Are We Ready for Success?

You can’t handle the truth! … Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise, in the movie, “A Few Good Men.”


Every person taking the time to read this blog wants earnestly to do their part to help restore abundant bobwhites and grassland birds, and their habitats.  That dedication to the resource is not in question.  What I do wonder lately is whether bobwhite conservationists are really ready for success.

I get asked weekly if the NBCI is “successful,” if there is real hope for quail.  The Initiative is, after all, almost 10 years old.  I can credibly cite a long and profound list of improvements in the energy levels, activities, organization, infrastructure, policy improvements, vision, strategy, capacity and profile of bobwhite conservation (e.g., see the “NBCI Accomplishments and Milestones” fact sheet at ).  These are important and necessary steps that add real value to, and enable, full-speed implementation of the NBCI.

But what people really want to know is “has the NBCI succeeded anywhere in restoring sustainable, huntable populations of wild quail?”  That question is harder to answer – not because there isn’t lots more quail habitat restoration happening now than before.  Not because quail habitat restoration isn’t working.  But because we are afraid of ourselves.

Success breeds success.  An initial trickle of successes will stimulate more successes.  Eventually a growing stream of quail restoration success stories across the country can fuel a burgeoning movement.  People want to be part of and to invest in winning propositions.  Building this positive feedback loop is vital for the long-term viability, sustainability and growth of the NBCI; indeed, for simply keeping hope alive.


Bobwhite Synergy at the NBTC Annual Meeting

Quail coordinators workshop

The annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) feels like slugging an energy drink … or two.  Even for the most determined optimists who are dedicated to restoring bobwhites and grassland birds against long odds, the daily uphill conservation slog can feel lonely at times.  A high-energy gathering of more than 100 hardcore, professional bobwhite conservationists is a sure-fire energizer.

The NBTC meeting in Tallahassee, Florida last week – graciously and efficiently hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Tall Timbers Research Station – attracted some 120 of the nation’s bobwhite leaders for four days of intense strategy deliberations, technical training and camaraderie.   In an era of the most restrictive agency travel budgets in memory, some 23 state wildlife agencies, five non-government organizations, and three federal conservation  agencies participated.

Make no mistake, this is no ordinary technical gathering that batters attendees with endless Powerpoint presentations.  Because the NBTC is the creator and the keeper of, as well as the brains and the fire behind, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), no other body is so invested in its ultimate success.  Thus, the NBTC meeting is built for the purpose of advancing implementation the NBCI.  This conference combined the biannual meeting of the NBTC Steering Committee, a half-day training workshop for state quail coordinators, two half days of key presentations, two half days of technical subcommittee breakout sessions, and a daylong field trip to examine prime quail habitats and management in the nearby Red Hills region.

A wide diversity of bobwhite professionals comprise the NBTC, including state quail program coordinators and district biologists; private, state and university quail researchers; non-government and state private lands biologists; state and non-government organization administrators; private, state and federal agriculture policy specialists; grazing management specialists; foresters; songbird experts; and joint venture coordinators.  The NBTC collates this rich array of expertise into a multi-tasking national team with a shared vision for restoring widespread huntable populations of this popular but severely declining game bird.

The NBTC always has prided itself on being a hard-charging group, with a hard-working annual meeting.  Its subcommittees are structured to address priority bobwhite challenges – agriculture policy, forestry, grazing lands, prescribed fire, public outreach and research.  The membership divides itself among the subcommittees based on expertise and interest, to develop priorities, tactics and an agenda of action items for the coming year.  The NBCI’s professional staff round out the NBTC machine by providing full-time capacity to facilitate implementation of those agendas.  The horsepower of the NBTC continues, year-by-year, to grow and pervade on behalf of the NBCI, even after the individual members return to the daily slog … but with a recharged determination.

Raising Our Game in Tallahassee

Building a bobwhite conservation movement is foremost about working with people. The nation’s premier forum for working with people to promote quail restoration occurs next week (August 9-12) in Tallahassee, Florida.  The 17th annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) is hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) and Tall Timbers Research Station (TTRS), organized by Chuck McKelvy, FWCC Small Game Program Coordinator.

The NBTC (formerly the Southeast Quail Study Group) originated as a technical committee of the southeastern state wildlife agencies; it now has grown to be the unified range-wide bobwhite technical group.  The NBTC is the creator and the keeper of, as well as the brains and the fire behind, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).  The NBTC benefits from the participation of myriad conservation partners, including more than two dozen states and numerous organizations, agencies, universities and institutes.

A theme arising from the NBCI was “Raising our Game.”  The NBCI created high expectations and an immense new workload for quail managers accustomed to low expectations and profile.  To their credit, bobwhite managers across the country stood up to raise our game many notches in those next several years, getting organized nationally, becoming a recognized force, and racking up previously untouchable achievements.

