Andrew Earl

May 28, 2020

Restoring Native Grasses Could Lessen the Plight of the Bobwhite

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.

8 Responses to “Restoring Native Grasses Could Lessen the Plight of the Bobwhite”

  1. Bill Crumrine

    I am totally with Mr. Andrew Earl the whole way, restoring native grasses and limiting land development are just two of the much needed answers. Some people would develop every spoonful of ground, if they could. Just leave it alone.

  2. Walker Morris

    Not only do individual landowners need to leave some suitable quail habitat, they need to urge their neighbors to do the same so they don’t become an island of habitat that’s not interconnected with other suitable quail cover nearby.

  3. Andy Galloway

    Great article. It’s really encouraging to hear this talk about habitat restoration across several groups. I would love to see quail populations come back to what they were when I was a teenager. Most fun you can have with your boots on. I guarantee it!

  4. Vic Sullivan

    In 2014 I converted a cow pasture that was planted in Bahia grass into native grasses for quail. It has been truly stunning how it quickly became almost overrun with quail. To me it is a classic example of what can be done if you want wild birds. Glad to share with anyone how it was done.

  5. Here in IL we have many large farms, but also have many small tracts if less than a couple hundred acres. We need to incentivize those smaller tracts with programs. Many large farms don’t have habitat restoration on the radar. It’s profit first, and some make a very good living already. The smaller landowners are where you will have the most program success. Need really good communication programs on them as well.

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Randall Williams

May 27, 2020

Revised Montana Forest Plan Would Conserve Areas Important to Hunters and Anglers

Final Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest plan includes key provisions to benefit wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation

The U.S. Forest Service released a near final land use plan that will support outdoor recreation opportunities and conserve important wild trout and big game habitat on public lands stretching across seventeen counties in central and western Montana.

When finalized, the Forest Service’s revised management plan for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest will determine how the agency will manage approximately 2.8 million acres of public lands from the Snowies and the Highwoods to the Upper Blackfoot and the Rocky Mountain Front.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership helped activate hunters and anglers, local government officials, and other stakeholder groups to provide meaningful feedback throughout the process, which began in 2015. Those comments and other considerations have now been incorporated into the Forest Service’s draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement, one of the last steps in the planning process.

“Sportsmen and women spoke up in support of intact habitats, forest restoration and quality recreation opportunities throughout the process, and we appreciate that the Forest Service was receptive to many of our community’s requests,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Overall, the final plan will support wildlife habitat and it will provide for quality hunting and fishing in places like the Upper Blackfoot and the Big Snowies, which is good news for those of us who care about Montana’s strong outdoor traditions.”

The popular public lands in central and western Montana to which the revised plan will apply help fuel the state’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land. These landscapes include Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Hunting Districts 293, 380, and 511, which offer some of the state’s best elk and deer hunting.

The revision process was formally initiated with a forest-wide assessment and the Forest Service published its draft plan with a number of proposed alternatives in the summer of 2018. Hunters and anglers spoke up and a new preferred alternative was developed after the public comment period, which saw the agency receive more than 1,100 comments.

“This plan will guide the management of millions of acres of public lands across a broad landscape, and we have chosen to evaluate the plan as a whole,” continued Laird. “We believe the forest service has done a good job of balancing uses and demands, and they have provided strong safeguards for wildlife habitat while managing for outdoor recreation. We thank the agency for their responsiveness to our concerns and ideas.”

When It Comes to Protecting Streams, Sometimes What’s in a Name Matters

Anglers are campaigning to update the designations of some Pennsylvania waterways to reflect the exceptional status of their wild trout populations and water quality

With 86,000 miles of streams and about 4,000 inland lakes, Pennsylvania is home to some of the best publicly accessible fishing that the East Coast has to offer, including phenomenal trout and bass fishing. With opportunities like these, it’s no wonder that 1.3 million Pennsylvanians fished their local waterways in 2016, helping contribute to the state’s $26.9-billion outdoor recreation economy.

