From the Farmhouse to the White House: A Tectonic Shift

Major wildlife conservation policy gains come infrequently. Even rarer are victories so profound as to cause tectonic shifts in the conservation arena. The NBCI’s flagship Natives First concept, included for the first time in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report, is a victory that can shift the tectonic plates in favor of grassland birds.

The concept is straightforward: establish a native vegetation preference standard for all USDA agricultural conservation and cost-share programs. That is, reverse the traditional USDA default of relying on aggressive introduced vegetation from other continents by making native vegetation the first choice for publicly funded programs, unless there is a specific compelling reason not to. The USDA agriculture agencies are the only federal conservation agencies lacking a native vegetation preference policy.

Across the bobwhite range, some 90 million acres of “improved” pasture—established to near-monocultures of introduced forages from other continents—have been encouraged and subsidized by USDA. These 90 million acres provide poor habitat for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds, and are lost conservation opportunities for bobwhites, most grassland birds, and pollinators. Likewise, USDA soil and water conservation practices on croplands still rely heavily on aggressive introduced vegetation that minimizes wildlife habitat opportunity, even though native plants provide similar or better soil and water conservation benefits as the exotic plants.

In the 1980s, federally subsidized wetland drainage and conversion was still standard business. Waterfowl conservationists were slowly accelerating the pace of wetland restoration, but couldn’t keep up with the continuing wetland losses. Waterfowl groups engineered a bold effort to shift the playing field in their favor, convincing the George H.W. Bush Administration to institute a “No Net Loss / Net Gain” federal policy for wetlands. This policy succeeded in reducing wetland acreage losses to a point that wetland restoration caught up and began overtaking the losses, reversing longstanding trends. “No Net Loss / Net Gain” was a tectonic shift for wetlands.

Serious bobwhite conservationists understand and are united about native vegetation being as important for bobwhites as wetlands are for ducks. Native vegetation won’t automatically provide good bobwhite habitat, for ongoing active management is necessary to maintain the habitat quality. However, every acre dominated by aggressive introduced grasses such as fescue, bermudagrass, smooth brome, bahiagrass, weeping love grass, and old world bluestems is automatically a poor quality acre for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds.

The old rationales for clinging to aggressive exotic species are obsolete and wearing thin. New localized varieties of natives are continually being developed and produced for more ecoregions. Establishment of new stands of natives now is routine technology. Profitable management practices for native livestock forages are being developed. A dependable, predictable demand (such as would be created by a federal native vegetation preference policy) would enable seed producers to address lingering supply and cost concerns. The increased resource benefits of natives for soil, water, and wildlife would improve benefit/cost ratios for public expenditures. Finally, a new generation of resource conservationists is more aware of the values and willing to use native vegetation.

NBCI conceived and developed Natives First in 2011. National leadership in Washington, DC, by then-NBCI staff Bridget Collins and Kyle Brazil quickly began raising attention to the foundational problem and advancing the native vegetation preference concept among USDA leadership. NBCI and the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) have since been persistently shepherding a slowly growing national native vegetation movement of determined bobwhite and grassland conservationists. The tectonic plates shifted when then-Chair of the House Agriculture Committee Michael Conaway (R-TX) heard NBCI’s case, and he and his congressional colleagues included unprecedented instructions to USDA in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report:

“The Managers recognize the benefits of native vegetation to improve water and air quality and enhance soil health. By encouraging the adoption of native vegetation seed blends, USDA programs are supporting habitat restoration for the northern bobwhite, lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, other upland game birds, songbirds, monarch butterflies, and pollinators. The Managers encourage the use of native vegetation where practicable.”

It took eight years of persistent education and advocacy by NBCI (led in recent years by Jef Hodges and Tom Franklin, with vital support from the Park Cities Quail Coalition) and the undaunted professionals of the NBTC’s Grazing Lands/Grasslands Subcommittee to achieve this milestone victory. This language is a gentle start down an important path, and may need to be reinforced in the next farm bill. However, I contend that no other single federal policy improvement could have as much long-term value for bobwhites and grassland wildlife in agricultural landscapes as this Natives First victory.