The 2011 NBTC meeting is poised to set new standards.

First, the NBCI 2.0, the complete overhaul of the original NBCI, was unveiled this spring at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Kansas City, MO.  The NBCI 2.0 provides a springboard for the NBTC, building on the progress and lessons learned from the original, taking the vision and strategic planning for effective bobwhite conservation to a much higher level.

Second – although the professionals behind the NBTC always have prided themselves on conducting a working meeting with extensive subcommittee deliberations on heavy issues – this meeting has something new:  horsepower.

One year ago, at the 16th meeting in Wichita, KS, the first-ever fulltime NBCI staff (Science Coordinator, Forestry Coordinator, FSA Liaison, and Communications Director) were introduced as new hires.  Their roles, as experts in their respective disciplines, were to provide implementation capacity to the NBTC subcommittees, to forge real progress throughout the year on the subcommittees’ priorities and action items.  Last year, the NBCI staff was green; this year, they already are heavy lifting.

Third, an extra half day has been added for a first-ever NBTC technical workshop to provide specialized training for state quail coordinators.  Led by Tom Dailey (NBCI Science Coordinator) and Theron Terhune (TTRS Research Ecologist, and Project Coordinator for developing the NBCI 2.0), the workshop will improve the fledgling national inventory of quail conservation projects, and train state quail coordinators to use the NBCI 2.0’s Conservation Planning Tool.

Finally, this meeting features an opening presentation by Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and co-chair of the NBCI Management Board.  Wiley may be the first state quail coordinator in the country to rise to the level of director of a state wildlife agency.  I consider his rise to the top a good omen for quail.

There remains a long way to go for bobwhites and the NBCI, but with every step we raise our game, and we are one step further from where we started and another step closer to where we are going.

Stay tuned for reports and updates from Tallahassee by monitoring NBCI’s Facebook page at, and NBCI’s website at !











Comic Perversions & Reality Checks

My Quail’s Backyard Dust Bath


Sheryl and I bought our piece of heaven in central Arkansas in 1998.  The upland 20 acres were “improved” pasture and hayland – sterile, sodbound fields of Bermuda, fescue and bahia.  But I focused—Sheryl says obsessed—on the positives, the potential to restore that land into diverse, native grassland habitat, maybe even to attract and support a covey of wild quail.

My job as NBCI Director is more about people than critters.  Exaggeration?  This job is so socialized (in the societal, not the governmental, sense) that when my computer died this week, my ability to work temporarily died with it.  Contacts, email inbox, Word documents, ongoing projects, archives, references and most of my communications capability were out of commission.  Not only a helpless feeling, but a comically perverse situation, that wildlife conservation could become so dependent on modern technologies.

Restoring habitat on my land not only provides a handhold on sanity during such comic perversions, but also helps me maintain connection and personal experience with field work.  As a bonus, I learn truths about quail management.  Thus, managing my land is my reality check.

On the plus side, quail management demands lots of “stuff.”  I had a good excuse to buy a backpack herbicide sprayer to begin laying waste to acres of introduced forage grasses; then a good chainsaw to thin trees; then burning gear – drip torch, flappers, rakes, and a backpack water sprayer – to feed a fledgling pyromania.  The inevitable big cahuna, of course, was the tractor, a two-cylinder John Deere “Johnny Popper” (wide front end) that’s older than I am but runs better.  We even acquired a herd of goats, ostensibly for brush control.  Between you and me, though, the goats were more for “horse control” … to distract my young daughter’s budding equine fantasies!

On the cold side of the reality check are some of the most valuable life lessons.  Tractors require expensive implements; and endless maintenance.  Chainsaws create heatstroke, lacerations and firewood.  The latter needs a trailer for hauling, a shed for storing, and a woodstove for burning.  Goats must be fenced, but don’t respect fences.  Herbicide sprayers require herbicides; jugs and jugs of it.  Neighbors and passers-by don’t much like fire.  Even when the season and humidity and wind are right, and helping hands are available, and all the phone calls are made, my burns seem to attract undesired attention.  Did I mention the chiggers? … give me serpent-sized rattlers any day!

Worst of all, once the quail habitat is in suitable condition, the sobering reality of 50” annual rainfall sets in.  The vegetation, that I’ve worked so hard to set back to an earlier successional state, seems to grow back by the time I get to the house.  The cycle, and the work, never ends.

Thus, one of the most important reality checks of all:  if quail restoration was easy, everyone would be doing it, and quail already would be restored.  As NBCI Director, this reality must stay at the center of my and our strategic thinking.  If we hope to restore huntable populations of bobwhites across their range, we must find ways to encourage and assist many thousands of people – almost all of whom are less motivated than I am –  to restore and actively manage native grassland habitat.

