The Quality Deer Management Association is thinking beyond its namesake species .

In an experiment involving landscape–scale wildlife habitat management, the nonprofit QDMA and three refuges are teaming with neighboring landowners to build a new conservation coalition.

The refuges—Washita and Deep Fork in Oklahoma and Shiawassee in Michigan—are helping QDMA set up private–public cooperatives, which met for the first time this fall. The goal is for landowners, refuge staff members, state biologists and QDMA experts to share ideas and information to conserve wildlife on swaths of land near refuges.

QDMA focuses primarily on sustainable management of white–tailed deer, but QDMA biologist Kip Adams says cooperative members will decide which wildlife species to protect—perhaps waterfowl, songbirds or native species.

“Deer are generalists,” says Adams, who leads the initiative.“Ninety percent of the time, if you create good deer habitat you’re creating good habitat for other species.”

At the first meeting near Washita National Wildlife Refuge, participants discussed managing land for quail and deer, according to refuge manager Amber Zimmerman, who is eager to take part in the experiment.

“First and foremost, we cooperate with others,” she says. “That’s right there in our mission statement. And everyone is realizing that to have a big impact you have to reach beyond your borders and manage on a landscape scale.”

Nine private landowners attended that meeting. Their holdings and the refuge’s 8,075 acres make a local conservation footprint of about 20,000 acres.

“People came in a bit leery,” Zimmerman says, but they warmed to the concept when they saw that QDMA, not the federal government, is taking the lead—and “nobody is trying to tell them what to do with their land.

Adams says biologists will encourage landowners to follow science–based management but won’t ask them to sign any agreements.

Reputation Is a Plus

Similarly, the refuges are “very important partners, [but] the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t driving this,” he says. QDMA conducts landowner outreach; meetings are on private property; and most management suggestions will come from QDMA or state biologists.

Shiawassee Refuge biologist Michelle VanderHaar, the Michigan refuge’s liaison to the cooperative, thinks QDMA’s reputation among deer hunters is a plus.

“QDMA will get their attention,” she said before the local cooperative’s first meeting in October. “People in Michigan follow them closely.”

Darrin Unruh, Deep Fork Refuge manager, likes the cooperative’s potential to strengthen community ties. Founded in 1993, Deep Fork is a waterfowl refuge with many inholders—private landowners within the refuge boundary.

“For a refuge that has a checkerboard ownership, it’s really important to communicate with the neighbors,” Unruh says. The cooperative “will be an educational process for inholders and should strengthen the relationship.”

The QDMA cooperative approach was field–tested at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee Refuge in Mississippi, where it had a short but useful life, say Adams and Larry Williams, a former Noxubee deputy refuge manager.

Williams, who now heads the South Florida Ecological Services Office, left the Noxubee Refuge by the time the cooperative was launched in 2005 but kept track of its work. Initially, he says, the cooperative included all surrounding landowners. After a few years, though, participants lost a sense of urgency, and the cooperative waned. This time, Williams and Adams say, the refuges are signing on for the long haul .

Williams hopes the cooperatives lead to a powerful nationwide partnership with QDMA, similar to the Service’s relationship with Ducks Unlimited.

Roughly 10 million acres of refuge land is in white–tailed deer habitat, and U.S. deer hunters far outnumber waterfowl hunters, Williams says, “so it’s an important species for America and an important species for refuges.”

Heather Dewar is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.