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CRP is Not the Savior

The United States Department of Agriculture is celebrating 30 years of the Conservation Reserve Program known to most simply as CRP. The basics of the program, though there are many wrinkles and enhancements, landowners enroll acreage in a 10-year to 15-year CRP lease requiring that land remain out of production, not farmed or developed, during the lease term. The landowner is compensated by the US taxpayer at varying rates depending on area and type of land which can be from $35 to over $200 an acre.

The program has had some successes countering a mass production mentality. In 2007 at its height there were 36.7 million acres enrolled across the country. Today, congress has limited the amount of land permitted within the program to a total of 24.1 million acres at a cost of $1.6 billion annually. That’s the fewest amount of acres since 1988. With increases in commodity prices over time that track with a hungry and growing global population, the lease rates have had difficulty keeping economic pace.

Decrease in CRP Acreage

One cannot deny that CRP acreage can be an asset for upland game and other wildlife.

But here’s the rub: Even at its maximum enrollment in 2007, the trajectory of all upland bird populations was downward. Resident game bird numbers have been documented declining for at least six decades and at the creation of CRP in 1985 through its peak, those declines have not been arrested.

When conservation organizations, politicians and government agencies place CRP on a pedestal, the height should be limited by an acknowledgment that the program alone cannot and will not be the savior of wildlife and wild places. How do we know this? 30 years of history overlaid by persistent declines in upland birds that show no correlation to the amount of acreage enrolled in CRP.

The authorization for the Conservation Reserve Program resides in the 959 pages of the Farm Bill which has become one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in the halls of congress. That’s not going to change. Lawmakers who want expanded subsidies for American farmers are equally countered by those who want the government out of the farming business. Holding out hope for CRP expansion to reign with constantly favorable political tailwinds on the current five-year renewal cycle of legislation seems folly.

According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s annual State of the Birds report, 75% of resident game birds are of conservation concern. Six of those species are at risk of extinction.

This should be a wake-up call. Resident game birds need conservation solutions that rise above commodity competition. This is exactly why the National Wildlife Refuge system has been such a success for migratory birds. While celebrating 30 years of CRP, the best birthday wish we can grant is an honest conversation about the 60 years of documented bird declines that the program can’t fix on its own.

CRP vs Birds

Bird Concern Score

Why America’s Hidden Birds Count

Upland Bird Conservation Quail

The release of the latest State of the Birds Report confirms Americans are faced with the loss of some of our most iconic game birds. The report, first produced in 2009, called attention to the dire need for conservation action, but seven years later, the number of resident game birds continues to decline and has been declining for over 50 years. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative findings identify 75% of resident game birds as being of Conservation Concern while at least six species are of high Conservation Concern meaning they have a high vulnerability to extinction. It’s a story hunters passionate about upland game do not often hear. A conservation movement for upland birds is needed more today than it was seven years ago. And, the future of upland game birds depends on collaboration between the sportsman and the scientist, who are uniquely qualified to share a passion for game birds with those in this country who may never see these hidden birds and so do not yet know what’s at stake if we lose them.

When we introduced the idea of a new and dedicated funding source for upland bird conservation in the article It’s Time for a Federal Upland Stamp, the most prevalent discussion by state wildlife agency officials and conservation representatives centered around jurisdiction with the emphasis being that management of resident birds is not with the federal government. We refused to believe that jurisdiction or lack of funding was reason enough to turn our backs on new ideas or opportunities to involve a broader audience in the conservation conversation and followed up with a survey of all state agency resident game bird biologists. Below are the responses from 31 states. These responses provide a nationwide view of state management of resident game birds and offer a clue to the collective efforts needed to restore upland species.

 

State Upland Priority

Most state upland biologists gave small game species a “High priority” rating. To hunters, the value of game birds is not just in their economic value, beauty or the fact that they reflect the health of an ecosystem. As hunters, we spend time in the fields where birds live, not just as wildlife viewers, but as participants in shared environments. There’s an unspoken understanding that birds are the essence of the country they inhabit. Because of their propensity to hide and blend with their environments, resident game birds often remain hidden treasures unknown to most who do not pursue them.

Upland hunters who cherish upland birds and the storied history of their pursuit, are just as invested in their success and sustainability. The troubling state of upland bird populations nationwide warrants a high priority rating as well as the projects and initiatives in response to that rating.  And, it’s a call for all naturalists to communicate and collaborate on effective solutions.

 

State Upland Bird Survey

In order to understand the downward trajectory of upland bird populations, we first wanted to understand how each state was calculating the number of resident game birds. What we found was that the majority of states do not estimate game bird populations but rather collect and rely on “trend data.” What is the difference between a trend and an actual population estimate and why is it important? Most wildlife biologists consider a trend a length of 10 years and, for over five decades, trend data documents an uncontrolled decline.

More accurate population estimates are possible and obtained, as proven by estimates done for the Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-chicken after they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act or in states like South Dakota where high economic value and hunter interest is attributed to estimating pheasant population. This sends the message that when urgent action is necessitated by threat of a Federal listing or a business need, accurate estimates and effective initiatives are formed. When three out of four game bird species are of Conservation Concern, how can any conservation-minded citizen accept a business as usual approach?