We bobwhite folks have earned the right to celebrate and enjoy this hard-earned moment, so I will be sure to toast all my quail colleagues and friends tonight! But only briefly. We have been in this game long enough to know that an improved federal policy is only as good as its effective implementation at the national, state, and local levels… and that effective implementation requires the bobwhite community’s continuing advocacy and vigilance.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: CIP Matters

“There are now 21 states participating in the [CIP] program and the future of bobwhite recovery may rely on how well these efforts document habitat’s effectiveness and how well those positive effects are marketed.” K. Marc Puckett, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Learning from mistakes of the past can improve the future; failing to learn and adapt is simply irresponsible and a guarantee of future failures. The NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) combines lessons from the past with the science of today to create the largest and best network of bobwhite restoration demonstrations in history. The CIP is more than just a focal area program; it may well be the gateway to the future of bobwhite restoration.

Ultimately, the CIP is envisioned as the springboard toward the NBCI vision of widespread huntable wild quail populations that can lure young and old alike outdoors with bird dogs to enjoy time-honored outdoor traditions.

Typical bobwhite management of the past—opportunistically adding undocumented small patches of habitat scattered haphazardly across vast landscapes—may boost bird numbers on a field or site, but the effects were usually unmeasurable at any larger scale, while overall populations continued declining. To improve on that approach, managers began trying to concentrate habitat efforts and improvements into defined focal areas to restore and document a critical mass of habitat at a scale sufficient to produce measurable population-level results.

Yet, without strategic vision and clear guidance in place, many focal area approaches have suffered shortcomings, such as:

  • focal areas too small to affect or sustain a population, or too big to manage in the near term;
  • poor landscape context, with low chance of successful management;
  • inadequate agency leadership, commitment, or concentration of resources;
  • no population goals, habitat objectives, or timelines;
  • no consistent, scientifically valid monitoring;
  • unrealistic expectations for “success;”
  • weak coordination of partner support and landowner participation;
  • lack of patience, perseverance, and follow-through.

The CIP strives to rectify such shortcomings. In simplest terms, the CIP is a habitat-based focal area program designed by quail researchers and managers using the best current science and hard-knocks lessons. In reality, it is much more. The CIP aims to visibly demonstrate one of the most basic concepts of wildlife conservation—that bird populations respond to management of suitable habitat. Here’s why the CIP matters so much:

