Project Spotlight: Scaled Quail Habitat Selection on an Active Oil & Gas Field

By Brooke Bowman

Land use changes in relation to energy development will likely become a large driving factor in biodiversity loss as habitat is further fragmented by increased energy demands. Oil and gas development is currently the largest contributor toward energy development across the globe. Recent technological advancements, such as horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing, have made extraction of shale resources more economically practical. This has led to a significant increase in unconventional drilling practices in the United States since the early 2000s. This inevitable increase in oil and gas infrastructure and production raises many questions about its effect on surrounding landscapes and its inhabitants.

How quail react to oil and gas development is largely understudied. Their role as prey species and seed dispersers in the ecosystem, their contribution to conservation revenue through game bird hunting, and the declining state of their populations highlight the importance of advancing this area of research. In West Texas, scaled quail’s range completely overlaps with the continuously developing Permian Basin. Historically, scaled quail populations in West Texas were more widely distributed, but their populations have been in decline since the early 1960s. This is likely due to a combination of land use changes that result in desertification and woody brush encroachment, rangeland deterioration from overgrazing, frequent drought conditions, and disease. West Texas landscapes where scaled quail reside have transformed from luxuriant grassland savannas interspersed with shrubs to shrubland savannas dominated by woody species such as mesquite, tarbush, whitethorn acacia, and creosote bush, among many others. A healthy shrub canopy in conjunction with an intact native herbaceous understory are important for scaled quail ecology.

A scaled quail that shares its home with oil and gas development perches in front of a pumpjack in the Permian Basin of West Texas. Photo by Jason Brooks, a ConocoPhillips wildlife biologist.

Quail management practices in the Permian Basin of West Texas are often borrowed from research conducted in the Trans-Pecos and Rolling Plains ecoregions; however, the Permian Basin is unique in its vegetation communities, soil types, and the intense energy development that spans the region. Thus, it is important to conduct research on this specific landscape to determine if oil and gas development is affecting scaled quail habitat selection.

A scaled quail caught during a night capture to collect GPS data from an attached tracking device. It is easier to recapture tagged individuals when they are roosting rather than when they are active during the day.

This study was completed on two ranches owned and managed by ConocoPhillips in Upton County, TX. Scaled quail were trapped across a control site with minimal oil and gas development and a developed site with intense oil and gas development from 2021-2022. Backpack-style global positioning system (GPS) loggers were deployed on selected individuals to record latitude and longitude coordinates every four hours. This data helped us identify habitat selection patterns in this unique scaled quail population.

We found that scaled quail habitat selection is affected by distance to well pads, distance to supplemental quail feeders, and monthly vegetation greenness. The parameter that affected their selection the most was vegetation greenness. Scaled quail were more likely to use habitat with a higher greenness value than habitat with a lower greenness value during all months of the year. In addition, quail were more likely to choose habitat closer to quail feeders than farther away from quail feeders. Lastly, at a large land scale, scaled quail were more likely to choose habitat farther away than closer to well pads. In conclusion, those managing oil and gas developed land for quail in semi-arid regions should focus on reseeding disturbed areas with native, herbaceous vegetation and implementing quail feeders on their properties.

The goal of this research is to better prepare wildlife biologists who work alongside oil companies with management strategy advice tailored to the Permian Basin to continue sustaining quail populations in this area of Texas. As energy needs expand across the United States in the upcoming years, studies such as this will continue to be important for conservation of wildlife in these unavoidably shared spaces.