If we are engaged, we must recognize that bird hunters are underutilized in our capacity to provide data, raise our voices for conservation, and share our passion, not just purchase a license and pay our taxes. When accurate population estimates are generated and harvest data collected for nearly all big game species as well as waterfowl, why are upland birds of high conservation concern the exception to a widely-accepted management practice?

 

What is the single biggest issue facing upland bird species in your state? And What is the biggest initiative your agency is undertaking to address this in the coming year?

Last year, we interviewed the leading upland bird conservation organizations about their programs, accomplishments, goals and challenges to provide a side by side comparison in the article, Conservations Invisible Birds. Most of the organizations we spoke with stated the biggest issue facing upland species today was loss of habitat, and the states surveyed agreed. Over 90% of responses identified habitat loss as the single biggest issue, however many gave different reasons for the cause of habitat loss, and most considered federally-funded programs administered in coordination with non-profits as their biggest initiative and/or successful upland program.

 

What is the total upland game budget for your state? And Would additional dedicated funding sources for upland species and upland habitat assist your state’s upland programs?

State Upland Budgets

Two-thirds of state upland biologists were unable to provide the total upland game budget because the budgets are not broken down by species, upland game does not have a dedicated budget, budgets vary from year to year, and/or budgets are broken down by region. Yet 87% agree that additional dedicated funding could assist in conservation and management, however many identified limiting factors associated with programs (such as in Pittman-Robertson) which require matching funds.

State Upland Stamps

Only six out of 50 states utilize upland stamps. One of the reasons for this may be the perception by both managers and hunters that upland hunters are financially tapped out. However, the average 2015 resident small game license in the U.S. costs less than a box of premium shotgun shells at $21.40 with a rare requirement toward conservation funding, making upland hunting one of the least expensive entries into the sport. Bird hunters are not financially strapped, but we have witnessed a half-century of documented declines without a clear picture of what’s at stake, what’s being done to reverse the decline, or how we can contribute.

Without higher levels of accountability, trust and progress cannot occur. If additional funds and better information are needed and bird hunters are willing to provide those funds and data, game managers must be held accountable to a higher standard of transparency and communication of results.

 

Are volunteers or private landowners able to get involved in state run habitat and/or upland projects? How does your agency communicate or facilitate public involvement in projects?

All of states responding to the survey involve private landowners in upland projects, however not all states conduct outreach efforts or utilize their agency website, media outlets, or social media. According to the PEW Research Center 85% of Americans now have household internet access and 64% own smartphones with which they access the internet. States which collect harvest data with random surveys still mail them to license holders, and only reach a small segment of hunters.

 

Where game management shows progress hunters are engaged. It wasn’t until duck hunters made restoring wetlands and waterfowl their single mission and became directly involved that the steep decline in waterfowl populations reversed in less than a century of active management. Upland hunters continue to be an underutilized source of information and collaboration when we represent a virtual army of citizen scientists and volunteers. In today’s more daunting conservation environment, we must pursue new possibilities for effective communication and results.

Many hunters share the sentiment of lifelong hunter and outdoorsman Gene Heller, now 76 years of age, who has yet to receive Ohio’s Annual Small Game Survey. “I’ve had an Ohio Hunting license for 60 years, hunted my entire life in this state. Over that time I’ve seen grouse, pheasant and quail virtually disappear. Now, I look back and think how it feels as if we’ve been just a spectator. I don’t blame the State, but it’d be nice to know just how bad it really is, instead of seeing the same seasons year in and year out without justification or change.”

When the history of North American game birds tells a story of more than a half-century decline, it is not an act of treason to ask agencies to do more without insinuating “with less.” There’s no ill-will in advancing ideas that encourage or create greater monitoring of bird populations and distributions or a discussion on how sportsmen and women might help do this as well as carry the cost of national initiatives that benefit the game species we hunt. As hunters, our relationship with wild birds, the country they inhabit, and our passion for the dogs, guns, and skills we use to take game does not come without responsibility. If we monitor our game fields and bird populations every season, we have valuable information we can supply state game managers in the form of data, opinions, and ideas, not just funds.

If we are at a point where more hunters accept defeat rather than the possibility of victory in the game fields as well as in the conservation arena, it will no longer matter who has jurisdiction (the states or the Federal government) or who or what is responsible for the absence of funding. When declining trends turn into empty fields and forests, it will be too late to accept a slogan or platitude as news enough. Better engagement requires real communication, collaboration, and big ideas – we can all contribute something. Exploring ideas that require better accountability and communication, dedicated funding sources, or mandatory harvest reporting challenge the status quo, but now is the time it needs to be challenged.

Join us by signing the petition for a Federal Upland Stamp or share your ideas at ultimateupland.com/conservation/ and be a part of conservation and grassroots history today.

 

Upland Stamp Gains Momentum

Franklin's Spruce GrouseEarlier this year, after months of discussion on the state of upland birds and conservation in this country we released an article titled “It’s Time for the Federal Upland Stamp.” The week we published coincided with Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) biannual meeting in Omaha sponsored by the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI)  — often referred to as “The North American” by biologists and wildlife professionals, not known by many others including hunters.

