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Understanding How Grassroots Conservation Supports Upland Bird Species

Considerations for choosing smaller nonprofit conservation organizations to support.

Understanding How Grassroots Conservation Supports Upland Bird Species

The Mule Deer Foundation plants sagebrush seedlings to restore habitat. (Photo courtesy of Mule Deer Foundation)

Bird hunters are a passionate crowd. We are zealous about wingshooting, our dogs, and wild places. We are also passionate about conserving the game birds that we pursue. For hunters looking to donate time and money, there are numerous organizations to consider, but how can a hunter know which of these is the best fit for them?

The bird hunting community is served by several larger and well-known nonprofits. Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and Ducks Unlimited are household names. These organizations offer great opportunities for sportspeople to get involved. Sometimes, it is easy to overlook smaller nonprofits, even though many of these groups also deserve our support.  

What Makes a Good Nonprofit?

Regardless of the scale of the organization, it is essential to have well-defined goals for your involvement. It is impossible to know whether a nonprofit’s mission aligns with your own if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish through your contributions.  

For me, I have several criteria that I use to direct my time and money. While many conservation organizations take on the important work of improving public hunting access, educating new hunters, and lobbying politicians, I look for organizations that are restoring or preserving habitat on the ground. We would all like to experience better hunting and fuller vests, but it is far more important to ensure that wild birds are still viable a century from now.

I also look for organizations that have financial transparency. Just like a business, a successful nonprofit must pay good people to do good work. Nonprofits need to advertise and keep the lights on. Nonetheless, any organization should be able to show and justify its expenditures to donors.

Lastly, I look for organizations that make it easy to contribute. I especially like opportunities for folks to get their hands dirty. Big donors are great, but the best organizations give everyone a chance to give back physically and financially.

To help spotlight the importance of bird hunters to support smaller conservation organizations, I’ve identified five native upland birds that are important to me. Then, I found five smaller nonprofits that are working to save these iconic species. These grass-roots groups may not be household names, but their work aligns with my conservation ideals.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed grouse are experiencing a boom in popularity amongst upland hunters. The beautiful prairies they inhabit are a top early-season destination for many. Throughout the core of their current range, sharptail populations are likely healthy, although few states conduct official observations.

On the margins of their range, sharptails are experiencing declines. This is especially true for the Columbian sharptail and prairie sharptail subspecies, which have seen significant reductions in distribution over the last few centuries. In the upper Midwest, they are especially vulnerable to further habitat losses from farming, urban development, and forest encroachment.

male sharp-tailed grouse lekking on a log
A sharp-tailed grouse on a lek in northern Wisconsin. (Photo By: Christine Kessler)

The Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society (WSGS) is on the front lines of the fight to save one of the easternmost populations of sharptails. Formed in 1990, membership in the organization has almost tripled since its inception. Despite dedicated volunteers, WSGS faces an uphill battle. Sharptail grouse counts in Wisconsin have dwindled by about 70 percent over the last thirty years.

“Our mission matters because complete landscapes matter.” Explains Trevor Bellrichard, WSGS media director, when asked why Wisconsin’s sharptail populations are worth saving. “Here in Wisconsin, we are taking steps to conserve and expand a once common landscape, allowing our citizens to engage in rich interactions with the species therein, as well as our shared past.”

The organization is tackling the problem of habitat loss on multiple fronts. They partner with various state, federal, and other nonprofit organizations to implement their on-the-ground habitat work, which consists of brushing, roller chopping, mowing, burning, and seeding. They also acquire key habitat properties to manage as state wildlife areas.

Bellrichard also notes that WSGS is instrumental in supporting scientific research and fieldwork. 

“One of these is a major three-year project to restore sharptail numbers on the Moquah Barrens. This includes trapping, health checking, genetic analysis, radio collaring, releasing, and monitoring.”