Since 2010, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has worked with sportsmen and local universities to distinguish our best waters through the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Based on the UWI’s evaluation, stream sections that meet a set of criteria are eligible for certain protections. For example, streams that have abundant populations of wild rainbow, brown, and brook trout can be eligible for Wild Trout Stream or Class A Stream designations. Protecting these streams ensures that the outdoor recreation industry continues to thrive and that future generations can enjoy the same (or better) fishing opportunities.

Four times each year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission staff propose streams to be added to the Wild Trout and Class A lists. Right now, there are 78 wild trout streams proposed for designation – 73 wild trout streams and 5 Class A wild trout streams that represent the best of our best waters. Those eligible for protection during this comment period include tributaries to famous trout streams such as Letort Spring Run in Cumberland County, the Lehigh River in Carbon County, and Penns Creek in Snyder County.

Starting right now, local sportsmen and women have a chance to influence this process and seal the deal for our best trout streams.

Why Does a Designation Matter?

In these cases, what’s in a name really matters: Wild Trout and Class A streams qualify for additional protections from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, including the limitation of activities around these streams that would degrade water quality. The Wild Trout Stream title designates a water as a Coldwater Fishery and protects surrounding wetlands from development. Similarly, streams that qualify for the Class A designation get additional recognition as high-quality waters, which restricts in-stream discharges and guards against habitat degradation.

These designations from the PFBC are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on Pennsylvania’s water resources continue to increase. When you consider that roughly 40 percent of streams across the state are NOT suitable for fishing, swimming, and/or drinking water, according to the DEP, it makes sense to safeguard the exceptional waterways that already meet top standards and support outdoor recreation that drives our economy.

Fortunately, sportsmen and women understand the importance of this process. A recent TRCP survey found that 92 percent of Pennsylvania sportsmen and women support designating streams when they meet the right criteria.

What You Can Do to Help

Pennsylvania’s hunters and anglers have an important opportunity to conserve more critical streams. If we don’t speak up, these exceptional waterways could easily be degraded and eventually lost to pollution.

Take action to tell the PA Fish and Boat Commission that you value these protections for clean water and fish habitat. Comment before June 15.

 

This blog was originally posted in November 2019, and has been updated for a new PFBC comment period. Photos by Derek Eberly.

How to Address a Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Hotspot

In eastern Oregon, the Burns Paiute Tribe is making roadways safer for drivers and deer 

Mule deer are declining throughout the West, in part due to reductions in habitat connectivity, and wildlife advocates and managers have been wrestling with how to respond to these population level declines.

In eastern Oregon’s Malheur River watershed, where populations have been reduced by 25-42% over 4 years, collaborative efforts led by the Burns Paiute Tribe are demonstrating how data-driven progress can be made on this issue through partnership building, sound science, and public engagement.

Game camera photo collected during the Tribe’s wildlife trail survey in the Malheur River Canyon. These deer will cross the roadway to access water and forage on the south side of US 20. Often deer will make these daily migrations to access resources. In areas without passage options this increases their risk of collision with vehicles substantially.

 

Within the Malheur River canyon, US Highway 20 is a well-known hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified this as one of the highest-density mule deer winter ranges in the state, and attempts by wildlife to cross the highway as they move between seasonal habitats to access resources often result in accidents that pose a major threat to human safety, ecosystem connectivity, and wildlife conservation.

In fact, between 3-6% of Oregon’s total recorded deer-vehicle collisions each year occur between mileposts 200 and 205 in the Malheur River canyon. This level of mortality, particularly occurring in early winter and spring, has significant implications for the sustainability of deer populations that use the area for winter range and fawning grounds.

The most dangerous wildlife-vehicle collision corner in the Malheur River canyon (based on ODOT wildlife mortality data).