The North American got its start in 1936, but credits Jay N. “Ding” Darling, founder of the duck stamp, with the vision for the national conference as an annual forum for scientists, managers, educators, administrators, and non-governmental conservation interests. Although it is a business meeting, it is also a meeting for and about the organizations and individuals who shoulder the stewardship of conservation in our country. As upland hunters who wished to make upland conservation a priority, it seemed fitting to suggest the idea for a federal upland stamp at the 100th Anniversary of a conference proposed by the founder of the federal duck stamp.

Though there are numerous conservation organization reps in attendance, the conference is primarily biologists, state and federal agency employees, the policy makers and shakers for wildlife and wild places. Hunters are not the focus here. Upland Bird hunters are even a smaller slice, especially ones from the “media.” Truth is, there was very little media at all in attendance, which we found shocking considering the depth of decision and policy being discussed and shaped at the event.

We were asked to speak about the upland stamp at the Resident Game Bird Working Group meeting which is attended by numerous state wildlife officials and members of most of the national upland conservation organizations. If there is one group in the entire country where this idea could credibly be germinated and developed, it would need to come through these members.

Honestly, our presentation to a group of upland bird biologists hit them cold. There were more questions and a general awkwardness in the room than support for the idea of a federal upland stamp. But there were glimmers of hope, private conversations with scientists who had seen the same data we researched to reach the idea for a federal upland stamp. Directors and assistant directors of state departments expressed intrigue. We left WMI with hope that the rest of the conservation establishment would join the discussion.

In July, under the leadership and vision of Director Don McKenzie, the Federal Upland Stamp received public backing of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and their entire board comprised of conservationists and biologists. See McKenzie’s insights in his Ammoland op-ed.  

View the entire letter recommending the upland stamp to the AFWA’s recently assembled Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources, below:

NBCI Letter

Read Full Letter

Last week in New Jersey the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) held its annual meeting where McKenzie presented the stamp for discussion. Months after the idea appeared too big for serious discussion, it continues to gain momentum as the best national funding opportunity to address the glaring shortfalls in wildlife conservation for upland game birds.

Backers are no longer just forward thinking hunters. Join the conversation and become a part of conservation history by signing the petition for a Federal Upland Stamp today.

 

Conservation’s Invisible Birds

Upland Hunter Participation in ConservationAs hunters, we often look to conservation organizations to protect and enhance hunting opportunities or address the critical habitat issues facing upland birds. Yet, many of us are not even members of the organizations we look to for support. For example, the nation’s largest quail organization recently announced its membership topped 15,000. This represents 1.8% of the country’s 841,000 quail hunters. According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there are 1.5 million pheasant hunters and 844,000 grouse and prairie chicken hunters. Only 8% of pheasant hunters are members of Pheasants Forever, and just 1% of grouse hunters are members of the leading conservation organizations focused on the species they hunt.

In contrast, an estimated 47% of the nation’s 1.4 million duck hunters are members of Ducks Unlimited or Delta Waterfowl. In addition to membership in conservation organizations, duck hunters consider it a normal cost of doing business to purchase both a federal and state duck stamp. Since its inception in 1934, the Federal Waterfowl Stamp has raised over $800 million for conservation. Restoring wetlands and waterfowl was the single mission of a small group of sportsmen. Despite the daunting biological, political, industrial and sociocultural environments of conservation today, do upland bird hunters represent a small group of thoughtful individuals capable of reversing unprecedented decline with a singular focus on uplands and upland game?

Upland Conservation Funding

Based on the responses to Ultimate Upland’s article It’s Time for a Federal Upland Stamp, we learned that many hunters would like to see conservation organizations receive additional funds and lead the effort to reverse declining upland game populations. We followed up by asking  the various organizations involved about their programs, accomplishments, goals and challenges to provide a side by side comparison. Their complete responses are available by clicking logos below.

Pheasants Forever LogoQuail Forever LogoWoodcock Limited LogoQuail Coalition LogoNWTF LogoNBCI LogoQUWF LogoNorth American Grouse Partnership LogoRuffed Grouse Society Logo

Most of the organizations we spoke with agreed the biggest issue facing upland species today was loss of habitat. According to Pete Muller, Public Relations Specialist for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), “We lose 6,000 acres a day, with a total of the size of Yellowstone National Park each year.” The NWTF Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. is a 10-year initiative with a commitment to conserving or enhancing 4 million acres of habitat, creating 1.5 million hunters and opening access to 500,000 acres. To understand the magnitude of the losses we face, if we continue to lose habitat at the 6,000-acres-a-day rate, even if NWTF conserves 4 million of those acres, we suffer a net loss of 18 million acres of habitat over the 10-year period.

Pheasants Forever (PF) and Quail Forever Vice President of Marketing Bob St. Pierre points to the Farm Bill as the organization’s current national focus. “Through 2018, it is estimated that $24 billion will be available through the conservation title of the Farm Bill for habitat opportunities.”

Although the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) embedded in the Farm Bill provides large scale, direct and measurable benefits to wildlife and habitat, the Farm Bill is a politically-charged piece of legislation addressing food, farms and jobs and is tied to agricultural interests and commodity demands. Funds allocated for conservation in the latest Farm Bill have decreased by $4 billion over a 5-year span. If we do not fund habitat recovery with sportsmen’s dollars,  are we willing to become political activists and rely on an indirect source of government funding for upland game?

