The Burning Question: Talking Fire and Quail with Bill Palmer of Tall Timbers

e1f8eed6-5284-4b3e-9e7e-dbc9ea3c97d1 By Curtis Niedermier

The longleaf pine plantations within the Red Hills and Albany regions along the Florida-Georgia line comprise the heart of Southeastern bobwhite quail hunting, a bastion of upland tradition where quality habitat is managed on a large scale (both public and private lands) by folks such as Bill Palmer, the president and CEO of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Palmer is one of the leading experts in quail restoration and one of the most experienced habitat managers in the country.
 
His team at Tall Timbers engages in practices ranging from cooperative upland habitat management agreements for large public land parcels to providing landowner assistance to planning mixed-use resource management strategies. Chief among its research focus has been the use of prescribed fire and other forest disturbance tactics to manage for wildlife species dependent on early succession habitat – namely, quail.
 
Recently, we spoke with Palmer to learn more about the lessons learned by Tall Timbers researchers and about modern land management strategies that might work across the bobwhite quail range. 

What’s the history of prescribed fire in the Southeast, and why has its use tapered off so much in the last 50 years?

Fire was a cultural thing and a land management practice going back to Native Americans. The Europeans that settled this area burned for cattle raising, timber, pest control and to keep the land open. Burning was a very common practice. It was not unusual at all until sometime after WWI and WWII, when mechanization increased and people started leaving the country to go to the city.
 
When the federal government wanted to rebuild timber stocks in the country, the Forest Service adopted a system of basically row crop timber farming. Fire was not a part of that. There was also a widespread education program throughout the South to stamp out fire. They were called the Dixie Crusaders. It was so misunderstood by the powers-that-be about why people burned. It was one of the greatest misinformation campaigns ever. It taught people that burning was evil; was unpatriotic. Now we’ve lost two generations that haven’t ever lit a fire. 

So what started Tall Timbers on the track of learning about a “culture of fire?"

It was Herbert Stoddard. When all this came together and the quail populations started to decline, Herb Stoddard was hired to understand quail. He helped establish Tall Timbers in 1958, and figured out that fire was a natural process to help quail, as much as water was. Through his efforts, fire got restored, and quail populations were restored. This ended up being the last area where fire has never completely left the landscape. 

What’s an ideal prescribed fire, at least in your region of the Southeast?
 
The ideal scenario is to burn sometime between March and May 15 and have fires that are relatively low intensity, that burn through in a patchwork of burned and unburned, with a series of firebreaks. Ideally, you burn 50 acres, but you might have a 30- to 100-acre burn, and next to it is a 30- to 100-acre area that’s unburned. 

What about frequency?

It depends on the landowner’s objectives completely. From an ecological perspective, we like a varied burning series from February to May on a frequency of about two years – every other year.
 
When you burn on a frequency of less than two years you have grasses take over, and you lose shrubs. Over two years, you lose grasses and forbs. At two years you have a diversity of grasses, forbs and shrubs. It’s better for quail, tortoises, sparrows and butterflies because there are a lot of seed producers in the ground cover. You end up with more of a pine savannah system, which is a classic look for a quail plantation.

What’s your vision for what QF’s role should be in the Southeast?

I think Quail Forever has a wonderful potential role in the Southeast. Certainly, they have a great policy and lobbyist group in Washington. I think that getting that group tuned into the needs of Southeastern land management issues, especially on public land, but private land as well, that’s going to be key. It’s totally different issues (than in the Midwest), as far as prescribed fire and thinning on national forests, and cost sharing for landowners (to manage bobwhite habitat).
 
We have some big hits we could make through collaboration. I think having chapters involved and their ability to raise funds and work with the existing groups that have the answers (to quail recovery) in hand is critical. Really, we haven’t had that citizen-group aspect because there are not many quail hunters left. The more Quail Forever chapters, the more people involved, the more say we have. With more and more people supporting it, then it has a chance. 

Speaking of collaboration, in the last few years Tall Timbers has signed agreements to work with Quail Forever and wildlife agencies in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. How do those partnerships work, and what are the benefits?
 
We have two really strong relationships. One is the Florida/Georgia Quail Coalition. That one came first. We’re working together on public land Quail Focus Areas. For starters, we’ve increased fire frequency. But there’s always more to be done than the agencies have to spend. So what we’ve done is, as Quail Forever chapters are developed, they’re being educated on these quail projects in their backyards. If they raise money, the Coalition will direct it into lands nearby. You need large landscapes to get things done in the Southeast. You need partnerships. The QF chapters are doing a great job raising funds that go to affect a cooperative project that does extra management on a site that needs it. That was our first MOA (memorandum of agreement).

The second one was develop recently and signed in South Carolina. The MOU (memorandum of understanding) in South Carolina is more of an agreement to work together to achieve similar goals as we’re doing in Florida and Georgia, rather than one group just deciding “this is what we’re going to do,” but there’s no fundraising or sharing of resources. 

Can you rate the success of those programs?

It’s working really well. For instance, on the Francis Marion National Forest, the QF chapter there is sort of the bridge between Tall Timbers and the U.S. Forest Service, where we’re able to provide management advice and work with biologists there to restore quail habitat.

This isn’t the Midwest. It’s not possible to just go out and put more field borders around and get more pheasants. It takes focused management on big blocks of land to support a huntable population of quail. That’s why we’ve structured a lot of these things collaboratively, because if we’re going to move the needle and give people big blocks of land to hunt, we have to work together. 

What about the Farm Bill? Are there measures that you’d like to see enacted in it that could make great gains for quail?

I think what we need more than anything are resources from the Farm Bill to encourage use of prescribed fire in managing our timber stands. I think that would go a long, long way in benefitting quail over time. It can’t just be cost-share. I think incentive payments to landowners for thinning and other management would be bigger than anything.
 
I also think having burn teams would be huge; if we could encourage each NRCS office to have private teams to go out on private lands and burn. It’s going to take some substantial resources. 

What’s the mission of the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy?

In the ’90s, some of the board members figured out that if we don’t start protecting the lands that are these great quail properties, they’ll end up being developed. And no matter how great our research models are, if the lands aren’t there it’s kind of for naught. They started a land conservancy in ’91, and it was brought in as part of Tall Timbers.
 
We have about 142,000 acres under conservation easement, most of that in the Red Hills and Albany plantation regions. But our core focus area is broader than that. We’re largely looking to protect wild land and wild places and keep those in habitat for early succession species. Our goal is 300,000 acres protected, and we’re working very aggressively to reach that goal. 

To anyone who might believe in a different approach to managing quail habitat, give us a final elevator pitch for why fire is so important?

There have been so many quail programs in the country, and almost every one has failed. What hasn’t failed is intensive management. It’s a matter of aligning resources to meet objectives. Once you have a frequent burning program it’s easier to burn; it’s easier to maintain. Then you don’t need as big of a crew or as much equipment to maintain it.
 
A friend of mine said the glory is in the covey rise. When all is said and done it’s in the coveys. As a hunter you understand what that means. You’re willing to take a little criticism once in a while if it’s for the birds and landowner objectives. 


This story appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. For more information on Tall Timbers, quail management, and the importance of burning, check out this On the Wing podcast with Bill Palmer.