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Will It Work?

By now, most who read this magazine and the majority of dedicated quail hunters are aware of The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Experts, critics and amateurs alike tend to agree that while not a panacea, the plan does offer a legitimate shot at restoring quail populations to a level not seen in twenty years. Opinions diverge when discussion turns to how legitimate a shot it is. There are far too many factors in play to make the outcome certain, some of which are independent and some of which are tightly intertwined, leaving the chances for success somewhere between a coin toss and a done deal. So just how likely is it that the plan will work? What are the chances that some of us will experience bobwhite hunting better than we can remember?

The plan is not short on technical merit. Resources were pooled by and from the foremost authorities in quail management to provide a blueprint representing the most current state of habitat knowledge. And the plan is habitat-intensive, not mentioning predator control or supplemental feeding, the theory being that good habitat provides the necessary cover to reduce predation and provides adequate food sources as well. In spite of narrowing the focus to habitat alone, the plan is ambitious to say the least, calling for the addition of 2.7 million coveys throughout the range of the bobwhite. The authors estimate that this will require habitat changes on over 80 million acres of land. That's an area roughly equivalent to every inch of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia combined. Think about that the next time you're driving down an interstate.

What exactly has to happen over the next twenty years to impact 80 million acres of land? This acreage is comprised of farm, forest and range land, bringing a distinct group of interests with each. Those directly responsible for this acreage naturally include farmers, foresters, and ranchers, and three groups of individuals seem manageable enough, right? If the list ended there it would be, but consider the extension: those indirectly responsible yet having significant impact include private landowners, local, state, and federal government bureaus, large corporations (through land holdings, mitigation agreements, and environmental impact), sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts, even the general public (through demand for agricultural products such as timber, livestock and poultry, and grain). The formula now has quite a few more variables and the short answer to the question posed in the first sentence of this paragraph is that all of these groups, from the largest in number to the smallest in impact, have to work together toward the common goal. Easier said than done.

Nuclear scientists use the term 'critical mass' to describe the point at which a chain reaction begins. In layman's terms, enough of a one type of radioactive material must be brought close to another type of radioactive material, and once the right amounts of these two materials are brought together, a reaction occurs that is very difficult to stop. As the term applies to quail and The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative a critical mass would be the minimum number of people from each of the groups mentioned above to begin affecting habitat in the way described in the plan, and to do so in a way that would be easier to continue than to stop. Unfortunately, the plan doesn't tell us what this critical mass number is. To be honest, I'm not sure that there is anyone in this country who could tell us what that number is. It's a situation where we'll know what the number is when we get there. Suffice it to say that it is much greater than the number of individuals currently participating.

Recruiting participants, contributors and supporters hinges - yes I'm going to use that phrase again - on a lot of factors. Fortunately for the sake of this article, these can be lumped into three basic groups. The first is what I call the "do-gooders". These fine folks will donate their time and money to the cause not because of the direct benefits they will enjoy, which will in all likelihood be far fewer than the days spent working on the initiative or the dollars invested in it, but because they know it is something that needs doing, something that will benefit not only them but countless others, and for generations to come. A number of these people are already involved, providing a solid foundation upon which to build.

The second group is the "what's in it for me?" crowd. The name carries a selfish connotation and it really shouldn't. A lot of the people in this category will be asked to do things to their land that they otherwise wouldn't do, and if they are willing to go to the time and expense to make these changes, they have a right to ask what their benefit will be. Leaving field edges fallow, thinning hardwoods and/or pine stands, reverting cropland to beneficial grasses - these and other habitat enhancements involve treating the land with a different hand (if the land was already quail-friendly, these changes wouldn't be necessary). In many cases, the issue boils down to money. If the financial incentives are in place, it should be a relatively easy sell, but making money appear in a stressed economy isn't always easy. Chances for success with this group may rise and fall with Wall Street, but they won't get anywhere unless two things happen. First, the do-gooders must get the word out to the what's in it for me crowd that enhancing habitat can benefit them. Second, the do-gooders must incessantly lobby their state and federal lawmakers and wildlife officials to create attractive incentive programs.

And last there's the "cool factor" that most movements encounter. Reggie Thackston, wildlife biologist and head of the Bobwhite Quail Initiative in Georgia, likes to use the expression "success breeds success" and although it sounds like a motivational mantra, there is a great degree of truth in these words. The cool factor is contagious. People love a winner, and they love to be associated with a winner. This time last year everyone was a Tampa Bay Bucs fan, most of them sporting jackets and hats and jerseys fresh off the rack. Most of those are now quietly tucked away in a closet. To borrow from another conservation group, think about how many DU duck head stickers you see in car windows. While a good many of their members are duck hunters, there are more than a handful who just like the look of the sticker in their window. The same goes for the two- and three-letter abbreviation stickers. In my area, one of the more popular ones is "OBX", which somehow abbreviates Outer Banks and refers to the strand of barrier islands along the North Carolina coast. While pumping gas or standing in line at a convenience store, I've asked several people where on the Outer Banks they vacation, only to receive a blank stare in reply. One person answered Wrightsville Beach, which is on the North Carolina coast but is solidly attached to the mainland. This is the power of the cool factor, and ridiculous as it may sound, the right sticker may be all that is necessary to garner a $25 donation from the masses.

Loath as I am to use a term from the late '80s associated with an economic policy that was questionable at best, these factors fall into a trickle down relationship. For forest habitat to change, forest management practices have to change, which means that x# states much change their thinking along with several hundred logging companies and landowners. Money is the common denominator among these diverse interests, and to spur tax incentives and donations and personal sacrifices that supply the money, taxpayers must become a squeaky wheel. To create a loud and sustained squeak requires some funding of its own. All of this comes back to human participation. At some level or another, people have got to get involved. It's not rocket science, brain surgery, or even nuclear physics. It's grabbing a hammer and swinging. Possibly the greatest enemy the bobwhite faces at this point is not habitat, but apathy.

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