The Texas Fires Will Help Quail Someday. Right Now It’s Killing Them

by Vern Evans

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Smokehouse Creek Fire has burned over 1 million acres of the Texas Panhandle, making it the largest wildfire in state history. It’s one of four wildfires currently burning in the panhandle At the time of publication the largest, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, was 44 percent contained. Incident command estimates crews won’t achieve full containment until around March 14.

It’s already claimed the lives of at least two people and decimated cattle herds, forcing many ranchers to release their livestock to fend for themselves. As a result, animal rehabilitators in the area are busy rescuing cows, horses, pigs, goats, dogs, and other domestic animals.

Wildlife gets less help. Native species in the area evolved with wildfire and continue to adapt as climate-change-fueled blazes pop up far and wide. But these megafire complexes also come with a huge wildlife death toll, particularly for smaller species that rely on ground cover to survive. It’s difficult to hide in a scorched landscape, and if the flames or smoke inhalation don’t kill them during the fire, hungry predators are more likely to kill them in the aftermath. In north Texas, this means temporary hell for upland birds, particularly wild quail.

Fire Birds vs. Wildfire

Things weren’t exactly great to begin with for quail in the Lone Star State. Northern bobwhite populations took a roughly 75-percent tumble between 1980 and 2005 and have continued to struggle since then, despite a recent forecast showing slight promise after a wet spring. Scaled quail, while less abundant, have followed a similar trajectory. Quail have long been called the “fire bird” because of how well they respond to recently-burned landscapes. But Dr. Dale Rollins, quail expert and outreach coordinator for the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation, says there’s a difference between prescribed burns and record-breaking wildfires. 

“Fire is generally good. It’s one of the four main tools that we call ‘Leopold’s toolbox,’” Rollins tells Outdoor Life. (The other three are the ax, cow, and plow.) “But prescribed burning is different than wildfire. Based on what I’m hearing and the pictures that I’m seeing, it’s a moonscape out there. It burned hot and scorched a lot of earth. Fire itself is a natural process, and it didn’t destroy the country, it just destroyed fences and structures. But the scope and the conditions in which this fire has burned are different than what we like to prescribe.” 

The loss of cover could be a serious issue for quail and other ground-dwelling species for months to come, Rollins says. This is especially true because it’s only March, which means winter weather could easily return to north Texas and freeze the charred landscape before spring takes hold. 

“We’re going to have some decreased survival rates because of predation and potentially because of winter weather. That part of the state is still subject to another 45 days of possible cold weather and snow,” Rollins says. “Quail are on just about every diet out there, being on the bottom of the food chain. They’re subject to a lot of predation especially by hawks in the spring, and we’ve basically taken their cover away from them. So not only are we concerned about the acute, direct loss of quail in the fire, but probably more important is the chronic loss.”

But here’s the interesting thing about wildfire: Once the landscape cools and rain soaks the soils again, habitat for quail, deer, and all the other wildlife that call those grasslands home will grow back better than it was before, Quail Forever Texas state coordinator Thomas Janke tells Outdoor Life. He would know; before Janke was in his current position, he was QF’s statewide prescribed fire coordinator.

“Quail really thrive on early successional habitat that’s predominated by a mix of weeds and forbs and grasses, which they can nest in,” Janke says. “Fire is a fantastic tool that helps reinvigorate that landscape … So in the very short term from a human perspective, the landscape could look charred for a month or longer, and it’s going to appear dismal. From a wildlife standpoint those birds will take a hit for a year or two. But when that habitat returns, it will return better than it was two weeks ago. So it’s a short-term loss for a longer-term gain.”

‘Quail Mecca’ Burns

Nowhere will this tradeoff be more evident than on what used to be late oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Vista Ranch in Pampa, which sold in 2022. An obsessive quail hunter, Pickens designed and managed the ranch with upland birds in mind, and it’s been called a quail mecca by some. When Pickens passed away in September 2019, the ranch was listed for sale at $250 million. It sat on the market for years before it was split and sold to two buyers. Amarillo ranchers Travis and Kylee Chester purchased roughly 27,000 acres of the land with limited improvements in September 2022. Convenience store magnate Bill Kent purchased the remaining acreage along with the houses, airport, golf course, tennis courts, 11,000-square-foot dog kennel, and other improvements in November 2022. 

Kylee posted videos of the fire damage on their portion of the ranch to Facebook on Feb. 28. To call the land a “moonscape” is not far off. 

“All that habitat that the quail were in, most of those plum thickets and sagebrush that T. Boone didn’t even graze for years because he wanted the wildlife to be plentiful, it burned all that,” she tells Outdoor Life. “Of that 27,000 acres, it probably burned around 26,000. As of this week there are no hot spots left, and it’s completely out where we’re at. But the part of Mesa Vista we bought is all sandhills, and it has blown to look like the Sahara Desert now.” 

Read Next: The Outdoor Life Podcast: Will Wildlife Survive Extreme Drought and Wildfires?

Part of what the Chesters acquired included the first 2,000-plus acres of Mesa Vista that Pickens ever purchased, including the first home he and his wife lived in on the property before he built other. That house burned to the ground, Kylee says. (She also reports that the fire reached some of the homes on Bill Kent’s piece of the Mesa Vista.) In addition to the physical destruction, the Chesters lost about 100 head, or 10 percent, of their cattle. Their home survived the fire, but one of their cowboys lost his.

“My heart really goes out to the animals and the people who lost their homes,” Kylee says. “But the grass can grow back. Maybe it will come back better than ever. Rain’s coming.”

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