  • Consensus approach – Dozens of researchers and managers from many states, organizations, and institutions—under auspices of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee—spent two years developing the CIP as the best compromise presently attainable for implementing quail focal areas successfully across the diverse breadth of the bobwhite range. Perfect? No. A milestone advancement? Yes! Adaptive and improvable as we learn more? Absolutely!!
  • Turnkey package – The CIP is designed to provide guidance and support to states and partners from the beginning to the end of designing and implementing a bobwhite focal area, with clearly defined expectations, procedures, and outcomes. It features:
    • minimum acreage and habitat standards for sustaining a viable quail population long term;
    • a scientific experimental design with treatments and reference areas;
    • population goals and habitat objectives, set by the states;
    • required standardized monitoring for quail, songbirds, and habitat suitability;
    • technical assistance, plus database storage, management, and reporting services provided by NBCI;
    • active data analysis that complements an adaptive resource management model.
  • Designed for success in near term – The nation’s bobwhite conservation community is backed against a wall. We need success stories sooner than later, and cannot afford continuing disappointments. The CIP is designed to optimize the chances of documenting and showcasing restoration successes over a defined 5- to 10-year time-frame.
  • Understand shortcomings – Even following the best guidance, some CIP focal areas may not perform as hoped. But, the CIP design standards and required monitoring of bobwhites, songbirds, and habitats on both treatment and reference sites will provide vital data needed to begin understanding varied outcomes and illuminating needed habitat improvements. The bobwhite community will benefit from such experience and knowledge, and thus will be able to raise our game at a faster pace.
  • Tangible “shiny thing” – A CIP focal area is a definitive project that offers numerous practical ways for partners to get involved and feel a valuable part of something bigger. Thus, the CIP has proven to be able to attract, coalesce, and motivate varied partners such as national NGOs, local sportsmen’s clubs, researchers, landowners, federal agencies, local college biology clubs, as well as various state conservation agencies.
  • Bigger than bobwhites – The CIP provides a monitoring protocol as well as firm expectations that several priority grassland birds (as determined by each state) be monitored along with bobwhites, to document songbird responses to focal area habitat restoration and management. Being inclusive means CIP is bigger than just bobwhites, and thus is even more important; it also helps boost and diversify partnerships.
  • Restoration path for extirpated areas – CIP provides the first clear roadmap toward and standards for restoring bobwhites in regions where wild bobwhites are extirpated. That need is increasing in several states.
  • Defining “success” – CIP requires a bobwhite population goal be set as a benchmark, thus forcing biologists to confront the difficult and long-debated question of defining a successful bobwhite restoration. A biological success is presently defined in the bobwhite literature as sustaining a fall population of 800 birds over 99 years, a yardstick also referred to as a viable population. A cultural success may be something more, such as a huntable population, or one capable of serving as a source population for translocations. The specific concept of a huntable population is widely variable, depending on state, region, landownerships, and expectations.
  • Attract new funding – The tangible, turnkey CIP package promises quantifiable metrics, reliable data, and measurable outcomes from defined management prescriptions. This uncommon complete package offers the compelling prospect of return on investment, and is already starting to attract new interest and new funding to bobwhite and grassland conservation.
  • Commitment – The CIP expects a minimum 10-year commitment to its focal areas, which is longer than innumerable failed quail focal areas received in the past. Bobwhite restoration at the scale envisioned by NBCI is a generational endeavor; thus, 10 years still is a relative blip, but a longer, improved blip.
  • Competition – The CIP can introduce a new, constructive element—and maybe even some fun!—to bobwhite restoration: a healthy competitive spirit among states, and among CIP focal areas and their partners.
  • Public interest stories – Each CIP focal area is a story with its own unique combination of landscapes, histories, landowners, partners, personalities, successes, and lessons learned. Each successful CIP story provides another compelling marketing opportunity for native grassland conservation, bobwhite restoration, partnerships and reinvigoration of the treasured bird hunting recreation.
  • Poised to convince – Among the hurdles confronting the NBCI community is winning over a constituency of sportsmen, landowners, agency administrators, commissioners, and politicians who are skeptical of the usual answer that habitat is the solution to the quail problem, while seeing little convincing evidence. The entire CIP is designed as a massive scientific experiment to answer scientific questions, but also to provide convincing contemporary evidence that habitat still produces birds. For various reasons, the list of those who may need convincing is long, including sportsmen, landowners, outdoor communicators, state agency administrators and commissioners, grantors, state legislators, politicians, and federal agency administrators in DC… and even stressed-out, overworked and underappreciated field biologists.
  • Restore hope –The CIP is designed not just to convince skeptics, but also to restore their hope, and thus build stronger foundations of public anticipation, enthusiasm, and support. Without public hope, there is no hope for the NBCI mission.
  • Strong first step – From the beginning, the CIP is envisioned as a jump-start means toward a much bigger and more important end: widespread restoration of sustainable, huntable populations of wild bobwhites and vibrant native grassland ecosystems across at least 25 states. Once the modest-sized CIP focal areas have made their case, the stage is set to magnify the CIP effort to create a larger movement that can replicate such successes on larger focal landscapes and eventually across vast focal regions. One solid step at a time, starting with the CIP focal areas.

The NBCI’s CIP is the best and most comprehensive collective effort ever undertaken by bobwhite managers. To date, about 19 to 21 states (depending on how we count) have embraced and are acting on the CIP concept, establishing 24 projects that include 45 focal and reference areas and more than 1,000 bird/habitat monitoring points. Early returns already indicate an average 80+% increase in coveys on managed focal areas compared with the unmanaged reference areas.

Those individuals and states stepping up with resolve to adopt and implement the CIP are the new generation of leaders across the entire bobwhite and grassland bird movement. They are the innovators, the seekers of truth—using a transparent, accountable, and adaptable system—about the linkages between best management practices and bird populations. These state/federal/NGO/private leaders are playing central, coordinated roles in the long-term future of bobwhite recovery and in the resurrection of a cherished, if faded, hunting tradition.

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.

From the Farmhouse to the Whitehouse: The Christmas Covey Gift

An autumn consumed by personal transition interfered with—well, squashed—any ambitions for bird hunting this season. Thankfully, friends and colleagues have provided tales and pictures of numerous excellent bird hunts for my vicarious fulfillment.

