At the January 2017 meeting of the Gulf Coast Prairie Steering Committee in Kingsville, TX, partner organizations made a series of fascinating presentations hinting at why Bobwhite should be a species managed on a regional, rather than an individual property, scale.
Northern Bobwhite: A large landscape species?
In a series of sessions on quail and grasslands research - much of it supported by the GCP LCC - a new picture of quail management began to emerge. Leonard Brennan, the "Charlie" Winn Endowed Chair for Quail Research at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, argued that we should be managing habitat for Bobwhite on a landscape scale and harvesting on a pasture scale, when in actuality we do just the opposite. He said “build it (quail habitat on 40 acres) and they will not come without connectivity!”
Boom or bust...Why is connectivity so important for quail?
Randy DeYoung, a Caesar Kleberg research scientist, pointed out that Bobwhite are generally thought to be sedentary with a ~1-mile dispersal distance, and they are short-lived with boom and bust population cycles, due largely to changes in rainfall. Yet with limited dispersal, we’d expect higher genetic diversity between quail populations, when in fact there are few differences.
The current theory is that boom/bust cycles may contribute to greater dispersal distances than previously thought, i.e. when populations expand, they disperse far more widely (for example, one case in Oklahoma showed a dispersal of 50 miles overnight).
Humberto Perotto-Baldivieso presented the evidence for why connectivity is so important. His recent analysis of 40-years of point count data showed that variability in Northern Bobwhite abundance in the GCP region goes flat (i.e. the population appears less able to “bounce back” after drought years) as soon as the percent of impervious surface in the region gets to .7% or higher. This means it doesn’t take much to create a tipping point for populations to crater along a BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) route.
That begs the question about urban planning. Impervious surface is likely an indicator of the impacts of associated development. When Texans are looking at losing up to 3000 sq km of rangeland in the next 40 years (about 800,000 acres) that is sobering.
Currently in South Texas there are 10 - 11 million acres that are not fragmented and will support quail (when there is sufficient rain - a critical caveat). This is why south Texas recently garnered designation as a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative National Legacy Landscape.
Leonard Brennan thanked the GCP LCC, saying “for more than 20 years, I wanted project funding to do a broad-scale fragmentation study on Bobwhite. I want to offer a huge thanks to the LCC as the first organization to put serious money on the table to do a quantitative study of bobwhite habitat fragmentation on a large scale across state boundaries.”
Preventing habitat fragmentation by preventing exotics encroachment
Forrest Smith, the Dan L. Duncan Endowed Director of the South Texas Natives program, focused on some little known facts about why the structure and composition of exotic grasslands detracts from native wildlife diversity. He noted the characteristics of exotic grasses that make them poor habitat for wildlife include:
For example, the structure of exotic grasslands affects Bobwhite because quail productivity is reduced when the poor birds spend too much energy trying to move around in the dense cover. On the other hand, an analysis of just four native Texas forbs recently demonstrated that 32 to 48 butterfly species used these plants.
Smith noted it can take 30 years for a grass to become “invasive” - at that point, it’s hard to control. With respect to exotics at least, policy solutions often do not address a problem until it’s too late because once a species has become invasive, it often becomes way too expensive to control.
Therefore, he argues that as the remaining special habitats in Texas face pipeline, oil, and solar infrastucture development - all of which become conduits for exotics invasion - the best way to manage this problem is to prevent it by restoring with native grasses after installation. That is the goal of the South Texas Natives program, which is developing native seed supplies for this purpose. Over its 15-year history, the program has succeeded in commercially producing up to 30 species of high quality native grass seed at a level that is affordable for most landowners and restoration projects.
Real life Bobwhite management on a large scale
Matthew Schnupp, a biologist at the King Ranch, presented analyses from his helicopter surveys in which wildlife sightings began to be georeferenced in 2010. By calculating an encounter rate and combining this with supplemental surveys, Schnupp was able to calculate spatial density estimates for key species, by pasture, overlaid with a simple habitat land cover defined as brush (i.e. woody cover) or nonbrush.
He said King Ranch focuses on “things we can manage,” which are (1) woody cover (30-40% target for quail and deer), and (2) wooded perimeter (650 meters of edge per hectare target). Schnupp emphasized that King Ranch in actuality manages two things: habitat and hunter expectations. The expectations are key to keeping their hunting lessees happy, while also keeping hunting pressure at the optimal levels - even if that means skipping a harvest in drought years.
The human dimensions of private land conservation
Ken Cearley, Stewardship Director of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), presented information about TALT, which currently holds agricultural easements on >225,000 acres in Texas. These easements protect a wide variety of agricultural uses of the land, but do not allow its development. Cearly indicated TALT’s keen interest in working with the LCC in the region.
Given the importance of working with private landowners in the GCP (and the entire Southeast), the GCP LCC’s own Cynthia Edwards will be standing up a working group on Human Dimensions (HD) for the GCP and GCPO LCCs. She provided her working definition of human dimensions: The human dimensions of conservation is the incorporation of social sciences into conservation efforts to improve decision making. She noted this means “people are the problem and they are also the solution.”
Her vision is that an HD community of practice will:
HuLA - Human Landscape Assessment
Jon Hayes, formerly with the Oaks & Prairies Joint Venture and recently hired as the Great Plains LCC Science Coordinator, introduced his “HuLA” project whose aim is to define and identify a targeted audience for engagement by the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program, or GRIP. GRIP provides financial incentives to help landowners new to the land conduct prescribed burns, prescribed grazing, brush management, and range planting.
Not content with the $1.5 million already allocated over the life of the GRIP program (80,000 acres at an average price of <$19/acre), Hayes wants to ramp up participation to achieve the GRIP habitat objective of ~450,300 acres under management.
Thus their GRIP conservation business plan included market-based conservation delivery strategies, such as a “conservation ranching” ecolabel, and a focus on the human dimensions of conservation. They are trying to use existing big data online as a proxy for behavior to identify the best targets for outreach.
ESRI Tapestry, for example, has data down to the level of percentage of people in a zip code who “participated in hunting with a shotgun in the past year.” They are planning to augment their big data analysis by conducting a survey of 10,000 landowners, with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department covering the cost of the survey, printing and mailing.
Assessing vulnerability of Quadrula species - indicators of water quality and supply
In a region as arid as the Gulf Coast Prairie, water and aquatic species are never far from the conservation agenda. Ben Kahler, GCP LCC Science Coordinator, shared the news that a species status assessment and landscape conservation design for Quadrula species in the Lower Colorado River is to be conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service using the GCP LCC’s quadrula research.
This effort will assess species viability, and after two years, we should have an understanding of the viability of Quadrula species, built on LCC investments. Kahler noted that this very direct impact of LCC research on future decisions about risk and conservation actions needed for vulnerable species should be considered just one of many LCC success stories!