 

To address this challenge in what is an important part of their aboriginal homeland, the Burns Paiute Tribe is leading a comprehensive effort to study and reduce the habitat fragmentation caused by the development of Highway 20. Healthy populations of mule deer are important to the Tribe, which manages a Wildlife Mitigation Site that is bisected by the highway.

In 2019, the Tribe secured Bureau of Indian Affairs funding to work with multiple state, federal, and public partners to identify mitigation measures that would improve habitat connectivity along Highway 20.

Using data supplied by the Oregon Department of transportation, the Tribe’s analysis estimated that costs of deer-vehicle collisions alone along a 13-mile stretch of Highway 20 exceed $1 million annually. In addition, the Tribe, ODFW and ODOT have used GPS collars, trail cameras, and road-kill surveys to collect data on wildlife habitat use and hotspots for wildlife-vehicle collisions. Using geospatial analysis of wildlife crossing areas the Tribe has identified existing structures that could or may already be used by mule deer as passage for habitat connectivity.

Click here or on the screenshot below to view to experience a 4-year journey through the lives of 29 mule deer that provided GPS locations for the Tribe’s monitoring efforts. Significantly, 32% of all recorded mule deer locations were within 500 meters of US 20, which suggests that these animals are highly susceptible to the dangers posed by vehicles on the highway.

This interactive GIS-based map journal takes you on a 4-year journey through the lives of 29 mule deer wintering on the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Jonesboro Ranch.

 

Moving forward, the Tribe will host multiple public meetings to develop a multi-species connectivity assessment and identify remediation measures to address the challenges and limitations in the built environment. Ultimately this process will develop functional solutions that improve wildlife and habitat connectivity through the development of safe wildlife crossings in the Malheur River canyon.

Burns Paiute Tribal employee collecting data for passage assessment study.

 

Both Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Transportation have committed to this project and the focal area has been included in Oregon’s 2019 Action Plan for Implementation of Secretarial Order 3362 on big game migration.  

Meetings will be open to the public and we welcome the input and support of sportsmen and women as these solutions are developed. 

 

About the Author: 

Calla R. Hagle is the Natural Resources Director for the Burns Paiute Tribe.  She received a Bachelor’s of Wildlife Science at the University of Idaho and a Master’s in Wildlife Biology from Eastern Washington University. She’s been working for the Burns Paiute Tribe since March 2016. Her research background is in ungulate (elk and deer) resource use. While working for various agencies and the Tribe, she has worked on a wide breadth of habitat restoration projects and conservation planning. 

Derek Eberly

May 13, 2020

PA Sportsmen and Women Urge Lawmakers Not to Abandon Job-Creating Conservation Projects

State budgets may be stretched thin, but now is not the time to borrow from successful conservation funding initiatives

You only need to walk into a tackle shop on a typical Saturday morning to understand that Pennsylvania’s enviable natural resources are directly tied to outdoor recreation spending and jobs. Both the beauty of our lands and waters and strength of our outdoor recreation industry are particularly meaningful in the midst of a health and unemployment crisis.

But we wouldn’t have these benefits without investments in conservation.

Right now, we’re pushing back on legislation that would disrupt the flow of funds to critical job-creating conservation projects. Across the country, state budgets are being stretched by the COVID-19 response, but this is not the time to balance the budget with cuts to conservation. Here’s why we’re fighting this in PA.

 

Known as “The Many Turns River” by the Unami-Lenape native people, who originally inhabited this valley, the Conococheague Creek is a tributary to the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The many parks, trails, and public lands along its banks have been improved or created by Keystone Fund dollars. Photo by Derek Eberly.
A Track Record of Success

Twenty years ago, the Growing Greener Program was signed into law, securing the investment of $650 million in the state’s natural resources over five years. Today, the state’s Keystone Fund and Environmental Stewardship Fund help to restore and conserve lands and waters that power Pennsylvania’s $26.9-billion outdoor recreation industry.

