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Teachable Moment: Time is Now for ‘Naturally Drought-Proof Pastures’ to Reconnect Cows, Quail


 “This is a chance to make things better.”

           — Hardware-store wisdom following a tornado touch-down near Ward, AR, February, 2001

Landscape-scale habitat restoration as envisioned by the NBCI generally is a slow-moving, long-term slog. But occasional opportunities for a leap forward pop up; some are foreseeable, a few are even actionable in advance. The inevitable government response to the current drought presents just such an opportunity to help cattle producers and restore quail habitat on a large scale.

120 Million Acres in Bobwhite Range Converted from Native Forages to Introduced Grasses

Since the mid 20th century, some 120 million acres of grazing lands across bobwhite range have been “improved” by conversion – usually with USDA subsidies and encouragement – from native forages to aggressive introduced grasses that provide poor wildlife habitat. Prior to this landscape conversion, cows and quail shared the land; but not afterward. The nearly complete conversion of native grazing lands in the eastern US coincides with the long-term decline of many grassland birds. 

Reconnecting cows and quail is a major goal of the NBCI. On native rangelands of west Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, that goal is relatively simple, by improved management of the existing forage base, the cattle and the brush. For the rest of the U.S. grazing lands across the humid majority of bobwhite range, much more exertion and cost are needed to return a portion of the existing “improved” pasture back to native forages with quail habitat potential. The NBCI has been working many years with only modest success to begin changing USDA’s deeply ingrained reliance on exotic vegetation.

History repeats itself. We know, for example, that Congress and USDA miss few chances to provide taxpayer-funded relief to producers following drought, typically helping replant ravaged pastures with more of the same drought-susceptible, introduced forages. While all parties (except maybe the taxpaying public and the quail) are temporarily satisfied with that habit, the reality is that producers are merely set up, once again, to fall victim to the next drought. 

Don McKenzie

Former NBCI Director, Don McKenzie is a product of the deep South, steeped in its cultures of hunting, fried catfish, barbeque and SEC football. He survived an abrupt transition from hip boots in South Carolina to dark suits in Washington, DC as a professional wildlife advocate specializing in agriculture conservation policy.

During 6 ½ years in DC, he engaged the community of southeastern bobwhite quail biologists, and soon became their most active representative on federal conservation policy issues. McKenzie eventually arose as a national leader for what now is recognized as arguably the largest and most difficult wildlife conservation challenge of this era—restoring huntable and sustainable populations of wild bobwhites across much of their range. He was a facilitator and editor of the original “Northern (now “National”) Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,” published in 2002, and has been the national leader for implementing the initiative since 2004.