My 2017 ended at Orange Beach, Alabama with parents and siblings, for what is becoming a new family holiday tradition. It’s not Midwestern bird hunting, but it’s still a neat area and a needed change of scenery, with fantastic seafood and no crowds this time of year.

On Christmas Day, I went to Gulf State Park for another long bird walk by myself on the impressive network of trails and boardwalks. The 6,150-acre park protects but provides public access to

Paved trail and boardwalk at Gulf State Park

habitats varying from beach, to inland dunes and swales, to pine forest, as far as 1½ miles inland. The day before, on a different trail, I had seen two medium-sized cottonmouths, and earlier on this walk a fair-size gator greeted walkers and bikers. So when I heard unusual, sustained rustling in the leaves under some brush near a lesser-used trail, I approached cautiously to investigate. Imagine my surprise when a full-size covey of bobwhites exploded from under the brush within 5 feet of me, scattering only a short distance to the ample brushy escape cover!

A network of trails at Gulf State Park provide a view of a variety of habitats.

The covey was only 1 mile by air from the ocean, and the beachfront condominiums were easily visible. I would not have bet a dime on seeing bobwhites in that location. Even though the habitat technically appears suitable, I just assumed the surrounding landscape was too developed and too busy for bobwhites to be able to hang on.

I called the park later and talked with Casey, a staff biologist from Auburn (War Eagle!), who was jazzed to hear my report. She said releases of penned birds are not allowed, and that a persistent population of wild bobwhites can be heard singing all around the park in summer, but that coveys are rarely seen.

When hunting, every single covey of provides a thrilling adrenaline rush; but finding a covey when it is not being sought and is least expected is an extra-special gift. I am banking on my surprise Christmas Covey being an omen for a good 2018!

Conservation Need for Bobwhites

This fall, the US Geological Survey released a summary analysis of the 2015 vs 2005 lists of state “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” (SGCN) as depicted in all the State Wildlife Action Plans

(https://www1.usgs.gov/csas/swap/index.html ). Predictably, I went straight to bobwhites. The first point I noticed from the USGS summary is that bobwhites are the 28th most-frequently-listed SGCN in the nation, out of 657 total SGCNs. Second, bobwhites are the 3rd-most-frequently-listed game species, behind king rail and American woodcock.

This simple spreadsheet shows how states listed bobwhites in 2005 (when the NBCI was still new) compared with 2015. Some of the state-by-state findings are interesting:

Bobwhites as SGCN

1. NBCI states that do not list bobwhites at all:
Alabama, Indiana
2. NBCI states that added bobwhites in 2015:
Missouri, Tennessee
3. NBCI states that dropped bobwhites in 2015:
Nebraska, Pennsylvania
4. Non-NBCI states that listed bobwhites both years:
District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin
5. Non-NBCI states that added bobwhites in 2015:
Colorado
6. Non-NBCI states that dropped bobwhites in 2015:
Connecticut, Michigan, Rhode Island
7. # of States listing bobwhites in 2005: 28
# of States listing bobwhites in 2015: 26

From follow-up conversations and emails, I’ve learned that Indiana subsequently has administratively acted and recently approved adding bobwhites as a SGCN. Alabama considers bobwhites to be of “moderate” conservation concern, thus not in enough trouble to warrant SGCN status. Missouri and Tennessee added bobwhites in their revised 2015 plan after determining it was legitimate for game species to be designated as SGCNs. Pennsylvania dropped bobwhites in 2015 after officially determining the species was already extirpated statewide in the wild. In Nebraska, bobwhites are doing comparatively well statewide.

The attention to bobwhites from eight states that are not participants in the NBCI is interesting and a bit perplexing. NBCI has approached at least four of those states in recent years about joining the Initiative, without success; the five that still list bobwhites as a SGCN seem not to be concerned enough to participate in the NBCI. The obvious question about the three states that removed bobwhites in 2015 is whether the species has been extirpated in those states, too, but no formal declaration has been made.

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.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Remembering Rocky Evans, Co-Founder of Quail Unlimited

Joseph Roswell Evans, co-founder of Quail Unlimited, died December 9, 2016 at 66 years old in Augusta, Georgia.  Much better known as “Rocky,” he and Jerry Allen launched the nation’s first national quail conservation organization in 1981 in Edgefield, South Carolina.  Rocky served as its executive vice president, face and fervent voice for 28 years until his retirement in 2009.

