Tackling the challenge of restoring bobwhite quail habitat is best seen as playing a three-dimensional game of connect the dots. One plane has research-proven practices such as burning, controlling invasive species, and advantageous planting. That plane intersects with another dotted by federal, state, and nongovernment programs supporting bobwhite habitat projects. Yet another plane transects those, marking the public and private lands where the conservation work takes place. Very often wildlife biologists find themselves at the intersection of actions, agencies, and acres. The problem, however, is that many new biologists do not yet have the training needed to effectively connect the dots.
Dr. James Martin heads up the Gamebird and Managed Ecosystems Lab (GAME Lab) at the University of Georgia. He explained the problem well: “Biologists entrusted with northern bobwhite conservation are faced with complex managed ecosystems, such as agricultural and forest-product producing landscapes, as they try to reach bobwhite population goals. Knowledge of basic bobwhite biology and ecology, coupled with an understanding of productions systems, is paramount to effective conservation.”
James went on to say that many of the wildlife biologists, and those in conservation management positions, do not get specific bobwhite training during their undergraduate or graduate education. Furthermore, as universities face ever more bottom-line cuts, funds available for field trips are shrinking. “There is a critical mass of new biologists hired by state agencies, federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in need of training as they embark in bobwhite conservation,” James said.
Dr. Mark McConnell, assistant professor of upland bird and prairie management at Mississippi State University, compares the species-specific training for new bobwhite quail biologists to all other types of training in its need for a strong foundation upon which to build incremental knowledge. In working with private landowners, if the freshly hired biologists get off on the wrong foot, their work becomes much more difficult.
“For example, if the biologist has the wrong technical knowledge, let’s say of bobwhite reproduction and required nesting sites, and a landowner in Missouri needs to cut hay, the biologist might suggest the wrong cutting date, thereby ruining nests. A thorough understanding of the bobwhite ecology would help the biologist convince the farmer to push the cutting date out a couple of weeks,” Mark explained. “Another example would be having a misconception of the needs of working lands. There can be competing objectives—the farmer is making a living and needs to make a profit. The landowner’s economic challenges must be understood before the biologist can make recommendations. Sometimes what would be perfect for the quail may not be possible, but compromises are.”
Mark believes that effective quail biologists have to be part scientist and part strategist. “They need to know what good bobwhite management looks like in different regions along with an understanding of the economic implications. Then they have to weave management scenarios together to make it all work,” he said.
Private owners control most of the land base in the Southeast bobwhite range. Thus, private landowners are the key to growing sustainable wild-bird populations and to training freshly hired biologists. It’s one thing to learn about bobwhite management in a classroom, and it’s quite another to bring the biologists to a real-life example to show them proof that it can work. That is exactly what led James Martin and Mark McConnell to ask Jimmy Bryan, the owner of Prairie Wildlife, a conservation-driven sporting estate in West Point, Mississippi, if they could hold a “Bobwhite Boot Camp” on his property. Quail Forever collaborated on the project with support from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife program.
Jimmy Bryan is passionate about conservation. Mark serves as a consulting biologist for Prairie Wildlife, so he knows well the extent of Jimmy’s generosity and ethics. “It’s hard to find a landowner that dedicated to conservation and willing to let us use his farm to teach others. Jimmy is excited about helping train biologists and sees his commitment to quail habitat as the farm’s legacy,” Mark said.
For close to 20 years, Prairie Wildlife has focused on maximizing opportunities to build a wild-quail population. Prescribed burning, predator control, hunting restrictions, native grassland restoration, bird tracking, and a conscientious list of conservation-minded farming practices, such as fenced drainage and shrub corridors, have generated over 900 acres of prime quail habitat. There could be no better classroom for teaching quail management.
Prairie Wildlife champions collaboration in its crusade to restore bobwhite habitat. The Bryan-Burger Endowment for Bobwhite Habitat Restoration at Mississippi State University’s College of Forest Resources provides perpetual funding to advance the conservation model developed through Prairie Wildlife’s working lands research, which has already contributed to over 60 scientific publications and creation of the CP33 crop edges program.
This past June, 40 biologists from over a dozen states gathered at Prairie Wildlife for two days. Foundational topics included bobwhite ecology, predation, and working-lands systems—row-crop agriculture, forestry, and grazing. The following day, the focus shifted to conservation strategies such as CRP, precision agriculture, and landscape-scale practices.
Reflecting on the workshop, James said it met his expectations but in unexpected ways. “We originally intended the content to be for early-career bobwhite biologists. But for various reasons, we had numerous participants that had been with Quail Forever for over five years. Not only did those people really seem to get a lot out of the workshop, having them there to interact with the newer folks enhanced the experience for everyone,” said James. “We instructors learned a lot from the participants, too!”
Dr. Jessica McGuire, Quail Forever’s bobwhite coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife, agreed, noting that in her region alone the biologists are spread across eight states. She pointed out that the more experienced biologists had a chance to check strengths and weaknesses in their own knowledge while the workshop provided an opportunity for the biologists as a group to shape a cohesive message about bobwhite management. “In our work with landowners and programs like the Working Lands for Wildlife, we need to be a united front,” Jessica said.
“Diversity of region” was as beneficial as “length of employment.” One boot camp participant who appreciated working alongside biologists from other areas wrote, “It was very interesting and eye-opening to see how other states and regions are conducting bobwhite-conservation efforts.”
This was not a one-and-done event. Jessica said the Quail Forever biologists in the Southeast have a network of landowners enthusiastic in their support of the conservation mission. Looking ahead, she hopes for a series of similar workshops for state and federal biologists. “Landowners realize that helping train biologists on their land not only showcases the property they’re proud of, but also spreads the word about successful habitat management,” said Jessica.
Jimmy Bryan remembers the days of big wild coveys and thriving quail habitat. Mark pointed out that having a mental image of those days is important. Young landowners and biologists without that image might not believe it is possible to recreate the landscape mosaic needed. Walking the lands at Prairie Wildlife proves that memory can serve as a compelling—and achievable—vision.
Originally published in Volume 8, Number 1 (December-January 2020) of Covey Rise.
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