Don McKenzie, Director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) acknowledges that, “Neither the NBCI nor any other game bird organization, initiative, institute or association has taken serious steps to address the bigger, broader need for new, larger, stable funding for upland game bird conservation at the national level.” While species-specific initiatives, such as the NBCI, Sage Grouse Initiative, and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative demonstrate new paradigms in wildlife management that epitomize the value of partnerships, if we want to see meaningful conservation outcomes for upland game, we must come together as a community and support proactive partnership over larger landscapes.

Fundraising through the banquet model is an important source of unrestricted revenue for most conservation organizations. Woodcock Limited told us, “Direct habitat work is our biggest initiative, and that comes from increasing chapters/members.” Jay Stine, Executive Director of the Quail Coalition, points to their unique model that maximizes the use of private dollars, “We minimize organizational overhead with no headquarters building, no offices, and only one contract employee.” Upland hunters are often a fractious group who focus on the differences between dogs, guns, game and methods. We come together in support of conservation for the particular species we hunt.  But, how do we overcome the distinctions between the various organizations and build trust amongst ourselves as a broader community to tackle habitat loss as a single initiative?

Upland Conservation Organization Overview

In order to create greater participation in the issues, we have to recognize that hunting as we know it is a fragile proposition.  Upland birds are often nesting in our neighboring woods and fields. They are elusive and camouflaged to their varied environments.  While we may be secure in our own access to hunting grounds, there is a national crisis involving the loss of our nation’s vast grasslands, early-successional habitats and forests along with the wild birds that rely on them that we seem content to ignore.

The accomplishments and goals of conservation organizations must be understood in the broader context of long-term population declines and a trend toward future habitat loss and degradation. If we accept the status quo we are not going to change the trajectory for upland birds. The future of the game birds we hunt and the wild places they require to survive depend on overcoming our distinctions to join a collaborative conservation partnership that crosses the sometimes controversial boundaries between states, species, organizations, and agencies.

We may believe that it happened all of a sudden when we find ourselves in fields without pheasants and mornings without the sound of bobwhite. If we see the problem clearly, we can begin to move towards changing it through our passion, commitment, and singular focus. The time is now. Where would we be today if we had taken steps toward a dedicated funding source for upland birds 20 years ago?

 

Connecting with Bobwhite

The number of Ohio residents who recognize the distinctive call of Bobwhite is dwindling. The old-timers, a few farmers, the occasional birder can still whistle the tune that was once a fixture of the buckeye landscape prior to the blizzard of ’78. Just a handful of counties in the southwest corner of the state are now habitat to sustaining populations. Those birds are 150 miles as the quail flies from the area where I grew up hearing quail on my grandpa’s farm.

This is dairy farm and Amish country. The fence rows still stand, private land is still logged, successional habitat still exists. But wild quail are nowhere to be found. Under the best conditions not factoring habitat loss, fragmentation and human encroachment, quail populations naturally expanding their range (1/2 mile per year) could hypothetically return Bobwhite to my old stomping ground by the year 2315. There’s a good chance I won’t be around for that, and an even better chance that the Bobwhite quail will no longer be a part of local lore.

This part of the country has never been a quail hunting hotspot. In fact we never hunted them growing up. We simply heard them and appreciated their part in the rural reveille.

Last off-season, we embarked on our own Bobwhite conservation project (See the Backyard Bobwhite series of articles). We reviewed previous data and studies for pen-raised birds. We listened to the skepticism of professionals and conservationists. Guided only by what we’ve learned from years afield, we planted a small food plot and raised 33 birds in pseudo-wild conditions.

We had a hard winter. It really was a nightmare scenario for our small group of birds released in October. It dipped as cold as -22°F and snow totals for the season were close to 30”.

A neighbor to the west had last eyes on our quail in late November. There was no evidence they returned to our food plot over the winter. We believed survival was a long shot given all the existing data on released birds and mortality rates.

But the spring offered a glimmer of hope. A retired biologist friend reported seeing birds in his yard a half-mile south of our release site. And the same neighbor who reported birds in November claimed to be hearing Bobwhite on mornings prior to departing for school. But the ability of locals to correctly identify quail which have not been seen in over 35 years left room for doubt.

As we began assessing this year’s quail plan, turning some ground in our plot to test new seed, sketching the improved flight pen, all doubt was removed. From the cover bordering the small creek that runs through our property, I heard the unmistakeable calls.

To hear them firsthand reminds me why all this is important. It has nothing to do with bird hunting. This is about a way of life. These birds restore a connection to a family farm, to the land, to my grandpa. It’s about finding wonder and worth in small wild elements still able to survive in vastly changing landscapes. Neighbors who have unwittingly missed Bobwhite for a generation are becoming vested in their survival and restoration for their own similar reasons. And now the work to construct the new flight pen doesn’t seem like much work at all.