Prior to 1981, Oklahoma State University had convened two periodic quail research symposia to share and publicize scientific findings. But QU was the first national force for quail conservation that brought the plight of declining bobwhites and other quail to the attention of tens of thousands of hunters, biologists and agencies across the country. QU also was the first to undertake the task of trying to do something about quail declines at a large scale by raising sportsmen’s dollars to hire a national network of professional biologists who worked with local chapters, state and federal agencies, and researchers.  Those biologists collectively became one of QU’s most valuable and enduring contributions. The annual QU conventions provided a forum for hundreds of sportsmen and chapter leaders at local and state levels to interact with agency biologists, quail researchers, outdoor writers and others.

The rest of the bobwhite conservation world caught up in 1995 with the formation of the Southeast Quail Study Group and completion of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative in 2002. Those developments added state wildlife agency authority, a stronger technical foundation, long-range bobwhite conservation vision, and large-scale strategy to bolster the grassroots work begun by QU. This strategic organization enabled mutual support and collaboration among QU and its sportsmen, state wildlife agencies, quail researchers, and other conservationists at a national scale. 

That opportunity for mutual support culminated at a pivotal moment in 2006, when Rocky and QU stepped up to pledge critical three-year financial support for the NBCI.  “Quail Unlimited is proud to be a partner … in meeting the financial demands necessary to help ensure the long-term success and viability of the NBCI.  Our whole organization including our staff, chapters and members strongly endorse and support the NBCI goals,” Rocky said at the time. That timely contribution by QU solved a crucial funding problem and enabled the NBCI to blossom, to better serve the nation’s entire bobwhite community in the long run. Unfortunately, the QU national organization did not fare as well, peaking too soon under the weight of a complex web of leadership and management challenges. Three years later, Rocky retired amid controversial circumstances and imminent bankruptcy of the organization. 

Upon reflection benefitting from the passage of time, it becomes clearer that Rocky’s aspiration for a broad, cohesive movement for quail conservation was 20 years ahead of its time. When the states and the rest of the quail conservation world began standing up, QU was already trapped in a declining trajectory, unable to capitalize on the new national attention and synergy. The state of bobwhite conservation might now be brighter if the timing of the two trajectories has been better aligned. But a piece of Rocky Evans’ bobwhite conservation legacy lives on in the NBCI, as the next generation endeavors to build on what he and QU set in motion.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: New PIF Conservation Plan Reinforces Bobwhite Urgency

Partners in Flight (PIF) recently released a comprehensive revision of the network’s landmark 2004 North American Landbird Conservation Plan.  Formed in 1990 with the vision to keep common

Partners in Flight new conservation plan

PIF’s new conservation plan

 

birds common, PIF initially focused on unique and overlooked needs of migratory forest interior songbirds but has gradually broadened to consideration of the full spectrum of North American landbirds.  Bobwhite folks long have actively engage the PIF community, motivated by the power of unity and the reality of shared habitats among numerous priority species.  PIF folks have been receptive, responsive and mutually engaging, resulting in minimizing the old game/non-game attitudes and barriers that once impeded collective action and progress. 

The 2016 PIF Plan (www.partnersinflight.org) provides updated information, a refined assessment of priority species and conservation urgency, regional profiles (by joint ventures) and highlights on interesting species or initiatives.  As it illuminates that many of the steepest recent declines are among grassland birds, the Plan includes a full-page spotlight on the NBCI and bobwhites, and the native grasslands habitat overlap with priority songbirds such as painted bunting, dickcissel, scissor-tailed flycatcher, field sparrow and loggerhead shrike.  Bobwhites are a priority in 11 joint venture features, with pictures and discussion in at least two of those, while the Plan also highlights priority status of other declining resident game birds in numerous places, further erasing old divisions.

More important is the substance of the new Plan’s findings.  Six species of resident game birds “earned” spots on the PIF Watch List of species of continental concern:  Gunnison sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, mountain quail, scaled quail, greater sage-grouse and greater prairie-chicken.  Bobwhites “earned” a spot near the top of the PIF list of Common Birds in Steep Decline, with an 83% population decline since 1970.