Bellrichard encourages anyone interested in their work to get involved, especially Wisconsin residents, who can make their voices heard at all levels of government.

jack pine in rolling pine barren landscape northern wisconsin
Rolling Barrens landscape in northern Wisconsin. (Photo By: Trevor Bellrichard)

Northern Bobwhite Quail

Universally loved by upland hunters from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, there’s no other species that better highlights the urgency for conservation action. Due to a variety of factors, including invasive grasses, woodland expansion, housing development, and herbicide/pesticide use, bobwhite quail have seen much of their habitat evaporate while isolated huntable populations are even disappearing from some states.

Like other game birds, bobwhites require landscape-scale management plans to sustain populations. Tall Timbers, a Florida nonprofit, takes this approach. Established as a research station in 1958, Tall Timbers has a long history of quail science and conservation. 

Brad Kubeka is Tall Timbers’ western game bird program director. He likes the organization’s collaborative strategy and their current fieldwork projects.

“We work alongside public and private land managers who try different things and apply those practices in an experimental fashion so we can empirically study different management approaches.” says Kubeka. “Our new work in east Texas is restoring bobwhite populations in an area where so many have written them off. A current project includes translocating bobwhites to an area that has undergone extensive habitat restoration. We are working to establish a few more areas just like it, one of which is an area that could be used for public hunting opportunities.”

Bobwhites are relatively easy to raise in captivity, but most hunters would prefer to encounter wild birds on a hunt. Within their range, bobwhites are an indicator species.

“When bobwhite populations are doing well, it’s a good sign for the ‘health’ of that ecosystem,” Kubeka adds. “The mission of Tall Timbers is to foster exemplary land stewardship through research, conservation, and education.”  

quail hunter in southern pine plantaion with pointing dogs
A hunter takes aim at a bobwhite rise in the southern pines. (Photo By: Brad Kubecka)

Ruffed Grouse

You haven’t lived till you’ve experienced the explosive flush of an old drummer in the October woods. Ruffed grouse are a popular quarry in the Great Lakes region and the Northeast. There are also huntable populations in parts of the Rocky Mountains, Appalachia, and much of Canada. Like other game birds on this list, ruffed grouse have lost habitat across most of their range.

Since 1944, the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) has worked to maintain and restore healthy forests in Northeastern states. Much of this region is private property, so NEFF has been focused on creating conservation easements and management assistance. 

Will Brune is NEFF’s chief conservation officer and mentions how their conservation tools help landowners continue to own and manage their land for forest products, wildlife, and recreation. He adds that NEFF also acquires key properties to use as educational forests. Brune also notes that much of the 1.2 million acres of forestland with conservation easements provide opportunities for bird hunters and more than 150 of NEFF’s properties are open to public recreation, including grouse and woodcock hunting.

NEFF doesn’t just create more access for hunters, they actively manage forests to produce more birds. Brune is excited about recent projects like the Frenchman Bay Community Forest in Maine and the Nadeau Forest in New Hampshire. 

“The Nadeau timber harvest in 2012 created openings which will be allowed to naturally regenerate, creating diverse early successional wildlife habitat for species such as grouse and woodcock,” Brune says.

upland bird hunter holding a ruffed grouse
Proactive forest management is critical for healthy ruffed grouse cover. (Photo By: Will Brune)

I asked Brune why NEFF puts so much effort into private forest management. “Approximately 56 percent of all U.S. forestland is in private hands, and family forest owners in turn control 62 percent of that land. This means family forest owners’ collective decisions will have an immense impact on the future landscape. Other large-scale private landowners also have a part to play in protecting our forests, and NEFF’s land conservation strategy accounts for both groups.”

Mearns Quail

For those fortunate enough to travel to hunt, desert quail are often the last birds of the season. In the Sky Island ranges of Arizona and New Mexico, Mearns quail inhabit oak savanna foothills. Although their range stretches along the backbone of Mexico, good habitat is spotty north of the border. West Texas populations have already been closed to hunting.

Kurt Vaughn is the executive director of Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN) and says that historic overgrazing, drought, and climate change have caused stress and degradation to the landscape. 

