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From the Farmhouse to the White House: Something to Prove

Area 51 is no match for the range-wide bobwhite decline as fodder for public speculation and skepticism of authority.  Even as the most of the nation’s bobwhite experts are actively collaborating on the NBCI, applying the state of the science to develop and implement long-range, habitat-based solutions to begin restoring huntable populations, the president of an Arkansas energy company recently wrote a prominent op-ed in the state paper, asserting (without scientific evidence) his quail solution:  reintroducing red wolves, cougars and bobcats.  I appreciate that he cares enough about quail to write.

Subsequently, by coincidence of timing, that paper and others printed a spate of positive bobwhite articles and editorials, spurred mainly by a unique new partnership between the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Pea Ridge National Military Park, to create the state’s first official NBCI quail focal area.  AGFC’s emerging interest in bobwhite restoration had begun creating a buzz.

The state paper then published a second speculative bobwhite op-ed by the energy company president the week before last, reiterating that the authorities “are wrong about the loss of habitat, and I’m going to tell you, once and for all, why.”  The entirety of his evidence:

“There are millions of acres in our state of good quail habitat without a single quail. A comparison between uncultivated acreage in the 1940s and today will show an actual increase in uncultivated acres, as the thousands of small farms of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, were abandoned and the land was allowed to return to nature. If habitat loss were the primary cause, where are the quail that once were plentiful in those millions of acres?”

Already admitting that his original alternative theory may have been off the mark, he now asserts (again with no scientific evidence) that the major culprit in the long-term, state-wide bobwhite decline is feral hogs. His solution:  stop funding habitat work, and use that money for hog bounties.

Such uninformed opinions would be just that and little more, except for (1) the overall frustrated, pessimistic and thus impressionable mindset of a broad spectrum of hunters and other bobwhite lovers; and (2) the paucity of compelling visible proof that adequate habitat restoration does work. This combination is ripe for the quail constituency (including hunters and key policy-makers) to either make poorly informed decisions or lose interest and give up entirely. 

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and bobwhites continue to decline.  The authorities clearly have something to prove, the sooner the better.

The NBCI’s new (2014) Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) is a science-based, methodical approach to bobwhite restoration success, designed to clearly demonstrate the connection between suitable habitats and increased bobwhite populations. A long name for the NBCI’s official focal area program, the CIP aims to increase the odds of habitat-based bobwhite restoration successes by (1) providing a framework for siting and designing focal and reference areas in prime locations, (2) requiring states to set meaningful and measurable population goals and habitat objectives, (3) setting near-term timeframes (5 to 10 years) for completion, and (4) requiring science-based standardized habitat assessments and bird population monitoring to document results.

Greg Johnson, commissioner of the KY Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, welcomes participants from 14 state wildlife agencies to CIP training at Shaker Village
Greg Johnson, commissioner of the KY Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, welcomes participants from 14 state wildlife agencies to CIP training at Shaker Village

An NBCI goal is for all 25 bobwhite states to have at least one official CIP focal area in the near future. At least 15 states already have or are actively in the process of establishing one or more CIP focal areas. Additional states are considering taking the CIP leap soon. 

Establishing an aggressive, standardized and coordinated 25-state quail focal area program is a big challenge; implementing it effectively at local, state and national levels is even more so. The National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) – the brain trust behind the NBCI – along with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the NBCI just completed a major CIP implementation task last week:  sponsoring a train-the-trainer workshop for conducting CIP habitat assessments.  About three dozen people from 14 states participated in the training at Shaker Village, KY, the site of one of the nation’s most dramatic and encouraging recent examples of habitat-based bobwhite restoration. (For more information about Kentucky’s 5-year benchmark study of their bobwhite restoration efforts, visit this link:

The NBCI hired a professional film crew to document the entire workshop and produce a series of online training modules, and now is surveying all participants for feedback and recommendations on other ways to help states move forward with CIP bobwhite restoration areas. Meanwhile, the NBCI’s new Data Analyst, Derek Evans, is on board at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s Information Technology Services Department, with a top priority to develop the mechanisms and central databases to store, organize and analyze and report the states’ CIP data. 

The history of bobwhite conservation over the past half-century is littered with the debris of failed (i.e., half-hearted, short-term, under-funded, inadequately staffed, poorly planned, unmonitored, etc.) quail initiatives and focal areas.  Even if it is obvious to the professional bobwhite managers why those prior efforts came up short, every one of those failures exacerbates the public skepticism about habitat as the foundation of the problem, and undermines the authorities’ credibility.  The bobwhite conservation world can afford no more publicly perceived failures. 

The CIP will not allay the skepticism and speculation right away, but it is a thorough, scientifically based, adaptive management approach to bobwhite restoration across the species’ range, that increases our collective chances of successes, while providing hard data to help understand and explain when results vary from predictions. The potent show of support and effort for the CIP training last week at Shaker Village was a heartening indicator of the states’ and our partners’ seriousness and will to catalyze more bobwhite successes and minimize or eliminate failures. 

We have something to prove.

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.