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What if ‘Angry Birds’ Had Been ‘Angry Quail’?

Happy New year everybody!!! And what a fine year I hope it is for all of you. I hope you all enjoyed a great Christmas with your families, too. The New Year always brings with it a chance for a fresh start, for innovation and for anything but the dreaded status quo. For many years now we have relied on cost-share programs to stimulate wildlife conservation. They are a great tool to have, but the paradigm needs some reconfiguration in my most humble opinion (“who said so, I said so…” to steal from Robert D. Raeford).

You ever here of the proverbial alphabet soup of government program acronyms? That’s right, WHIP, CREP, CRP, CP-33, EQIP, FLEP, CSP, BMPs, RFT, …DING, BAT, DUMBO…well the last 3 were for laughs, unfortunately those prior are real programs (we are glad we have these programs, it’s just that the acronyms get to be confusing). It is a fact of life in our world that a lot of programs exist and each has its own red tape. Like it or not, the spending of government tax dollars must be well accounted for and applied fairly – thus the red tape.

In a 2008 survey we conducted prior to initiating our second quail recovery initiative, landowners told us loud and clear what the impediments were to enrolling in programs. Very simply – programs were too complicated and contracts too long (sounds like a wedding and a marriage – just kidding, Hon). And what did landowners want? Well on their list to Santa – they wanted free seed, money and then to be left alone. “Har, har, hardy, har, har –man, who doesn’t? Sign me up brother…today!!!”  All kidding aside, I am here to say that maybe there is a happy medium out there, and perhaps non-governmental organizations and foundations could be the ones to fill that role.

Before we get to how these organizations can help, let’s address what can be done to better work with existing government programs. One of the best ways is to hire biologists and have them on staff working in USDA Service Centers. Their primary purpose in life is to become the experts on all these programs so “the landowners don’t have to” to quote NRCS Virginia State Biologist Galon Hall. Many states have done this successfully … Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri to name a few (don’t write and complain that I missed your state –I have a simple mind that can’t keep track of them all). In Virginia we have 5, which are a huge plus, but we could use 25. In Missouri I believe they have nearly 40, and this is a big part of why Missouri has had perhaps more success with quail recovery than all others.

But even with these biologists in place, many hundreds, if not thousands, of landowners simply do not want to participate in government programs. We can offer them technical assistance, but little else. And even more may not be adverse to programs; they simply are not interested in quail management. This begs a turn on the old “chicken or the egg” question – “which came first, money or interest in quail management.” I think sometimes we nerdy biologist types have a misperception that millions of people out there deeply yearn to have quail, if only the money were available for them to perpetually manage for them. But over time, I have found that there is less interest than there is money available.

Dr. Lenny Brennan recently wrote that bringing back bobwhites must rely on those who manage “purposefully” for quail. I don’t disagree completely, but would argue that it will take both purposeful and accidental quail management to engender a range-wide recovery. I am a field hack and I don’t pretend to be in the same league as Dr. Brennan with regards to quail knowledge. Very few people are. But, I do have a good feel what happens within the typical farming landscape and within rural communities. And I also know that it is human nature to strive to get the things they really want. I believe if more people truly wanted quail, there would be more quail. And here in lies one of the first and most important things non-governmental organizations and foundations could do to build a groundswell of people who want to “manage purposefully for quail.”

These groups have to get into the school classrooms, the Boy and Girl Scout camps, the youth church organizations and more, and reveal to the masses of young people what a cool bird a bobwhite is, why they’d be neat to have, and how they can be brought back to their property, or their parents’ or grandparents’ farm. In my opinion, intense interest in quail is more important than having money available to manage for quail. Trout Unlimited™ has a program called “Trout in the Classroom™.” They actually help school classes raise trout from eggs to trout ready for release into native habitats. This exact paradigm won’t work with quail, but there is room for work in developing appreciation for bobwhites. If I were a quail NGO, I would not sit back and say “that’s the state agencies’ role – let them do it.” Quail NGOs – how about some innovation? How about something new and bold along these lines?

In terms of money – another drawback to all government programs is that they work on a reimbursement basis. The landowners must front the bills, and are repaid on some percentage basis, or on a per acre basis, when work is completed and certified. This may not seem too bad, but sometimes those bills can be many thousands of dollars, and they must be “held” for weeks or months before reimbursement occurs. But NGOs and private foundations would not be limited by these restrictions.

What if a foundation could raise millions of dollars for habitat that could be paid to landowners up front, in the form of a simple grant – a one page application, with some fairly bold and restrictive guidelines for qualifying? Things like having a pretty high minimum acreage, maybe 250 or 500 acres (this is something government programs cannot do), perhaps also being in a conservation easement where benefits of habitats installed might be long term, or willingness to do large acreages, 50 or 100, or 150 enrolled (these properties could serve as sources for surrounding areas), and more.

All I am doing here is “thinking out loud”…trying to stimulate some thought. It is a New Year, and it is time for some changes in our thinking. I call again on the quail community at large to develop a mascot – the “Smokey Bear” of the quail world, something loveable, and instantly recognizable, especially to kids, and how about a new DS game – or a phone game application – what if “Angry Birds”, had been “Angry Quail?”

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.