“Our group takes a multi-pronged approach to restoring degraded landscapes that actively involves stakeholders and community members to repair and protect our landscapes.” explains Vaugn.

volunteers making erosion control structures in arizona desert
Ecology interns constructed erosion control structures in Arizona Mearns quail country. (Photo By: Kurt Vaughn)

Vaughn says the work being completed in the Huachuca Mountains is their largest current quail habitat project. Their teams are working with volunteers from Southern Arizona Quail Forever to fund and implement this conservation project. They plan to install erosion control structures constructed from rock and native dead-and-down woody material to improve water infiltration, retain organic-rich sediment, and decrease the erosive force of rain events. They also plan to seed the area with native species to aid in erosion control while providing eventual forage for quail.

BRN also works to control invasive vegetation, which can rob nutrients from the native species that support quail. They revegetate areas impacted by wildfires or overgrazing to ensure that diverse, native plant species have a fighting chance. Their work doesn’t just benefit quail, but also Coues deer, migratory birds, and numerous other unique wildlife. 

Sage Grouse

At double the weight of pheasants, sage grouse are a big deal. They are also significant because the economy of the West depends on their survival. With a large portion of their habitat occurring on public land, energy developers, livestock producers, and anyone else that makes a living off public land resources are vested in healthy sage grouse populations.  

Although they fluctuate like every other game bird, sage grouse have declined across their range by 80 percent since biologists started paying attention to them over 50 years ago. Core areas in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana still hold decent numbers, but sage grouse in California, Washington State, the Dakotas have had a rough go of it— enough so that hunting seasons have closed in these states. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, sage grouse are now listed as endangered. 

Steve Belinda is the chief conservation officer for the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) and explains that although their organization doesn’t have ‘sage grouse’ in their name, they are an excellent model of game bird conservation in action.

“Mule deer and sage grouse range overlap by about 90 percent, and both rely on sagebrush,” says Belinda. “Consequently, conserving and restoring mule deer habitat is synonymous with saving sage grouse habitat.”

The MDF has multiple habitat projects across a large swath of the West. These include sagebrush planting projects in Idaho, southern Wyoming, and western Colorado along with removing and preventing cheatgrass in Idaho and western Wyoming. From Nevada to North Dakota, MDF is working to remove conifers which are expanding into sage grouse habitat due to fire suppression. Another range wide priority is removing defunct fences and making necessary fences more wildlife friendly.

mule deer and sage grouse habitat in american west
Treating cheatgrass with herbicide is a very effective way to preserve sage grouse habitat. Treated area on the right side of the fence, untreated on the left. (Photo courtesy of Mule Deer Foundation)

Belinda mentions how difficult these habitat projects would be without the proper partnerships. They partner with every state fish and wildlife agency, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Intermountain Joint Venture, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others.

Grass roots organizations can sometimes become hyper-focused on conserving a specific species or resource. Bird hunters (and the nonprofits they support) need to consider how to partner with other interest groups to achieve shared goals and the MDF is a perfect model of such collaboration.

Belinda encourages bird hunters to support their mission but notes that conservation doesn't stop at the checkbook. 

“Become knowledgeable, get involved in planning/actions that can have detrimental impacts to mule deer, sage grouse, and other wildlife,” says Belinda. “Hold your elected officials, agencies, and businesses/industry accountable for laws and regulations aimed at ensuring mule deer and other wildlife have a future.”

Conservation Requires Action

The old adage “hunting is conservation” only holds truth for those hunters who go out of their way to conserve the species they love. I’m not a wealthy person, but I can still contribute to large and small organizations that are making a tangible difference for game birds.  

The work of conserving upland bird species and their habitats is always in front of us. With several million bird hunters scattered across every corner of the continent, we can be the force that ensures that our children and their children continue to enjoy wild birds and the places they call home.

If each of us invests just a small portion of our time and money, the collective impact of hunters can turn the tide. There are numerous ways to give. Find an organization to support and get involved, and consider starting with smaller, grass roots groups. There is no better way to show your passion for your pursuit.

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