The Rising Costs of Conservation

Upland Habitat Loss

Wildlife held in the public trust: It’s a cornerstone of the North American Conservation Model. The phrase sounds good, but what does it actually mean in regards to upland birds and upland habitat? Simply put, it means that every wild Sharptail in Montana belongs to the citizens of this country. The Blue Racers of Oklahoma and Texas belong to everyone. We are responsible for the Ruffed Grouse of Maine and the Bobwhite of Louisiana. The public land on which they reside is in our care as well. It is our responsibility and our resource. Regardless of whether or not these birds are in our back yard or on public lands, if they are wild, they are our charge.

Hunters are an irreplaceable force for conservation. License fees, excise taxes on ammunition and firearms, and donations to hunting conservation organizations account for $1.6 billion in annual funds for wildlife and management of those resources. We are able to wear this contribution as a badge of honor – it’s something we use when talking to non-hunters to demonstrate our responsibility and stewardship of wildlife. The license fees and Pittman-Robertson funds account for over $1 billion being utilized by state wildlife agencies. But annual budgets for National Forest Service , National Parks, BLM and NWR alone exceed $10 billion a year and does not account for individual state budgets. A closer look at the numbers reveals a growing gap between our conservation ethic and our talking points.

Wildlife is a resource that both costs and generates money. Wildlife as public property is how state and federal agencies view the game they manage. The costs of conserving these resources are increasing. For upland birds, the effects are two-fold because the drivers of much of this cost increase – land and fuel – are the same things removing upland habitat from the landscape. An acre of residential land cost $84 in 1958. Today that same acre of land costs $6200 – 73 times more expensive. Gas, which cost 30¢ per gallon in 1958, has seen prices well north of $3 in recent years. An item that cost just $1 in 1958 costs $8.09 today.

It takes a lot of people-power to implement effective changes to habitat and manage wildlife resources. The average annual wage in 1958 was $3,674 compared to $44,880 now. To somehow believe that nature is wild, free or should be free is to be stuck in a centuries-old mentality where human activities were part of a self-sustaining ecosystem, not shaping it. Maintaining a resource is always less expensive than having to rebuild it. Unfortunately for upland habitat, rebuilding is the space we find ourselves in, where much has been destroyed, taken away. Decades have passed, and just now we’re awaking to the impacts on the broader ecosystem.

Hunters are faced with this reality: slight gains recruiting new hunters will not increase license sales and equipment sales to the point where conservation can be wholly funded by the sportsman, and it never has been. The reason we shoulder a disproportionate percentage of the cost of wildlife is because we’re passionate about it,  knowledgable and care enough to pay more. Working against hunter funding are the skyrocketing costs of conservation. Land prices driven upward by commodities and development, the cost of fuel, equipment and labor for habitat improvement, the ongoing costs to monitor and manage are all increasing with fewer hunters to foot the bill.

According to over 50 years of license sales data available from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1958 hunters comprised 8.08% of the US population. The highest number of individual license holders occurred in 1982, when there were 16,748,541 licenses sold, making up just 7.23% of the 231 million populace. Since 1982, license holders have decreased in number as well as a percentage of the total population. In 2013, there were 14,631,127 license holders representing 4.63% of the population. The 5% line was crossed in 2005, likely never to be seen again.

Number of Hunters

Hunters tend to be an obstinate bunch. We have a history and legacy of hunting that is woven into the fabric of this country. This tradition has led us to believe we hold the high ground and we preach as if it is unassailable. But ‘us vs. them’ just doesn’t work when faced with the math. We must be conservationists first, caretakers of wildlife and wild places for all. That is the high ground.  Hunting is not an entitlement, it is a privilege and responsibility.

On the bright side 70% of Americans still support hunting. That means there are over 200 million people who are not hunters yet still approve of the activity. Anti-hunters aren’t the growing force, the bump in the night. Sportsmen should not be lecturing about what divides us from the non-hunting public. We should be reaching out to the 200 million people in our corner, encouraging participation and talking about our love of the land and love for the birds. We should be the ones raising awareness for conservation issues and calling for a solution.

Upland bird hunters have an advantage  many other hunting disciplines lack. We don’t cloak ourselves in camo or hide in trees or blinds. We hunt openly, putting ourselves out there. We cherish our bird dogs that are stoic, loyal and inspiring – ideals everyone longs for in people. We raise puppies as family members and they warm the coldest hearts and demonstrate our compassion for animals. We often hunt with the shotguns hung over fireplaces and admired by family members, passed down from grandfathers. We create beautiful scenes of pointing dogs and flushing birds. Upland hunters epitomize a tradition and legacy that non-hunters can witness and respect.

It’s time for new ideas and honest conversation about our roles as stewards of the outdoors. We need non-hunters as much as they need us. We need to talk about hunting in a new way that is inspiring, not divisive. It’s time to talk about conservation in an honest way. If we want to continue upholding the North American Conservation Model then it will take more than hunters to maintain the resources.

As we wrestle with the realities of conservation and participation, the downward trend for upland species continues the decades-long slide. The plight of upland birds and hunters are following the same path. Do we care enough about hunting traditions to take the steps necessary to see them continue? Are upland birds important enough to fight for their existence, even in far off places where we may ourselves never hunt? Debating our role does nothing to change the decline. In truth, the longer we wait to address it, the longer it takes hunters to unite and embrace our responsibility, the cost of replacing the lost resources climbs exponentially. Those who believe now is not a good time are ceding that they prefer longer odds and spending more later.

