From USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service
Quail and Fire: leaving a legacy
Tall Timber Research Station and Conservancy
Wealthy northerners no longer hunt quail on the 19th century plantation and tenant farmers don’t grow corn or cotton any more. Instead, scientists study fire and its effect on wildlife on the 4,000 acres just north of Tallahassee, Fla.
It all started when the quail disappeared.
Renowned naturalist Herbert Stoddard was brought to the plantation to find out why and discovered that suppressing fire had destroyed the bird’s habitat. So in 1958, when the plantation owner Henry Beadel left his land and resources to create “a fire type nature preserve … to conduct research on the effects of fire on quail, turkey and other wildlife,” Tall Timbers Plantation Research Station and Land Conservancy was founded.
Instead of attracting quail hunters, now foresters from across the US and all over the world travel to train in prescribed burning, interns and scientists come to do research, and the public tours the station to learn about the cultural and natural heritage. The only crops grown are forests.
Fifty years of prescribed burning has restored habitat for quail as well as many other declining species, including birds, reptiles, amphibians and plants. Scientists have conducted milestone research on fire ecology, Northern bobwhite, red-cockaded woodpecker, native plant communities, longleaf pine, ornithology, herpetology and invertebrates. Formerly cultivated lands and natural areas that were never farmed provide benchmarks for restoration studies. As set out in Beadel’s will, strides have been made to reestablish the longleaf pine ecosystem, which ranks as one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America.
Eric Staller has seen the results of prescribed burning first hand in his 20 years at the station as a wildlife biologist and land manager. In the 90s only one quail could be found per 10 acres and now one to two quail occupy an acre. “We have the largest Red-cockaded Woodpecker population on private lands because of frequent fire,” he said. The endangered woodpecker species only forage in and on the pine trees, preferring the longleaf because of their longevity and heavy sap flow. More longleaf trees can occupy the same area as other pine trees. With its wider-set leaves and open canopy, longleaf pine allows more sun to reach the groundcover that provides food and shelter for wildlife. Longleaf can tolerate more frequent burns than other trees, keeping the hardwoods out and encouraging grasses and forbs to grow, also providing wildlife food and habitat. Staller burns 60-70 percent of the 2,700 acres of uplands on the station every year.
“”Restoration is continual. If I stopped burning for three years the hardwoods would come back, and after that, we would really lose ground,” he said. “My goal is to have the understory consist of one third woody stems, one third grasses and the rest forbs, because that is what the wildlife in the Southeast do well in,” he said.
Natural Resources Conservation Service provides financial and technical assistance to the station for the work through Farm Bill programs such as the Environmental Quality Improvement Program. This year Stellar enrolled 1,200 acres into the Longleaf Pine Initiative and 2,000 acres into the Working Lands for Wildlife program. He will use those funds to plant longleaf pine, prescribed burning and remove invasive weeds. Steve Tullar, district conservationist in Monticello, Fla., has worked with the station for eight years.
“Years of management has not only worked to restore quail—they have wild turkey and deer in abundance. They continue to plant and support the endangered longleaf pine ecosystem and improve habitat conditions. I am proud of the land management they are doing on their property. Plus, they work with and influence other private land owners to improve forestland. This is important because so much of the land in Florida is privately owned,” Tullar said.