Dennis Owens had a good idea of what he wanted to do with the 235-acre farm in southern Virginia he bought 12 years ago, but he wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to accomplish those goals. A lifelong quail hunter, his plan was to convert the former dairy farm to a wildlife oasis — one brimming with bobwhites, deer, songbirds, and other wildlife. A dozen years later, he’s succeeded. Although quail populations fluctuate with nesting conditions, his farm now has birds where there were none before.
“I’ve got a lot more turkeys than I did, deer are abundant, and we’ve seen bears,” he says. “There’s just a lot more wildlife now than when I first bought the place.”
The 72-year-old retired business owner could have done it alone, but he enlisted the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose primary purpose is to help landowners conserve and protect soil, water, and wildlife. The NRCS administers a number of programs that not only offer technical assistance, but also financial assistance in the form of cost-sharing. As Owens learned, converting marginal land into high-quality wildlife habitat isn’t cheap.
“I probably could have figured it out and done it all on my own, but it was nice getting some technical assistance and financial help,” he says.
It doesn’t matter if you own a sprawling ranch in Kansas, a 200-acre hobby farm in Virginia, or a small block of timber in Ohio. Virtually anyone who wants to turn their land into a safe haven for wildlife doesn’t have to do it alone.
The financial assistance allowed Owens to put even more resources into his efforts, which moved the process along a little faster and allowed him to do everything he needed to do. Although it can vary, the cost-share part of the NRCS conservation programs covers everything from seed and herbicide to tree plantings and prescribed burns. In many cases, landowners can be reimbursed for up to 50 percent of the cost for labor and materials.
Not everyone qualifies for financial assistance, says Iowa NRCS conservation stewardship plan coordinator Dave Brommel. Representatives of his agency typically conduct a site visit and assess the potential impact any improvements will have on species of concern. In Owens’ case, that was bobwhite quail, which have experienced a significant decline in the last 30 to 40 years, primarily due to habitat loss.
“We rank a property based on various criteria. It’s very competitive and there is only so much money available,” says Brommel. But that doesn’t mean a landowner can’t at least get technical help. In many states, the NRCS works in conjunction with state wildlife agency biologists to develop a habitat plan for virtually anyone who wants it. There is no minimum acreage requirement. “You just have to want to create better habitat,” says Brommel, adding that the programs do not include things like food plots.
Owens enrolled in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), which has since been renamed the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). EQIP is the NRCS’s most popular wildlife habitat program and benefits a wide array of species and landscapes.
Other programs include the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), which uses easements to improve habitat for waterfowl and other species dependant on wetlands, and Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), which focuses on at-risk species such as gopher tortoises, sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens, and New England cottontails. WLFW is aimed primarily at ranchers, commercial forest owners, and farmers who have those species on their land.
A number of other NRCS programs are also aimed at working farms, and help protect soil, water, plants, and air quality.
Owens doesn’t raise livestock or crops, but he understands the threats to bobwhite quail. When he was younger, finding a few coveys was as simple as walking across the rural Virginia landscape. Not anymore. Quail numbers are just a fraction of what they once were.
“I hate that quail are struggling. I wanted to do something to make sure I wasn’t partly responsible for that loss,” he says. “The NRCS worked up a plan with the various steps I needed to take to get my land back to good quail habitat.”
One of the first things Owens did was to remove the cattle and spray the pastures with a non-selective herbicide. At the time, the fields consisted almost entirely of fescue. The popular and widespread cool-season grass offers virtually no benefit to wildlife, says Brommel, and it’s too thick for such species as quail.
Owens also planted a variety of shrubs recommended by NRCS technicians, he thinned part of his forest, and he adopted a prescribed burning schedule. Fire is a highly beneficial part of the eco-system.
“I also planted native, warm-season grasses, which are very good for quail and other grass-specific species,” he says.
It’s important to note that Owens undertook much of the work himself. Aside from offering expert technical advice and assistance with paperwork, the NRCS does not do any of the labor. That’s up to the landowner. Of course, landowners can hire approved contractors to do things like spraying, burning, and timber thinning, all of which require special equipment and skills.
“I’m out there all the time doing something, whether it’s knocking back invasive species or burning or something else. Even though I completed all the recommended steps, there is always something to do, but I really enjoy it, so it doesn’t always feel like work,” says Owens.
The first step to bringing back bobwhites or pheasants — or any other at-risk species, for that matter — in your area is contacting your local NRCS office or the nearest state wildlife biologist.
Due to budget restrictions, many fish and game departments no longer conduct habitat evaluations, although some do. Virginia, for example, works cooperatively with the NRCS and splits the cost of several private lands biologists. Other states do the same thing.
If nothing else, those state wildlife experts can put you in touch with the right people, including experts at the NRCS. They can guide you through the sometimes-complicated bureaucracy and get you started on the right path for making your land a wildlife oasis.
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David Hart lives near Farmville, Virginia, with his wife, Navona. He is the father of two boys, Kyle and Matt. When he isn’t working to improve the wildlife habitat on his land, he can be found hunting or fishing in his home state of Virginia.
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