Individuals and groups recognized from Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever recently presented four respected wildlife professionals with Conservation Service Awards during the 88th North American Wildlife & Natural Resources Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The award winners were selected for their distinguishing contributions to wildlife habitat conservation efforts nationwide, including landscape-level habitat improvements through cooperative partnerships and direct mission delivery of critical programs for upland birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.
“The mission work of The Habitat Organization is achieved through our local chapter model, meaningful conservation partnerships, and the incredible efforts of wildlife professionals across America,” said Marilyn Vetter, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “This year, we’re proud to celebrate four individuals from unique geographies who have played a pivotal role in landscape-level efforts to conserve iconic species and access opportunities for future generations to enjoy.”
Ty Gray – Director, Arizona Game and Fish Department
For the past 30 years, Ty Gray has dedicated his career to serving the interests of wildlife and hunters throughout the state of Arizona. Since 1993, Gray worked his way through the ranks of Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) as a research biologist, human dimensions coordinator, education branch chief, fisheries chief, assistant director - information, education and recreation division, and deputy director. Over his career, he has been involved in several initiatives to improve processes and services the Department provides its customers including license structure and fees, development of R3 programs, shooting range development, hunter education improvements, improving online services, and employee engagement.
Gray received a B.S. in Fisheries and Wildlife Resource Management from the University of Nebraska (1992). His passion for wildlife and outdoor recreation began at a very early age when his father first started taking him hunting and fishing in western Nebraska.
Quail Forever recognizes Ty Gray for helping establish an outstanding partnership with Arizona Game and Fish Department that is improving wildlife habitat, providing public access to the outdoors, and helping recruit, retain, and reactivate sportsmen and sportswomen for the future.
Under Director Gray’s leadership, Quail Forever hired the organization’s first-ever biologists in desert quail country (Tucson) focusing on habitat restoration efforts for Gamble’s, Scaled, and Mearns’ quail, as well as the epicenter for dove hunting in the Southwest (Yuma), helping implement a community-based program connecting wildlife, hunters, and landowners to local economies. Collectively, these positions have restored over 8,000 acres for Gamble’s and Scaled quail, enrolled access agreements opening ~30,000 acres to public recreation, and opened 5-10 farms per year for the Yuma Dove Hunt that resulted in approximately 5,000 hunter days afield each year.
In a defining project for the Southwest, Quail Forever, AZGFD and other partners collaborated to secure perpetual hunter access to the Tombstone Ranch, a 2,200-acre property that was the first conservation easement in Arizona to include a “forever” public access stipulation.
Tom Kirschenmann – Director of Wildlife, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks
In 2005, Kirschenmann joined South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP), working as the upland game biologist out of the Huron office before moving to Pierre in 2008 to serve as the wildlife program administrator. Within a year, he was named terrestrial section chief and worked in that position for 10 years. Kirschenmann was also the Wildlife Division’s deputy director for three years before being named director.
A Eureka native, he grew up on a cow/calf operation and large animal veterinary practice. After graduating with his master’s degree in wildlife management from SDSU, Kirschenmann spent 10 years working as a regional wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever.
Regarding Pheasants Forever’s private lands work, South Dakota is ground zero for the organization’s Farm Bill biologist partnership that was launched 20 years ago. What began in 2003 with the hiring of four biologists in eastern South Dakota has grown into the largest team of private lands specialists in the country, all focused on the singular goal of helping producers run successful and profitable operations while meeting their conservation objectives. There are now 268 Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Farm Bill biologists in 35 states, addressing habitat needs from the bobwhite pine savannas of the
Southeast to the sage steppe of the American West – and yes, the iconic plains of South Dakota thanks to partners like Kirschenmann and SDGFP with a larger vision for habitat conservation.
Having strong partnerships with state wildlife agencies is critical to the success of Pheasants Forever and an important factor for bird hunters across the nation - nowhere is this more applicable than South Dakota. In 2022/2023 alone, Pheasants Forever biologists in partnership with SDGFP worked with 3,235 landowners to improve 302,799 acres of wildlife habitat. In turn, this work helps build bird populations, hunter success, and local economies throughout the state – thanks in large part to Kirschenmann’s collaborative mindset.
Michael Hook – Small Game Program Leader, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
Working for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in various capacities over the past 22 years, Michael Hook is the current Small Game Program Leader for the Department and serves as Chairman for the National Bobwhite & Grassland Initiative Technical Committee.
Hook obtained a B.S. in Resource Management at Clemson University and worked as an SCDNR wildlife technician at Crackerneck Wildlife Management Area and Ecological Reserve for four years. He then began a stint with the Aquatic Nuisance Species Program while earning his M.S. in Environmental Resource Management at the University of South Carolina. Following a decade as the program’s field supervisor, he rejoined the Wildlife Section as the Small Game Program Leader overseeing quail, dove, rabbit and fox squirrel projects. He is an avid outdoorsman enjoying all things fishing and hunting, especially quail hunting with a pair of bird dogs.
As a great partner of Quail Forever through the years, Hook has provided a foundation for habitat conservation work in the state of South Carolina. In 2022 alone, Hook played a pivotal role in securing Quail Forever’s Bobwhite Hills Wildlife Management Area, a 774-acre property in Lee and Sumter counties that doubled the number of opportunities for public draw quail hunts. Bobwhite Hills WMA marked the first property Quail Forever has acquired east of the Mississippi River and located within the renowned Southeast region of the quail range where the historical relevance of bird hunting has deep ties.
Supporting efforts to infuse quality quail habitat on public and private lands, Hook was also a major proponent of Quail Forever’s biologist partnership in the Palmetto State, and he is currently assisting with the formation of a Habitat Strike Team in South Carolina – habitat specialists focused on implementing prescribed fire. Listen to Quail Forever’s On the Wing Podcast, Episode 71, for more information about Michael Hook’s work with Quail Forever in the Southeast.
Georgia Bobwhite Quail Initiative
Northern bobwhites hold a special place in Georgia’s outdoor culture and wildlife heritage. In fact, Georgia has been known as a premiere quail-hunting destination for over 100 years. However, Georgia’s quail population has declined by more than 85 percent since the 1960s due primarily to the loss of quality early successional habitat. In response, Georgia’s Board of Natural Resources worked with key members of the General Assembly and other supporters to develop and fund the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI) in 1999. The BQI is a proactive effort directed at restoring quality habitat for bobwhites and other early successional wildlife species on working farms and forestlands.
Working closely with Quail Forever, the BQI has been instrumental in helping the organization establish a new Habitat Team in Georgia that focuses on prescribed fire and early successional habitat projects needed to restore the whistle of bobwhite quail. Additionally, the BQI has been a supportive entity for hiring a new Quail Forever state coordinator, providing regionally specific leadership for one of our fastest growing states in the quail range. Regardless of the personnel, equipment, or funding needed to promote quality quail habitat, the Bobwhite Quail Initiative has been a true partner in conservation.
The Conservation Service Award for the Georgia Bobwhite Quail Initiative was accepted on behalf of the program by Tony Kroeger, a wildlife biologist within the state’s Wildlife Resources Division. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Kroeger spent nearly every weekend and summer as his family’s property in Iron County. After spending seven years doing seasonal wildlife technician work back and forth across the country, Kroeger received his M.S. from North Carolina State studying northern bobwhite and white-tailed deer habitat selection on Fort Bragg. He's been with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Private Lands Program for nearly three years, helping folks in southeast Georgia achieve their wildlife and ecosystem goals for their properties.