformed to dig in their heels. Hopefully that isn’t the situation and a case can be made for prescribed fire being beneficial and one way to help minimize these types of catastrophic events.

Glimpse of History

As I monitored the daily progression of this wildfire I couldn’t help but think of how landscape scale burns like this happened regularly before man tried to suppress fire. And it was these exact conditions, low humidity – high winds, that propelled and accelerated fire across the landscape. These historic fires would burn for days and consume hundreds of thousands of acres before being naturally extinguished by precipitation or loss of fuel.

Revitalization

If I could offer anything to the ranchers affected by the wildfire, I offer the assurance that their range will be better. They will see greater forage growth this summer, better animal performance and better range health. It may not seem too positive right now, but give it a few weeks and, aside from the resources needed to repair fences, things will be better than they have seen in years. Killing the cedars alone will result in millions of gallons of available water for forage growth and range recovery. Studies have shown a single cedar tree consumes 33 gallons of water a day. To make math simple, over a 100-day growing season that is 330 gallons. It only takes killing 3,030 cedar trees to save a million gallons of water. I can guarantee you multiples of 3,030 cedar trees were killed by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Springs that haven’t run in years will once again. Ponds will fill up and creeks will flow. Grasses will grow and animals will flourish.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

P.S. Anderson Creek Wildfire, thank you for the great sunsets.

Bird's eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

Bird’s eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

 

 

Introduction to the Native Grass Gazette

My first post is to introduce myself to you with a little bit about my background.

I don’t know for sure where my appreciation for prairie/grasslands came from, but I suspect it has always been a

part of me. I grew up, and still live in, the pre-settlement prairie region of west central Missouri known as the Cherokee Plains. All my formative outdoor experiences came from the rivers, streams and prairies (and yes, some woodlands too) of the region.

My earliest recollections of prairies, as a kid, come from Memorial Day weekends on my grandparents’ farm in St. Clair County, Missouri, where my cousins and I would frolic through the pastures and pick wild strawberries. I remember too, summer prairie hay harvest; an annual ritual during which my grandfather and all the neighbor men gathered to assist, my grandmother bringing mason jars of iced tea to the field for refreshment and a “harvest hands” lunch, big as any holiday meal. A few years later, highway construction en route to my grandparents’ farm detoured us through prairies where I remember seeing and marveling at prairie chickens in flight.

After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, my first introduction to prescribed fire was in 1980 when I helped an employer burn off some switchgrass he had planted. My father tells me differently, that the burns on our farm in the early 70’s were “prescribed” but somehow that’s not the way I remember it. Swinging a wet gunny sack as fast as you can to swat out fire, running to the well pumping another bucket full of water, then returning to the fire line didn’t seem “prescribed” to me. On second thought, it probably was prescribed … just not “controlled.” Regardless, the fire bug bit and I am an admitted pyromaniac; not recovering, mind you, practicing.

In the mid-80’s my work with the Missouri Department of Conservation had me planting native grasses. This was during the first two years of CRP and the department had a program that provided a native grass drill and operator (me) to encourage landowners to plant native grasses instead of tall fescue. During two years working that program I planted about 2,500 acres. I’ve been planting native grasses ever since. I’ve lost track but it is now somewhere around 30,000 acres or more.

In the late 80’s into the early 90’s I gained 10 years experience planting, managing, harvesting, buying, storing, cleaning, packaging, warehousing and marketing native grasses and wildflowers for a native grass seed production business during the 5 years I was employed by them. I then went to work as the Great Plains Regional Director and Biologist for Quail Unlimited where I stayed for 15 years. Most recently I owned and operated my own natural resource consulting and contracting company. Since taking this job I have turned that business over to a manager and my son.

I am honored to have the position of NBCI’s Grasslands Coordinator and am excited about the possibilities. There is a long list of things to do that has been developed by the Grassland and Grazing Lands sub-committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, all focused around advocating for native grasses, grasslands and prescribed fire. My task is challenging indeed, but I embrace that challenge and look forward to the opportunities ahead.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

JH

February 15, 2016

Shell’s Covert: The ‘Best Use of the Land’

I won’t mention any company names or exact locations, but this is a true story, and one that I hope illustrates some of the dilemmas faced by agencies and those of us trying to recover habitats and species. I surely do not have every fact, but here is the gist of it.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s a large corporate outfit purchased about 150,000 acres of coastal plain wetlands in the east. This was back before “swamp buster” and provisions of law that prevent the ditching and draining of wetlands today. The company set about clearing, ditching and draining their holdings, which for centuries before their acquisition had been hardwood and pine swampland. It may have been one of the last great areas of such land in the Southeast.

The company’s goal was to make this land into productive farm land. I have been told that at one point they had over 100 bulldozers and various large pieces of equipment working full time on the project. But once they got about 5,000 acres into it they realized that such a proposition was a money pit. They subsequently sold the land and, long story short, it eventually came under ownership of the Nature Conservancy and ultimately the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a National Wildlife Refuge.

During this process of ditching, draining and filling wetlands, the company managed to create some of the best quail habitat the East has ever seen. You can imagine with thousands of acres of freshly disturbed soil, and long windrows grown up in pokeweed, blackberry and various other quail friendly cover, that this 5,000 acres produced quail hunting rarely seen on such a scale off of certified quail plantations.