For more about the Upland Stamp or to sign the petition, visit www.uplandstamp.org

Fill out the online petiiton.

Making the Upland Stamp Work

Prairie Grouse - Photo by Craig ArmstrongMost of us who spend our time outdoors agree that something is going wrong for game bird species. It’s difficult to imagine the landscapes we know as no longer offering an opportunity to seek or enjoy upland birds. The steep decline experienced by many upland species  isn’t the first time in history we’ve faced the prospect of losing abundant game. The American wildlife legacy and hunting heritage might have ended toward the end of the 19th century as a number of species faced extinction due to market hunting. If it weren’t for the emergence of what came to be known as the North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, we would not have the opportunity to hunt freely or enjoy wildlife.

The North American Model followed an 1842 U.S. Supreme Court decision that decreed that wildlife belongs to the people, with opportunity for all, and not government, corporations or individuals. The Model provides for and directs the proper use and management of the wild resources for which we are all responsible as well as prohibits the harvesting of wildlife for commercial markets. When wildlife restoration efforts failed in the early 20th century, it was the united efforts of sportsmen who went to work to fund the restoration of habitat and the protection of wildlife that successfully restored wildlife across the country. It can happen again.

On March 5, 2015, Ultimate Upland introduced a petition for the Federal Upland Stamp for upland habitat conservation in the article, It’s Time for a Federal Upland Stamp. The article brought about heated discussion on what an Upland Stamp managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would mean to hunters, how it would work, whether it would work, or why it would never work. Some do not want to pay “another cent” to conserve the habitat required to sustain upland birds. Some will only pay if there are guarantees on how the funds are spent.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, some are willing to pay such a high price that it may exclude the average hunter.

Historically, it has been those of us who hunt and shoot who have supported the cost of wildlife management. Perhaps ironic to the anti-commercial aspect of the Model, commerce in hunting has resulted in a fundamental success in wildlife restoration. The best example is Pittman-Robertson, an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that is returned to state wildlife agencies for projects to restore, enhance and manage wildlife. Funds may be used to acquire and manage wildlife habitats, provide public use that benefit from wildlife resources, conduct state hunters education programs, and construct, operate and manage recreational firearm shooting and archery ranges. The future of bird hunting in America may depend on a similar program brought by sportsmen who wish to make conserving upland bird habitat a priority for states by creating a dedicated source of funding.

Upland Bird Landscape - Photo by Craig ArmstrongHow Could a Federal Upland Stamp Work?

There are several reasons an Upland Stamp cannot follow the Duck Stamp model even though it replicates its pattern for success. The benefits of an Upland Stamp include an educational aspect and opportunity to highlight the cultural value of upland game species to broader audiences. But, the question asked is: How would it work when most upland game are non-migratory and are not a federal trust species? How would it work when most bird enthusiasts who would support the concept of the Upland Stamp wish for management authority to stay with the states?

The Wildlife Restoration program (Pittman-Robertson) serves as perhaps a better management framework for the Federal Upland Stamp. The Program has been a stable funding source for wildlife conservation efforts for over 75 years and provides states with matching grant funds based on the area of the State (50%) and the number of paid hunting license holders (50%). According to the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Fund Report, excise-tax collections from 1970 to 2006 averaged $251 million per year. No State can receive more than 5% or less than .5% of the total funds made available and must meet a 3 to 1 matching requirement or fund at least 25% of the project costs from a non-federal source (for every $1 spent by the State, the State receives $3 from the fund). Funds are protected and must remain available until expended, meaning that they cannot be diverted for other purposes.

If the Upland Stamp followed this model, it acts as a long-term source of dedicated funding for the conservation of upland habitat that not only preserves State management authority but encourages states to undertake projects benefiting upland game species. The funds require use for acquisition, restoration or conservation of upland bird habitat. Protections against the use of funds for any other purpose, including opposition to the taking of game  result in the same penalties as included in the Pittman-Robertson Act. The allocation methodology is based on landscape-scale habitat needs, population of bird species, or another variable that maximizes the impact of stamp funds. The matching component and period in which funds are allowed to be utilized incentivizes states to use the funding to prioritize upland bird projects.

There is little argument that our landscapes are forever changing as we face the loss of some of our most iconic game bird species with many species experiencing a 40% rate of decline in the last 40 years. Loss of habitat is the primary cause, and a solution originating from sportsmen is the best chance we have to save our upland bird heritage. Upland hunters have a unique understanding of why upland conservation must be a priority, and we have an opportunity to take responsibility for the wild resources that belong to all of us. They have been held in our trust.

Join us in calling for the creation of the Federal Upland Stamp and be a part of conservation and grassroots history by signing the petition today.

*Photos by Craig Armstrong

Fill out the online petiiton.