As I have lounged on my deck this week at happy hour, scratching chiggers and enjoying a computer-less reprieve at work, a pair of wild bobwhites has been dusting in their favorite spot in the middle of our back yard, oblivious to me.  Presumably, she’s laying an egg a day and soon will be incubating.  Yep, it’s worth it – lacerations, chiggers and all!



Quail’s-Eye View of Conservation

Close-up of a quail's head








They wouldn’t call it ‘the minimum’ if it wasn’t good enough. A friend (who will go unnamed), characterizing his teenage son’s philosophy of life.

Strive for excellence, so you don’t get lost in the mass of mediocrity. Jerry Countryman, Decatur High School Band Director (1960-1983), Decatur, Alabama


What is “conservation?”  As a wildlife management undergraduate, I learned it meant “the wise use of natural resources.”  Sounded straight-forward enough at the time.  When applying the concept in the politically charged national conservation policy arena, however, the simplicity can be lost.

Conservation, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, depending upon the resources and people in question.  My vision of conservation includes wise management of lands to accommodate suitable wildlife habitats to the maximum extent feasible.  Other conservationists see the world differently. 

For example, I discovered early in my career that many southern foresters traditionally consider good silvicultural practices, such as plantation pines, to be automatically good wildlife practices, regardless of planting density, basal area or burning frequency.  Likewise, agronomists long have asserted that good soil conservation automatically is good wildlife conservation.  I respectfully disagree.


NBCI Niche: Top Of The Pyramid

The need for a national bobwhite strategy is demonstrated by our collective failure.  If a laissez faire, everyone-for-himself, bobwhite conservation approach was sufficient then bobwhite populations would be in fine shape everywhere.  Clearly, that approach comes up far short.

Now we have a simple choice:  (1) continue the failed laissez faire approach; or (2) try something different.  Bobwhite conservationists, to our credit, finally opted for (2).  Thus arose the NBCI.


Local Conservationists Are Our Foundation

Local-level quail conservationists are the foundation of the movement to restore bobwhites.  No matter how tall the states may stand in pursuit of their quail stewardship duty, the states cannot succeed without the full partnership of a vigorous grassroots support base.  


A central theme of the NBCI and of our strategy for restoring bobwhites range-wide might now be coming into focus.  I call it the NBCI “pyramid strategy,” which aims to address head-on the societal reality that bobwhite restoration has less to do with science and technology than it does with people, politics and money.  One of the greatest strengths of bobwhite conservation is we are loaded with brilliant scientists and managers who have amassed an impressive record of knowledge and experience about quail biology and management.  Conversely, our weakness is our tepid organizational skills to make effective use of all the people who are crucial to our success.  The NBCI aims to begin fixing this weakness, by catalyzing a “quail machine,” of people who collaborate synergistically among all three essential levels – local, state and national.


U.S. Agricultural Policy is Key to Bobwhite Revival

Almost every quail hunter already realizes the biggest problem with bobwhites – clean farming practices.  Modern, weed-free, fencerow-to-fencerow, high-intensity production leaves little habitat for most grassland birds.  Certainly, agriculture is not the only force that has changed the landscape in ways inhospitable to quail, but it probably has the largest impact.

Consider:  across the core bobwhite range there are roughly 210 million acres of cropland, 120 million acres of pasture/hay, and 35 million acres of plantation pine.  Decades ago, this 365 million acres of production land was inherently suitable for bobwhites. No longer.

Cultivated cropland now is so free of weeds and idle areas as to no longer accommodate quail.  Pasture and hay land has been so “improved” with aggressive, exotic forage grasses that they have no practical value to quail.  Dense, unburned pine plantations offer little at ground level but a thick layer of needles.

Without the States We Are Nothing…

Even as this post aims to highlight the central importance of the states to the future prospects for restoring bobwhites, our thoughts and prayers go out to those in many of those states – including Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi and Arkansas — who have lost family members or friends, or have seen their or their neighbors’ homes and businesses destroyed during waves of violent weather this spring. In fact, according to AP today, 328 people across those seven states died just last week in the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression. While my family has spent a lot of time in our own “fraidy hole” ducking multiple close tornadoes in central Arkansas, the impact personally has otherwise been limited. Rising waters forced the evacuation of my office and equipment storage areas. My brother watched helplessly as a giant tornado gutted his hometown of Tuscaloosa.  So many other others have not been as fortunate. Let’s all keep those folks in our thoughts.– Don

Bobwhites are the legal authority and responsibility of the state wildlife agencies.  That’s just the way it is for resident (non-migratory) species of wildlife.  The federal government has no formal role or responsibility … unless bobwhites get listed under the Endangered Species Act.  No one wants to go there.   

The NBCI started out in 2002 as a strategic plan of the states, but has become much more.  The plan started the ball rolling in earnest; since then, collaborations have made it snowball to the national level. 


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‘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.”