In 2008, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) wrote a statewide, 10-year bobwhite restoration plan, the Road to Recovery. In the summer of 2020, biologists published the findings of the 10-year restoration effort. This report was a first-of-its-kind document, reporting on a massive statewide effort focused on generating wild bobwhite in the Commonwealth. The report laid plain the successes and failures of the state’s efforts in bobwhite restoration. One of the biggest successes was partnerships. The Small Game Program worked with over 40 non-profits, non-government organizations (NGO), state, and federal agencies to achieve their successes. One of the largest failures of the plan was to change the statewide trajectory of bobwhite in Kentucky. In areas in which we focused quail management, we saw quail increases; however, these areas were not a high enough percentage of the actual landscape to positively affect state-wide populations. So as we lay the original Road to Recovery to rest, what is the way forward?
Well, it might make sense to pair our biggest success and biggest failure together to solve a problem in which every state in the bobwhite range faces to some extent: long-term declines in our cherished game bird, not to mention the suite of shrub and grassland flora and fauna! As our greatest success was bringing so many partners to the table and our biggest failure was not changing enough of the landscape for bobwhite to respond, maybe we should utilize our partners to work within the landscape most limiting to bobwhite in the state. In Kentucky, the majority of the open lands in the state are: 1) owned by private entities; and 2) classified as pastureland, hayland, or rowcrop. These working lands constitute almost 4 million acres in Kentucky, which may actually be roughly the same amount of open land that existed pre-contact, it just looks and smells a lot different today than it did 400 years ago!
So, at this point we have identified our problem: open lands in Kentucky are largely not in a wildlife-friendly state, and private production landowners own those lands. We have identified our targeted area: central Kentucky, a top beef-producing county in a top beef-producing state. Next, we needed to develop our team to implement our NWSG conversions. In the past, we have relied almost exclusively on our KDFWR private lands biologists to roll out field-level initiatives on private lands. This made sense—these professionals are habitat experts, and they have planted a lot of NWSG in the state! But this time, we were trying to convince production farmers to do something on their farms. This presented us with a known problem: unfortunately, over time, NWSG has been associated almost exclusively with wildlife plantings, and wildlife conservation is often seen as pitting farmer profits against conservation. To solve this conundrum, we needed a team infused with individuals the farmers saw as agriculture experts and not necessarily wildlife experts.
We began by looking at the local county level for trusted advisors to these production farmers. We found a wealth of support and knowledge from the local Conservation District, University of Kentucky Agriculture Extension Agent, and NRCS. We also included our original partners in UTIA, KDFWR, and NBCI. With the location and team in place, we next sought to recruit a few bell-cow landowners as early adopters of grazing NWSG in the focal area. This was facilitated by a dinner with a presentation by Dr. Pat Keyser on the benefits of grazing NWSG. This dinner was the spark that lit the powder keg for our early adopters—every landowner in attendance was interested, and we turned out almost 200 acres of NWSG conversions from the meeting.
Our early success with the bell-cow landowners was a fortuitous event, but we knew we could not sustain the amount of NWSG conversions on word-of-mouth alone. We again turned to our partners for help in getting the word out. NBCI was ready to help. Contracting with the natural resources engagement firm DJ Case and Associates, NBCI provided digital and print content to flood the area of focus with information on planting NWSG as forage for production landowners. They also implemented things we had not tried in the past, such as Google Adwords campaigns and billboards. This was initiated in the now-infamous year of 2020, and we hope to see the advertisements turning into more landowner contacts moving into this year.
As we begin a new year (and new hope for a better one!), it is important to take stock of our resources at hand, both where we work and beyond to our partners. In Kentucky, we are attempting some new ways to interact with landowners and solve our most daunting task, reversing the decline of a once common gamebird, the bobwhite. This problem is not a new one and it will not be solved with old solutions. We seek to utilize and reengage our partners moving into 2021 and beyond to try some novel solutions steeped in what we have learned from our past efforts. We encourage all reading to consider doing the same—to enact meaningful change onto the landscape, we will need to work more in private landscapes, and to do that, we need partners!
Acting Small Game Program Coordinator
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources