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Andrew Earl

March 10, 2022

How Working Lands Are Bringing Back Bobwhite Quail

One Farm Bill conservation program aims to conserve 7 million acres of quail habitat by 2026

For farmers, ranchers, independent foresters, and other private landowners, conservation is a constant balancing act between pursuing ecological benefits and ensuring economic sustainability. Agricultural producers operate in a sea of market variables that put pressure on their operations, and successful efforts to conserve lands and waters can, in fact, complement growing operations. 

This is exactly the aim of the Working Lands for Wildlife Program. 

Since 2012, this Farm Bill program has empowered the voluntary conservation of priority habitat through the improvement of working landscapes, providing a win-win for wildlife and landowners. In partnership with state agencies, conservation groups, and landowners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service identifies priority species for conservation through WLFW, and so it has become an important tool in averting the need for costly endangered species protections. Click here for a map outlining existing WLFW species initiatives in 2021. 

The iconic bobwhite quail has been a target species of the WLFW program since 2017. Bobwhites are considered an “edge” bird and can be found along crop fields, as they demand a variety of grassy cover and forbs to provide food, shelter, and protection. But bobwhite populations have fallen by over 80 percent in the last three decades because of habitat conversion, fragmentation, and degradation.  

Fortunately, the WLFW Bobwhite Initiative has facilitated motivated state conservationists and partner groups—like Quail Forever and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative—as well as landowners, to leverage federal funds and technical assistance available through WLFW to the species’ advantage.   

The WLFW Bobwhite Quail Initiative is currently underway in 24 states, and was recently expanded through the renewed 2022 WLFW Bobwhite, Grasslands, and Savannas Framework for Conservation Action—which sets program goals for the next five years. 

The 2022 framework sets an ambitious course for the future of grassland and quail habitat conservation in the central and eastern U.S.: Through Fiscal Year 2026, the NRCS intends to conserve 7 million acres of bobwhite habitat through the WLFW initiative.  

With technical assistance from the NRCS, state and NGO partners will prioritize areas where there is the greatest need and practices that will make the biggest impact, such as the removal and monitoring of invasive trees across native grass ranges in Kansas. In states like Georgia and South Carolina, brush management and timber thinning will restore the health of forest stands and return undergrowth for brooding, nesting, and winter habitat. Several other states will seek easement agreements with landowners to secure habitat that is under threat.  

Recovering bobwhite quail populations will take many years and require the thoughtful, collaborative model of conservation showcased by the Working Lands for Wildlife Program. Fortunately, conservation practices have wide-reaching impacts, from reducing input costs and increasing yields for producers to sequestering carbon and improving water quality. Enhanced habitat and connectivity for bobwhite quail will also benefit songbirds, pollinators, and countless other species—creating an ecosystem-wide impact that multiplies conservation value.  

The thoughtful implementation of the WLFW program, as well as others in the Farm Bill’s conservation title, provides locally led efforts with the financial and technical support to reverse decades of habitat loss. We’re eager to see that work continue. Click here to learn more about our goals for the next Farm Bill.  

Click here to learn more about the full suite of Farm Bill conservation programs that support healthy soil, clean water, and wildlife habitat. 

7 Responses to “How Working Lands Are Bringing Back Bobwhite Quail”

  1. William Klock

    Man I love this I didn’t Bob whites were that widespread. But I love the work you’ll are doing to me there’s nothing more wild sound than the beautiful Bob white call. Takes me back that’s for sure! Get this passed yesterday!!

  2. Roger Perkins

    Growing up in Northern Kentucky, I remember when mowing or having, it wasn’t unusual to jump 2-3 coveys a day. Spent many days afield jump shooting by myself. Haven’t seen a bird on our farms in over 10 years! Would love to stock, improve habitat, or do anything necessary to bring em back.

  3. Laura JN Snow

    Why not band small land owners and subdivisions together to preserve waterways and creeks from pesticides and natural landscaping plantings to support flora and fauna? What is now on the landscape between the farms connecting natural migration routes and feeding areas? Subdivisions. Why do only large farmers reap benefits and deductions that should be available to group owners?

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How Working Lands Are Bringing Back Bobwhite Quail

One Farm Bill conservation program aims to conserve 7 million acres of quail habitat by 2026

For farmers, ranchers, independent foresters, and other private landowners, conservation is a constant balancing act between pursuing ecological benefits and ensuring economic sustainability. Agricultural producers operate in a sea of market variables that put pressure on their operations, and successful efforts to conserve lands and waters can, in fact, complement growing operations. 

This is exactly the aim of the Working Lands for Wildlife Program. 

Since 2012, this Farm Bill program has empowered the voluntary conservation of priority habitat through the improvement of working landscapes, providing a win-win for wildlife and landowners. In partnership with state agencies, conservation groups, and landowners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service identifies priority species for conservation through WLFW, and so it has become an important tool in averting the need for costly endangered species protections. Click here for a map outlining existing WLFW species initiatives in 2021. 

The iconic bobwhite quail has been a target species of the WLFW program since 2017. Bobwhites are considered an “edge” bird and can be found along crop fields, as they demand a variety of grassy cover and forbs to provide food, shelter, and protection. But bobwhite populations have fallen by over 80 percent in the last three decades because of habitat conversion, fragmentation, and degradation.  

Fortunately, the WLFW Bobwhite Initiative has facilitated motivated state conservationists and partner groups—like Quail Forever and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative—as well as landowners, to leverage federal funds and technical assistance available through WLFW to the species’ advantage.   

The WLFW Bobwhite Quail Initiative is currently underway in 24 states, and was recently expanded through the renewed 2022 WLFW Bobwhite, Grasslands, and Savannas Framework for Conservation Action—which sets program goals for the next five years. 

The 2022 framework sets an ambitious course for the future of grassland and quail habitat conservation in the central and eastern U.S.: Through Fiscal Year 2026, the NRCS intends to conserve 7 million acres of bobwhite habitat through the WLFW initiative.  

With technical assistance from the NRCS, state and NGO partners will prioritize areas where there is the greatest need and practices that will make the biggest impact, such as the removal and monitoring of invasive trees across native grass ranges in Kansas. In states like Georgia and South Carolina, brush management and timber thinning will restore the health of forest stands and return undergrowth for brooding, nesting, and winter habitat. Several other states will seek easement agreements with landowners to secure habitat that is under threat.  

Recovering bobwhite quail populations will take many years and require the thoughtful, collaborative model of conservation showcased by the Working Lands for Wildlife Program. Fortunately, conservation practices have wide-reaching impacts, from reducing input costs and increasing yields for producers to sequestering carbon and improving water quality. Enhanced habitat and connectivity for bobwhite quail will also benefit songbirds, pollinators, and countless other species—creating an ecosystem-wide impact that multiplies conservation value.  

The thoughtful implementation of the WLFW program, as well as others in the Farm Bill’s conservation title, provides locally led efforts with the financial and technical support to reverse decades of habitat loss. We’re eager to see that work continue. Click here to learn more about our goals for the next Farm Bill.  

Click here to learn more about the full suite of Farm Bill conservation programs that support healthy soil, clean water, and wildlife habitat. 

Kristyn Brady

March 1, 2022

Why We Use Farm Bill Conservation Programs on Our Land

Regenerative farmers Ashly and Stacy Steinke share how a commitment to improving habitat has paid off for their grass-fed cattle business, the local wildlife, and water quality in Wisconsin

Ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill debate, we’re sharing firsthand accounts of how private land conservation programs are helping landowners not only to improve their soil quality and enhance wildlife habitat, but also to provide equitable hunting and fishing opportunities in rural communities.

Ashly and Stacy Steinke hunt, fish, raise three boys, and practice regenerative farming near Cornell, Wisconsin. With the help of multiple Farm Bill conservation programs, they have also been able to restore over 200 acres of wetlands, revive stream flows and water quality, install wildlife-friendly fencing, and implement conservation practices that benefit their grass-fed beef business.

Ashly tells their story:

Some of my earliest memories are of my dad bringing home animals from his hunts—I couldn’t wait to be a hunter like him. Then, I think in 1989, wild turkeys were reintroduced into my home county, right on the farm where my dad grew up. In the years that followed, we spent countless days just out watching those turkeys on the landscape, and I became obsessed with wildlife. In high school, I was further encouraged by an ecology teacher, Mike Harden, who was also passionate about wildlife and conservation. He took the time out of his evenings in the spring to take us to watch peenting woodcock and had us read A Sand County Almanac. (I’ve probably read it five times since then.) And so it really was a natural decision for me to attend college and graduate school for wildlife management.

I was working as a wildlife biologist when I first got to know the impact of private land conservation on fish and wildlife species, but I never saw these programs getting enough recognition. Then my wife Stacy and I decided to restore about 15 acres of wetlands on the first property we bought as a couple, back in 2010. That’s when I saw the power of restoration firsthand.

We converted an old, cool-season field dominated by invasive knapweed to a high-quality, native warm-season planting and buffered a worn-out stream with about 8,000 trees. I think the most important thing we learned from that project was how doable this kind of conservation work is and how many opportunities exist. It is still so rewarding to walk that property and see the results. And we still hunt wood ducks on that restored creek!

We bought our farm in 2014 after owning a successful wetland consulting business, and we started raising grass-fed cattle here almost right away. Now, we also run an Airbnb on the property, where there are opportunities to view wildlife—and our bulls—right from the firepit.

This land is also where we are raising our three young boys in the country lifestyle. Even though it is harder to hunt and fish with young kids, it is so rewarding to watch them become immersed in nature and the hunting and fishing lifestyle. We go ice fishing in the winter, hunt turkeys in the spring, catch catfish in the summer, and hunt geese and deer in the winter.

Our long-term goals are to make our land the best that we can—both to support our family and to have quality wildlife habitat resulting in excellent hunting for family and friends. It is our hope that our children will pick up this conservation ethic and want to put their stamp on this land when it is their turn.

With this in mind, the first Farm Bill conservation project we did on our farm was a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program project, where we restored 47 acres of native upland prairie and wetland habitat. Nine wetland basins were restored, resulting in almost zero runoff leaving that part of our farm. The newly restored grassland and wetland habitat is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, from bobolinks to a pair of trumpeter swans. We have documented 15 different species of waterfowl using these restored wetlands.

Later, we relied on the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program again to create a 12-acre buffer along a stream through our fields. We planted approximately 3,000 trees along the riparian corridor to help filter water from ag fields before it enters the stream.

Next, we utilized the Environmental Quality Incentive Program for a forage and biomass planting and a grazing incentive. This helped us transition from the intensive tillage and row cropping practices of the previous landowner to a perennial, grass-based system. The soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat benefits are striking when spending time in the pastures. You can see it in the invertebrate life underground and the butterflies and grassland songbirds who make our pastures home.

We are currently in the fifth and final year of a Conservation Stewardship Program contract, which has helped us to remove miles of barbed wire fencing and replace it with high-tensile, wildlife-friendly fencing. We also planted and continue to maintain a seven-acre monarch pollinator planting, and we leave standing grain for wildlife in the winter. We look forward to adding more projects for a future CSP contract.

We have restored over 200 acres of wetlands and associated upland plantings to date.

It is amazing how fast wetland animals like muskrats move into newly restored sites. It is so fun seeing a nesting pair of Canada geese on a muskrat hut just two years post-restoration. Probably the most obvious sign of the improvements is the variety of bird life, from swallows hunting bugs to broods of blue-winged teal. You can’t miss the cacophony of sound they make.

When beavers cut down the aspen trees we planted 10 years earlier, I considered that the greatest compliment I could receive as a conservationist!

I think we are like anywhere else in the country where we have a landscape highly dominated by corn-soybean rotation. This is of no fault to those growers as they are making a living how they see fit and we need farmers on the landscape. However, I feel that we can still make big differences for wildlife by not farming the poor areas of the field, utilizing no-till practices, and planting cover crops. In addition, many young farmers today are introducing cattle back to the landscape and utilizing managed grazing on their operations. All of these practices are proven as conservation success stories. I think we are on the right track of getting to where we need to be as agricultural producers leading the way in conservation.

Private lands, including those that have been enhanced using Farm Bill dollars, are also creating equitable hunting and fishing opportunities. In our immediate area, we have several properties that are enrolled in a walk-in access program that is funded through the Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. Many other farmers I know still open their properties to hunting through a warm handshake and a trust that the hunter will leave the property as they found it.

But we also have more—and healthier—habitat available on these private lands, and so there are better hunting and fishing opportunities for those using nearby public land access.

I wish that every hunter and angler was aware of how these programs are approved and funded by our government and that there is a need for all of us to advocate for the dollars that put these practices on the landscape. The conservation title makes up such a small percentage of the Farm Bill, but it can play such a huge role in boosting wildlife populations. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Learn more about the benefits of Farm Bill conservation programs here.

Scott Laird

February 24, 2022

Hunters See Opportunity to Conserve Big Game Migrations in SW Montana

An updated management plan for the BLM’s Dillon Field Office could safeguard some of the Treasure State’s finest hunting opportunities

The Bureau of Land Management’s Dillon Field Office is comprised of more than 900,000 acres of public lands within Beaverhead and Madison Counties in southwest Montana. These wide-open spaces provide excellent fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of dispersed recreation opportunities. The Dillon Field Office encompasses seven Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks big game hunting districts (HDs 302, 303, 321, 322, 329, 331, and 340) that are well-known to sportsmen and sportswomen for to their world-class hunting opportunities for elk, mule deer, antelope, and upland birds. Hiking, fishing, camping, and wildlife viewing are also popular activities, and these public lands were also the site for a recent bighorn sheep reintroduction. A recent report found that hunting and angling in Beaverhead County generates over $167 million each year and creates more than 1,400 jobs.

The Dillon Field Office is conducting a 15-year evaluation of its 2006 Resource Management Plan and has agreed to welcome public input as a part of the process. Resource management plans are intended to guide the agency’s management priorities for public lands in a particular area for 15-20 years. The BLM is required by its own rules to conduct intermittent reviews of individual plans to determine if there is any new data or updated science that would be of significance to the current plan and/or if there have been significant changes in related plans of other federal agencies, state and local governments, or Tribes.

In the case of the Dillon Field Office’s 2006 Resource Management Plan, these criteria certainly apply. There have been significant changes to the landscape and its habitats since the last evaluation, and TRCP believes the plan should be updated to reflect new scientific information, particularly on big game migration and the threats that could impede these critical wildlife movements, as well as potential opportunities to improve them. In addition, the plan has not been revised to reflect guidance provided by Department of the Interior’s Secretarial Order 3362 to prioritize the conservation and improvement of big game winter range and migration corridors. Likewise, since the plan’s last review, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks adopted a strategy for conserving wildlife migration, which should inform the BLM’s management of these public lands.

Because the BLM has decided to open its review to public comment, Sportsmen and sportswomen now have an opportunity to speak up and request that the BLM Dillon Field Office update the current RMP to conserve and restore these habitats using the latest science. Across the West, collar data and other migration-related research has been used by land management agencies to guide strategically sited habitat restoration projects and fence improvements to facilitate wildlife movement, while also ensuring that development is sited away from vital habitats. Without incorporating the latest data and migration science, the Dillon Field Office’s current plan is obsolete and could result in missed opportunities to restore and conserve habitat in one of the highest-value landscapes in the nation.