It’s Time for The Federal Upland Stamp

The Upland Stamp

Authors: Christine Cunningham and Brian Koch
Prototype Stamp Artist: Shari Erickson

American landscapes are forever changing as we face the loss of some of our most iconic game bird species. Grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining bird populations in North America and grassland and prairie habitats are the fastest disappearing habitats in the US.  Last year, the Gunnison sage grouse and Lesser Prairie-chicken were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Greater Sage Grouse, Greater Prairie-chicken, Sooty Grouse, and Northern Bobwhite have experienced a 40% rate of decline in the last 40 years. Scaled Quail and Sharp-tailed Grouse are also showing steep declines with loss of habitat being the primary cause and ultimate solution.

Upland game are now resting on the same precarious perch as waterfowl stood a century ago. But waterfowl did not survive the early market hunting, farming and development demands of an ever-increasing human population on their own. If it were not for the duck stamp, it’s quite possible certain waterfowl species would never have recovered. It wasn’t until 1934, when a deep concern for the plight of migratory birds set into motion a program that has since raised over $800 million for conservation and added 6 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling’s idea of a Federal Waterfowl Stamp required for hunting migratory waterfowl became a reality with the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The duck stamp has since become an unrivaled conservation legacy.

Duck stamp funds are used to purchase land and ongoing management of those lands providing habitat for critical bird breeding, resting and wintering necessary to support waterfowl populations as well as other wetland dependent species. The majority of stamps are purchased by hunters, providing hunters with recognition for supplying funds that support a natural resource that is enjoyed by all. It is a living example of stewardship and demonstrates the responsibility hunters take for the birds we pursue. The stamp has provided a pattern of inclusiveness that allows for a healthy relationship between sportsmen and the wildlife viewing public. It’s a pattern for success that bird hunters and bird enthusiasts can replicate for upland species.

Today most upland bird hunters consider the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to be the best mechanism for upland habitat conservation. However, the Program’s focus is to provide technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water and related natural resource concerns on their lands. Habitat improvements and benefits to wildlife are a fortunate byproduct of the Program, not the focus or intent. The Program cannot keep pace with the price of commodities. In the last five years, there has been a 23% decrease in the land enrolled. The average lease payment to landowners is $66 per acre, drastically lagging crop profits and costing $1.5 billion in tax dollars annually. In contrast, average profits for an acre of corn vary between $200- $325 per acre depending on yield and fuel, fertilizer and other outlays. It stands to reason that, in order to prevent further loss of enrolled land, CRP payments would need to compete with crop returns.

The Conservation Reserve Program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture  (USDA) and embedded in the Farm Bill. The strategic plan of the USDA is to expand markets for agricultural products, support international economic development, expand job opportunities, improve infrastructure in rural America, enhance food safety, improve nutrition and health, and manage and protect public and private lands. Although CRP provides large scale, direct and measurable benefits to wildlife and habitat, the Farm Bill is a politically-charged piece of legislation addressing food, farms and jobs. Funds allocated for conservation in the latest Farm Bill have decreased by $4 billion over a five-year span. A conservation mechanism outside of agricultural interests and free of commodity demands is necessary to continue to prevent habitat loss and fragmentation for declining upland game species as well as other non-game grassland species.

In a country that values agriculture, ranching, and oil and gas exploration and takes pride in the work ethic of farmers and laborers, a balance has not yet been reached between maximizing productivity and conserving the existing landscape and wildlife. The effect of insatiable growth on native birds is fragmentation of habitat and disruption of their movement and mating patterns, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Upland game species do not require untouched wilderness to thrive. Just the opposite is often true. A healthy population of upland birds indicates a healthy ecosystem, and many species can thrive around agriculture so long as the working landscape does not squander its hedgerows, thickets, fence rows, woodlots, and other shelters allowing birds the cover they need.

What could an upland stamp do?

Ding Darling’s idea for a federal duck stamp combined his abilities as an artist and ardent conservationist to create the stamp both as an idea and a reality. The first stamp featured his own brush and ink design of two mallards dropping down to a body of water and was the first in a long history of stamp designs meant to arouse a positive emotional response from the viewer. The benefits of an upland stamp to conservationists, collectors, and artists includes an educational aspect and opportunity to highlight the cultural value of upland game species to broader audiences.

The existence of a healthy population of upland birds represents the American countryside at its best. Unlike waterfowl, which migrate and are easily seen in the sky and on the water, upland birds are often nesting in our neighboring woods and fields. They are elusive and camouflaged to their varied environments, hiding invisibly in fence lines, coverts, plum thickets and sagebrush. The stories of upland game birds that hunters have cherished for over two centuries are coming face to face with becoming a forgotten past.

An upland stamp will face hurdles. There will be opportunities to discuss mechanisms and decide appropriate use of funds generated by an upland stamp managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Ultimately, the recovery of declining wildlife populations requires the voice of conservationists, and it is the objective of the Fish and Wildlife Service to assist in the development and application of an environmental stewardship ethic for our society, based on ecological principles, scientific knowledge of fish and wildlife, and a sense of moral responsibility as well as administer a national program to provide the public opportunities to understand, appreciate, and wisely use fish and wildlife resources.

Now is the time to call for saving our upland bird heritage. Now is the time to make upland conservation a priority alongside economic interest. Upland hunters have a unique understanding of why upland conservation must be a priority, and we have an opportunity to lead the charge, much like waterfowl hunters have with the purchase of stamps for decades.