Of course, this was at the cost of some of the best wood duck, cane brake rattlesnake, and marsh rabbit habitat the world has ever seen. I was fortunate to have done my graduate work on this refuge back in the mid-90s. I talked to some of the old quail hunters who remembered hunting the lands back when the company owned it. They pined for those days and part of my heart went out to them.

But I also enjoyed immensely all the varied wildlife I was blessed to encounter in the surrounding swamps and pocosins. As much as I loved quail, I was glad that the entire 150,000 acres had not been converted. It was one of the few places in my life that I felt remained wild, where the sky was still darkened by migrating waterfowl at dusk, where bobcats bawled in the distance and black bears were almost as common as opossums.

As managers of public lands, we have to decide how a piece of land is managed. And we have to do this knowing that there are multiple user groups that expect us to manage for their needs. Thus it is an impossible task at times to try to keep everyone happy. Something we try to do is to manage the land for its best wildlife uses. Not every tract of land is amenable to quail management. And in truth, single species management is rarely the best goal. What we try to do is manage for the ecosystems that are most aligned with the ecosystem that should be present on that land. If we purchase a tract of upland that has a long history of farming and openness, it makes sense to continue early-succession habitat management on it. Likewise, uplands purchased with large stands of loblolly, or other pine types, are readily amenable to thinning, and prescribed burning that is so beneficial to quail and a multitude of other species. But when we purchase lands that historically were highly valuable swamps or wetlands, even if they have had a history of being ditched, drained and farmed, the highest use for that land is to try to convert it back to what it was meant to be.

We had a recent case where we bought a tract of land, and just prior to our acquiring it, it had been clear-cut (which in and of itself is not bad) by the owner to glean their income from it before sale. The first few years we owned it, it had a good quail population, but as time passed, we began reclaiming it to wetlands and converting it back to Atlantic White Cedar which is a rare and declining ecosystem. We also managed it for the endangered canebrake rattle snake, and other species needing similar habitats. Those who had hunted quail on it during those first years we owned it were upset by the loss of quail cover.

I bring this case up to illustrate that there are many species in decline just like our beloved bobwhite quail. Quite a few of them have populations in far worse shape than quail. Even though we have a quail recovery initiative, that does not imply or justify managing every acre we own for quail. I know our agency and our partners are intensively managing lands for a variety of species. We are often caught in the lag time between acquiring land and getting enough staff to manage those lands. Over time we continue to work to improve our ability to manage lands to their highest uses. I only ask that our constituents know our intent is good, if not always immediately evident, and over time our goal is to do what is best for the land and species meant to inhabit it.

March 16, 2016

From the Farmhouse to the Whitehouse: A Bobwhite Convergence

An uncommon bobwhite convergence occurred in mid-February in Kansas City, MO, demonstrating a high level of hope that continues to burn among passionate quail hunters and conservationists. The occasion was the 2016 National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, February 19-21, at the Kansas City Convention Center, hosted by Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever (PF/QF). Following establishment of its affiliated Quail Forever organization in

NBTC Steering Committee meeting in Kansas City

NBTC Steering Committee meeting in Kansas City

2005, Pheasants Forever has expanded their pre-existing annual convention to place increasing emphasis on quail. Upon QF’s 10th anniversary in 2015, the organization made a marked commitment to raise its game by more overtly and strategically engaging the states and the broader bobwhite conservation community. PF/QF’s enhanced focus on bobwhites began with an expanded quail emphasis at this 2016 convention, including a high-profile “Quail Summit” focused on bobwhite conservation. QF made a next key step by inviting the Steering Committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) to hold its annual winter meeting at the Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, instead of the normal meeting location on the University of Tennessee campus. QF offered numerous accommodations to reinforce its overture. Following acceptance of the QF offer by the NBTC Steering Committee, QF then worked with the NBCI to accommodate a full NBCI staff meeting at the Kansas City event, complete with a complimentary NBCI booth on the convention floor. Thus for a week, Kansas City hosted a rare convergence of the nation’s leaders in bobwhite conservation. The national staff of the NBCI met in private for a two-day organizational strategy session. Then the NBTC Steering Committee convened for two days of reports, reviews, guidance and decisions on behalf of the 25 bobwhite states and non-state conservation partners. These two internal bobwhite conservation business meetings were followed by 2½ days of Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic events, in which myriad conservation agencies and organizations, as well as sporting businesses, participated. The combined effect was energizing. NBCI staff was able to have conversations with many QF members, chapter presidents, etc. Across the board, our conversations were substantively about habitat rather than “silver bullet” shortcuts to the bobwhite problem, a testament to QF’s conservation messaging to its members. A National Park Service official also sought us out for an extended conversation about continuing to move nationally down the cooperative path we blazed with the NBCI focal area project at Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas, the first on NPS property. NBCI also met with a biologist involved in the upcoming establishment of two bobwhite focal areas in Illinois. One of the most difficult challenges confronting bobwhite conservationists is the pervasive erosion of hope for successful restoration. Yet the enthusiastic convergence of so many dedicated, determined bobwhite aficionados – professional wildlife managers, hunters and other conservationists – was a welcome and needed shot of adrenaline. The occasion also was a key reminder that where so many hopeful people remain, hope remains as well. March 2, 2016