For the reasons stated above, it is important that sportsmen and sportswomen provide input and request that the BLM Dillon Field Office update the current RMP to safeguard big game migration corridors using the latest science. The hunting and fishing opportunities found on these public lands are too important to rely on an outdated land-use plan for their conservation.

Public comments will be accepted by the agency until March 7, 2022. Click here and make your voice heard today.

A Conservation Report Card for the 2018 Farm Bill

Here’s how we’d grade the implementation of each private land conservation program included in the last five-year billand what can be done better next time 

The 2018 Farm Bill seems fated to be remembered as one defined by COVID-19 and the greater political universe. The bill took several steps to regain ground for conservation following agency-wide sequestration, but trade disputes and the onset of a global pandemic changed the reality facing American agricultural producers and strained resources at the USDA, right as implementation of the five-year bill hit its stride.

However, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency plowed ahead, with many of the federal employees responsible for Farm Bill conservation programs working from kitchen counters and dining room tables. Two years later, business as usual seems right on the horizon—and so is the next Farm Bill.

To secure the best possible value for hunters, anglers, landowners, and fish and wildlife in the 2023 bill, we need to know what worked and what didn’t. Below is a quick line-by-line report card on the USDA’s implementation of private land conservation programs since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, plus what we’d like to push for in the next bill.

Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program: A+

In March 2020, the USDA awarded $48 million in funding to state and tribal governments from the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. Later in the year, the TRCP released a report highlighting the innovative ways that states are putting this money to use. States like Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado have used funds to work with landowners to open tens of thousands of huntable acres to the public. Other states have expanded mentorship programs and built websites and mapping tools to make access easier to find. In total, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has estimated a return on investment of $5.20 for every $1 in funding to the program.

The swift distribution of VPA-HIP funds and clear benefits should be a sign to the hunting and fishing community to press for further investment in the VPA-HIP when the Farm Bill is reauthorized in 2023.

Turkey hunter in a farm field at dawn

Conservation Reserve Program: B

Since 2018, the TRCP and our partners have been vocal about the impact that administrative changes had on enrollment in the sporting community’s favorite conservation program: the Conservation Reserve Program. Decisions to eliminate cost-shares and practice incentives and reduce soil rental rates accelerated the CRP’s waning enrollment from 36 million acres in 2007 to 20 million acres in 2020. Fortunately, in 2021, the USDA seized on recommendations from our community to boost enrollment—reinstating incentives and improving the financial reasoning for signing up. Landowners responded, with over 58,000 new contracts and 5.3 million acres enrolled in the program.

There is a General CRP sign-up ongoing through March 11 and a CRP Grasslands sign-up from April 4 to May 13, 2022—so enrollment numbers should continue to climb. But the TRCP and our partners continue to work with USDA officials and lawmakers to identify program improvements ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program: B

Here’s how we arrived at this decent-but-not-stellar grade. First, the positives: EQIP, the most popular working lands conservation program, was significantly expanded in 2018 and has become a central tool in the Biden Administration’s toolkit for addressing agricultural land climate emissions. Increasingly, the NRCS is pursuing innovative ways to draw interest into the most popular working lands program—like a recent announcement that EQIP would offer a Conservation Incentive Contract option, created in 2018, nationwide in 2022. This focuses EQIP practices on specific resource concerns in high-priority conservation areas and provides annual payments over a five-year contract period. These contracts serve to help landowners transition from individual EQIP practices to the whole-farm conservation approach offered by the Conservation Stewardship Program. The agency also recently announced the availability of $38 million for cover cropping demonstration projects in 11 states, advancing the deployment of climate-smart adoption.