Join us in calling for the creation of the Federal Upland Stamp and be a part of conservation and grassroots history by signing the petition today.

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Backyard Bobwhite: Part 4

Release the Birds

It’s a bitter sweet day. The quail project we conceived in the spring (Part 1) is winding down as the leaves begin descending and first frosts are painting the pasture. We’ve gotten attached to these birds, invested in their condition, entertained by their antics. We’re just a few zip ties away from that being gone.

Our Bobwhite are 17 weeks old, fully grown for the most part and well fed. A good comparison point; quail released on shooting preserves or used for field trials are often 12-15 weeks old. Our birds look big, bigger than most wild Bobs I’ve shot. Their caretaker (my dad) has seen to it that they have not been lacking.

Only two of the original 35 chicks were lost to a farm cat that found a weakness in our pen very early on which we quickly rectified. The hope is that they’ve imprinted on the area by now, recognize the cover and benefits of the food plot and have been exposed to enough attempted yet unsuccessful predation that they still know danger.

The birds still act cagey as we prepare to loose them, diving to the remaining cover in the pen which has been well trampled after three months of captivity. The female birds appear more wild than the males who number 10-11. It’s tough to get a truly accurate breakdown because they scatter so quickly.

Our ideas of micro-conservation are still evolving. Trial by fire. Our plan has received best wishes and scoffing alike. Biologist friends have doomed our ambitions as folly. They are the experts, we’re the underdogs. So be it. The experts have made little to no progress in Bobwhite restoration efforts in over four decades. Could it possibly be time to start thinking differently?

Regardless the outcome, whether our birds run the gauntlet of winter and predation to spring, let’s go over the facts of what has  already been accomplished:

• We returned an area of yard, useless fescue, to wildlife habitat and lessened the amount of mowing and upkeep required.

• We tried out a seed mix to see how it would perform with minimal equipment, hand seeding and no supplemental fertilizer. The cover and food resulting from this effort have been fairly impressive, but the hand seeding was a bit thick and caused most of the sunflower to get choked out. We may look at additional mixes and are interested to see what happens to the plot in winter and spring.

• We tested an inexpensive pen of our own design to see if it could allow birds to feed from the ground, keep birds safe and predators at bay with mixed results. We’ll likely make adjustments to our design, but it was a good starting point.

• We used multiple food sources, learning what the birds liked most and weaning them without mishap from game bird meal to seeds and worms which they will need to find in order to survive on their own. Dried meal worms seem to be the biggest winner, followed by a seed mix that contained thistle. We also learned these little birds eat a lot, way more than we expected.

• We’ve gotten friends and young people (grandchildren, nieces, nephews) who have never seen a quail before interested in the species and invested in their survival. They would likely otherwise never see a Bobwhite in Ohio in their lifetime.

• Most importantly, we started a debate about upland conservation. And more of these conversations are needed.

We refuse to be told our efforts are in vain because we have facts that tell us otherwise. Our small group of birds may not survive, but our resolve certainly will. We will continue to explore micro-conservation because it seems the only true, long-term path forward.

Good luck little Bobwhite. Hope to see you soon.

 

 

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 3

8 week old Bobwhite

Educating birds, or Educating Us

It’s been just over a month since we added 35 young Bobwhite to our small flight pen. The birds are now approaching 10 weeks of age and in a couple more weeks we should start to see their adult colors and get a better idea of the gender mix of our population.

We learned very quickly that the soft sided netting at ground level was not going to be sufficient to repel farm cats. And then there were 33. But it was a good lesson to learn early before attempts by more wild and nefarious predators could be made under cover of darkness. Some quick adjustments to the pen with some wire mesh seem to have improved security and we’ve not lost another bird to date.

Young quail eat a lot. They have no problems pseudo-foraging for food which we’re broadcasting on the ground. Meal worms seem to be the most highly prized energy source which makes sense because of the high protein requirements for young birds. Grasshoppers or crickets unfortunate enough to wander into the pen are quickly divided as well.

The cover and food plot continue to thrive in the wet Ohio summer and grain yields should fair quite nicely this fall. In the interim it provides good hides within the pen that the Bobs seem to enjoy. It is astonishing how quickly 30 birds can disappear in such a small enclosure.

It’s become clear these birds will not be made truly wild as we once hoped. They have imprinted on their primary caretaker, my dad, and he has taken to them as well. This might be concerning if there was a thought we ever intended to “hunt” these quail. But the goal is not to have strong flyers for shooting. The goal is to have fat healthy birds that stand a chance of surviving a rough winter. Our wild bird plan has become multigenerational.

If we can shield some birds from the clutches of a deadly winter and all the peril therein, a breeding in spring will produce hatchlings that have never known a pen or the charity of a free meal.

So the bar has moved. We’re learning and hopefully our quail are as well. They still demonstrate wild tendencies to evade and hide. But the dinner bell strikes a powerful chord that trumps most fears. Maybe when the seeds begin dropping after the first frost and we open the pen, the provider of food will become less important.

For now we’ll just hope luck remains on our side and we can keep birds healthy and growing to the satisfaction of the old man and quail alike.