Why isn’t the USDA leaning more heavily on native grassland restoration to save this and other iconic species?
“I haven’t seen one of them around here in years.” Whether you’re talking to farmers or wingshooters, this statement about bobwhite quail is as familiar and repeated as the bird’s distinct whistle: bob-WHITE! bob-WHITE!
Across Texas rangelands and southeastern pine forests historically ample quail habitat has declined over the last half century. Unfortunately, the story of bobwhites—once one of the most important game species in North America—is representative of a greater issue all too common in the world of wildlife conservation. The iconic game bird has effectively been forced into a patchwork of suitable habitat, all but removing our opportunities to chase that distinct whistle across the bird’s historic range.
Ornithologists at Cornell University have labeled the bobwhite quail a common bird in steep decline, an appropriate moniker given their finding of a steady 4-percent annual population decline—that’s an 85-percent drop since 1966.
The “why” of it all is well agreed upon at this point: land conversion. The steady creep of development, monoculture cropland, edge-to-edge farming, and pesticide use has contributed to the slow-motion erosion of the diverse habitat required to sustain populations of bobwhites.
The below graph by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative illustrates the trend.
Part of the challenge facing species recovery efforts is that gentleman bob has very particular tastes when it comes to habitat. Quail are ground-nesting birds that require a mix of seasonal vegetation. During colder months, coveys huddle in dense shrubs and grasses, and in the spring and summer, they opt to nest, forage, and brood in tall forbs and grasses that provide lush groundcover, shade, and security from predators. Quail need to feed on a diversity of seeds, fruits, and bugs in these grasses but escape to woody brush when they catch the eye of a hungry predator—all within 12 inches of the ground.
Understanding the fastidious nature of bobwhites is essential to the successful establishment of sustainable quail habitat. This has led groups like NBCI, which leads the way on bobwhite recovery, to support the adoption of native grasses into grassland restoration. In 2018, the TRCP worked with several of our partners to include official language encouraging the use of native grasses for the very first time in established Farm Bill conservation practices.
But that work is far from done. This provision was included in a Committee Report, which establishes a degree of congressional intent, but it holds little more weight than a suggestion as the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves ahead with implementation of the Farm Bill. Currently, several private land conservation programs only support the establishment of the “lowest practicable cost perennial conserving use cover crop”—whether native or non-native—which may sustain some species and benefit soil health, but is not guaranteed to provide the quality cover habitat required by bobwhite populations.
For these reasons, the TRCP was proud to join a handful of our conservation partners to become part of the Native Grasslands Alliance. Together, we’ll coordinate policy and communications efforts in support of increasing the adoption of native grasses and vegetation on both working and retired public and private lands.
The establishment of native vegetation is not only critical to the recovery of bobwhites, but also to address collapsing populations of songbirds, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators in recent years. The continued reliance upon introduced grasses in USDA programs runs counter to other ongoing efforts to restore these species. It begs the question: Is the public interest being accounted for when native grasses are forgone for the sake of economic ease?
One thing can be sure, a return to the huntable bobwhite populations of years past will not be achieved without a sea change in how American agriculture approaches grassland conservation and restoration.