The 2018 Farm Bill also expanded eligibility under EQIP programming to water management entities (i.e., irrigation districts) that provide water to farmers and ranchers in the West. Expanded eligibility under EQIP will be a helpful tool in achieving large-scale water efficiency and conservation improvements, which enhance river flows for fish and wildlife. Here’s where things can improve: Based on reports from partners, NRCS state and local staff have received little guidance on how to update EQIP procedures to accommodate new eligible entities and have limited capacity to market the program to eligible users. TRCP is encouraging USDA leadership to provide additional resources to NRCS state and local offices to properly administer and market these new opportunities.

There also continues to be concern in the Colorado River Basin that certain efficiency practices adopted by these entities aren’t translating to water savings benefiting fish and wildlife, despite requirements that efficiency savings not be directed toward activities that increase overall water use. The conservation community continues to work with the NRCS and champions in Congress to ensure that EQIP dollars are achieving the program’s conservation goals.

Conservation easement sign in a field - USDA NRCS Indiana

Climate-Smart Agriculture: A

Among President Biden’s earliest actions in office was an Executive Order directing federal agencies to develop climate mitigation strategies, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The USDA later released a request for information on how new and existing funding and authorities can be used to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices. This process, which the TRCP and partners took part in, yielded important feedback on the need for everything from improved data quantification and management and the development of climate-smart commodities to better landowner outreach and flexibility. Following the feedback process, the USDA released a 90-day progress report in May 2021.

In February 2022, the agency announced $1 billion for climate-smart commodity pilot projects over a period of five years. The program will support partner-led efforts to bring climate-smart commodities to market, supporting carbon quantification, reporting and verification of climate benefits. These partnership projects will serve as proof-of-concept for the future of climate-smart commodity development. These incentives keep lands from being converted and advance the conservation and restoration of ecosystems like wetlands, grasslands, and forests—all of which is critical to securing huntable habitats for generations to come.

Conservation Compliance: D

In April 2021, the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing ineffective enforcement of Conservation Compliance. Also known as Swampbuster, this accountability effort has been in place since 1985 and prohibits those who drain temporary, seasonal wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region from taking part in farm bill programs. The watchdog agency found that USDA wetland specialists were only reporting a fraction of the compliance violations they witnessed. Potential violations are only reported if met during an active inspection. So, wetland drainage violations in sight of roads, property lines, and visible in aerial imagery go unreported. In total, the agency reported less than five violations on 417,000 tracts of land between 2014 and 2018.

Since the report was published, the USDA acknowledged failings and agreed to implement a handful of the report’s recommendations. The TRCP, its partners, and greater conservation community continue working to address this decades-old problem.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program: C

As the premier public-private conservation program, the RCPP lends federal resources to locally led conservation projects to carry out conservation on a landscape scale. It was created in the 2014 Farm Bill and expanded in 2018.

In 2021, the NRCS announced $330 million in RCPP funding awards to 85 projects across the U.S. While notable, partner stakeholder groups continue to report that innovative projects, and those with the greatest conservation impacts, often do not move beyond the application stage because of inflexibility in USDA selection criteria. These and other concerns about burdensome contracting authorities are creating an environment where landowners, conservation groups, and private companies hesitate to take part. This must be improved.

Overall Grade for Implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill: B

The USDA and its implementing agencies have the unenviable task of managing the various, and often competing, facets of American agriculture. Particularly in recent years, market fluctuations, global health, and the swing of the political pendulum have all played a role in shaping how farm bill conservation dollars touch the ground. Considering the drawbacks of the 2014 bill, the 2018 Farm Bill remains a significant achievement, and given all that has gone on in the time since, we give the USDA more than a passing grade in its efforts.

In the 18 months between now and expiration of the 2018 bill, the TRCP and our partners will continue to closely track how these important programs touch down on the landscape. In the year ahead, we will begin the process of drafting legislation for inclusion in the bill’s reauthorization. In doing so, we will rely on our dedicated audience of sportsmen and sportswomen to make their voices heard in support of a strong conservation title in 2023.

Check out the TRCP’s Farm Bill resource center to learn more about these important programs.

Top photo courtesy of the USDA via Flickr.

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