Scaled quail, photo courtesy of Michael Gray.

Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on Scaled Quail Ecology in the Permian Basin, Texas.

Brooke A. Bowman, Ryan S. Luna, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Evan P. Tanner (Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute), and Jesse Wood (ConocoPhillips Range and Wildlife Ecology)

Land use change in relation to energy development will likely become a large driving factor in biodiversity loss as habitat is further fragmented by increased energy demands. The Permian Basin region of Texas supports a large portion of the oil and gas industry in the United States and is expected to expand in the future. However, the region still hosts a variety of wildlife, including the most economically and ecologically important species of quail in West Texas: the scaled quail (Callipepla squamata). Historically, scaled quail populations in West Texas were more widely distributed, but their populations started to decline in the early 1960s. This is likely due to a combination of land use change that results in desertification and woody brush encroachment, rangeland deterioration from overgrazing, frequent drought conditions and disease.

The preferred habitat of scaled quail consists of arid and semi-arid grassland habitats encompassing about 10-15% of shrub cover. Although they prefer to nest in native grasses and consume more grass seed on average than other species of quail, shrubs are still needed for foraging, loafing, escape, and night-roosting cover. Recently, West Texas has shifted from a grassland savanna interspersed with shrubs to a shrub dominated landscape. A healthy shrub canopy in conjunction with an intact native herbaceous understory are important for shrubland birds, such as scaled quail, to survive. Scaled quail range encompasses the entire Permian Basin, so it is important to seek out whether land use change in relation to energy development in this region is influencing their decline.

To understand the impact of oil and gas development on scaled quail habitat selection, we will monitor three different sites on ranches located in Upton County managed by ConocoPhillips: a high energy production site, a medium energy production site, and a control site with no energy production. An acre-to-well ratio will be utilized to categorize sites. Scaled quail will be trapped during breeding and non-breeding seasons using funnel traps across all three study sites. We will record sex, age, and weight of each captured quail. In addition, quail will receive a numbered leg band and a GPS transmitter which will record five location points per day, every four hours, starting at 0700 and ending at 2300. Quail will be recaptured using funnel traps or through night capture methods throughout the study season to retrieve GPS location points.

We will use the location data from the transmitters to create habitat maps in ArcGIS. These maps will provide information regarding scaled quail habitat selection relative to energy infrastructure. By understanding habitat selection across a spectrum of energy development, we can create management strategies that mitigate future impacts on scaled quail populations.

Funding source: ConocoPhillips.