November 4, 2015

US FISH AND WILDLIFE AWARDS FUNDING TO USE QUAIL AS INDICATORS OF CHIHUAHUAN DESERT GRASSLAND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH


quailThe US Fish and Wildlife service has awarded a grant to the Borderlands Research Institute for a research project using quail as indicators of the health of Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands. 

In the Chihuahuan Desert, grassland deterioration continues to be one of the major problems facing ecosystem health. Brush encroachment has infested large swathes of grasslands throughout the Chihuahuan Desert ecotone of the Southwestern United Stated and northwestern Mexico. Increases in woody plant encroachment in semiarid grasslands can be attributed to many factors. However, recent short-term impacts appear to be the result of enduring, high intensity herbivory by domestic livestock. Over-grazing reduces above ground grass and forb biomass, which increases woody plant establishment by enhancing seed production, seed dispersal, seedling establishment, plant longevity, and stand.

The objective of this study, which will be overseen by BRI research scientists Dr. Ryan Luna, and Dr. Ryan O’Shaughnessy, is to quantify grassland health using Montezuma, scaled, and Gambel’s quail as indicators.  Because these three quail species inhabit a diversity of distinct niches (ranging from grasslands to riparian corridors) within the Chihuahuan Desert, they appear to be ideal indicators of broad-scale ecosystem change resulting from overgrazing.  We predict that overgrazed grasslands will show decreased abundances of quail relative to ungrazed grasslands.  Furthermore, we predict heavily grazed grasslands will show decreased diversity of grasses and forbs relative to ungrazed grasslands, which will be reflected by decreased diversity of seed/invertebrate material in quail crop samples. 

This study will be conducted on ranchlands within south-central New Mexico and the Trans-Pecos region of Texas on which we already have pre-existing quail research being conducted.  The study will be conducted on pastures that have been heavily grazed within the preceding five years as well as pastures that have been free from grazing in the preceding five years.  Quail abundance will be estimated using pointing dogs and flush surveys, and diet will be determined from crop samples. Abundance and diet will be compared across species, treatments (grazed vs ungrazed), and seasons. 

This information will then be used to create models to predict future habitat needs and to predict population changes resulting from increasing or decreasing commercial livestock production in the Chihuahuan Desert.  These models will further our understanding of the population status of these three desert quail species, and will highlight habitat partitioning between the species in addition to quantifying their respective habitat needs.

This study will compliment and expand already existing research being conducted by the Borderlands Research Institute.  In addition to the partnership between the Borderlands Research Institute and Sul Ross State University, this project will improve partnership capacities with the Bureau of Land Management, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NRCS, Quail Forever, Southern New Mexico Safari Club International, National Wild Turkey Federation, and the Texas Quail Coalition.  

To read more about BRI's quail research, visit our Desert Quail Research Program Page.