The most disconcerting findings arise from PIF’s innovative new “half-life” analysis, predicting the period in years for a species’ current continental population to decline by half.  Of PIF’s 24 Common Birds in Steep Decline, the shortest predicted continental half-life is for bobwhites:  10 years.  Further, of the 86 species on the new PIF Watch List, only one species has a shorter predicted half-life than bobwhites:  scaled quail.  Finally, of all 448 North American landbird species included in the new PIF Plan, none have shorter predicted half-lives than bobwhites and scaled quail.  The Plan also illuminates predicted bobwhite half-lives by joint venture: 

Joint Venture

Predicted Bobwhite Half-Life (years)

Appalachian Mountains

7

Atlantic Coast

13

Central Hardwoods

12

East Gulf Coastal Plain

13

Gulf Coast

21

Lower Mississippi Valley

10

Oaks and Prairies

6

Playa Lakes

9

Rainwater Basin

9

Rio Grande

5

Upper Mississippi River / Great Lakes

9

 

This thought-provoking PIF half-life approach to assessing the conservation urgency of bobwhites and other declining species is simply sobering.  But the new PIF Plan can and should be motivating, for it highlights urgent common interests among diverse, capable bird conservation groups.  PIF, NBCI, joint ventures, federal and state agencies, and non-government organizations have collective capacity to make positive change if we can double down on our collaborations.  Meanwhile, half-lives are ticking away.

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

From the Farmhouse to The White House: Home Run or Fly Out for Bobwhites?

Home runs are uncommon in wildlife conservation policy; but when one happens, it can be a game-changer. Much of the future for large-scale bobwhite restoration depends on improving federal habitat conservation policy. Thus, policy is a high priority for the NBCI, even though demonstrable accomplishments are few and far between and require extensive amounts of time and work to achieve.

The NBCI and its stalwart community of bobwhite conservationists hit one out of the park one year ago this month. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) finally – after 19 years of technical recommendations and urging by the bobwhite conservation community and the NBCI – approved stand-alone eligibility for corners of center pivot-irrigated crop fields into the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). FSA authorized 250,000 acres for immediate enrollment of pivot corners into the CCRP as a variant of the CP33 field border practice. This $250 million wildlife conservation value comes as a federal “free pass” to the state wildlife agencies and their partners, courtesy of FSA, through the persistence, hard work and leadership primarily of the NBCI and the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC).

This premium bobwhite habitat practice has high potential to make something good out of nothing. In pivot-dominated landscapes, the unirrigated, marginal corners can comprise more than 20%of the total landscape acreage. Thus, this new practice can increase suitable habitat from about 0% to 20% of the center pivot landscape for bobwhites, certain grasslanPivot Corner Chartd birds and pollinators. For context, consider that the new NBCI focal area program – the Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) – sets a threshold of 25% of a landscape in suitable habitat as the minimum needed to sustain a wild bobwhite population. This new pivot-corner practice alone has the capability to transform a habitat-devoid landscape to grasslands that can support bobwhites.

But the best opportunity – even when presented on a silver platter – is no better than its implementation. Some 17.5 million acres of pivot-irrigated cropland exists across 24 of the 25 NBCI states (West Virginia is the only NBCI state with no center pivot irrigation). Yet, one year after this long-sought practice was established, only 15,470 acres of corners have been enrolled, total, across the 24 states. Texas admirably leads the nation with 8,240 acres of pivot-corner enrollment, more than all the other states combined.

Undoubtedly, many reasons can and will be pointed out for this paltry level of enrollment and habitat creation. But the bottom line is a prime, hard-earned quail habitat opportunity is being missed. The NBCI and NBTC have done our job, meeting or exceeding expectations. We created a huge new opportunity and secured major federal funding for the states to create bobwhite habitat. To promote the practice, the NBCI created a customizable informative flyer for use by the states and has publicized it in multiple ways.

Now it’s up to the states and our federal and NGO bobwhite conservation partners to hit the ball out of the park. Aggressive collaboration among USDA field offices, landowners and local agricultural and conservation organizations is imperative to realize the benefits of center pivot corners for bobwhites, other grassland birds, pollinators and producers. This is no time for our community to strike out on this long-needed and hard-earned pitch down the middle.

January 25, 2016