The diverse businesses in PA’s outdoor recreation sector support more than 390,000 jobs and almost $17 billion in salaries and wages, and their employees generate over $300 million in federal, state, and local tax revenue. Plus, the demand for outdoor recreation opportunities has only increased during the COVID crisis.

Conservation projects keep Pennsylvanians working, too. More than 6,000 projects in 25 years have helped to conserve 190,000 acres of land, and to complete them, county conservation districts and nonprofits sustain a laundry list of well-paying jobs for workers across the state.

Cacoosing Creek in Berks County, PA, is a Class A wild trout fishery and tributary to the Tulpehocken Creek, which flows into the Schuylkill. This top-quality spring creek has benefited from projects paid for by the Keystone Fund. Photo by Derek Eberly.

“These projects employ public works staff, conservation district staff, local surveyors, general contractors, excavators, farm operators, equipment rental and sales companies, and agriculture consultants, such as crop advisers, nutrition specialists, and farm plan writers,” says Sarah Xenophon, a watershed technician for Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. She often works with sportsmen’s groups, landowners, and nonprofits to use Keystone Fund and Environmental Stewardship Fund dollars to improve fish and wildlife habitat.

These partnerships are key to getting more bang for state bucks. The ESF and Keystone Fund leverage public/private partnerships to amplify the impact of public conservation dollars. Continuing to allow them to fund shovel-ready projects ensures that we keep this critical part of Pennsylvania’s economy open. It allows us to put small businesses to work on our natural infrastructure and environmental services that build our resilience to natural events, like flash floods.

Here are just a few examples of projects made possible by the Keystone Fund and Environmental Stewardship Fund with benefits for hunters and anglers.

Projects like this one in Southern Lancaster County have turned once barren meadow streams into Class A wild trout streams. Despite their size, these small creeks are now home to impressive wild trout, thanks to state conservation dollars. Habitat restoration projects employ the services of local contractors and suppliers creating good-paying jobs and better fishing opportunities for all. Photo by Derek Eberly.
Critical Waters

In March 2015, the Wildlands Conservancy received $1.3 million from the Keystone Fund to help purchase land adjacent to state game lands in Wayne and Lackawanna County and transfer them to the Pennsylvania Game Commission for public use. This purchase permanently protects approximately 500 acres of wetlands, including the headwaters of the Lehigh River, and provides drinking water for 180,000 residents.

Trees for Trout

In 2018, the Donegal Chapter of Trout Unlimited received $50,000 from the Environmental Stewardship Fund to construct 15 acres of riparian forest buffers on wild trout streams in southern Lancaster county. The grant, administered through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, requires a one to one match that the chapter provided through in-kind volunteer hours and trees from its nursery.

The Little J

In 2008, the Little Juniata River Association used $102,000 from the Keystone Fund to preserve public access to five miles of class A wild trout waters along the Little Juniata River, which is known for its healthy wild brown trout and excellent dry fly fishing. The area draws anglers from across the mid-Atlantic and beyond—in fact, President Eisenhower and President Carter both visited the area while in office to sample some of the best fishing that central Pennsylvania has to offer.

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
Aug 29, 1910

Prevent Cuts to Conservation

As in years past, attempts are being made to disrupt 30 years of stabilized funding for conservation projects provided by these funds. Specifically, amended language to House Bill 1822 would freeze funding for any new conservation contracts coming from the Keystone Fund, ESF, and county conservation district funds. Meanwhile, other proposals have been made to alter the way these funds are appropriated.

As sportsmen and women, we need to send a strong message that now is not the time to stop funding conservation. Continued investments mean more opportunities to find solace in the outdoors during a very uncertain time, but this funding supports job creation, as well.

If you are from Pennsylvania, your state lawmakers need to hear from you today. Click here to take action. Supportive out-of-state hunters and anglers, please consider asking friends or family to sign our action alert. In-state voices will have the most impact, but our fish and wildlife are here for you, too.

 

Top photo of Pennsylvania’s state fish, the brook trout, by Derek Eberly.

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HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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