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Natural Resources Management

Making a Home in the Rolling Plains

The air is cool and dry with the usual Lubbock breeze blowing. The colors are beige, brown and more beige. Residents of Lubbock and the surrounding counties are probably familiar with landscapes of this category. Visitors to the region might be unimpressed with what seems like such a barren ecosystem. However, this region of Texas serves a purpose with both ecological and economic value: it provides habitat for quail.


“I think we’re in a really good spot because we’re right on the edge of the Rolling Plains,” said Brad Dabbert, Ph.D., Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology in the Texas Tech University Department of Natural Resources Management.


Dabbert works with the Quail-Tech Alliance, a research organization at Texas Tech that focuses on quail conservation in the ecoregion referred to as the Rolling Plains, situated in the northwestern portion of Texas, including the eastern half of the Panhandle. Quail-Tech’s research largely focuses on the species northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), which, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, has been spotted in every county in the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock is located right at the margin of this region and is home to Quail-Tech’s research facility just north of Texas Tech’s main campus.


The facility houses important research equipment, flight pens and significant acreage of native rangeland that provides quail habitat. However, Quail-Tech’s research is not confined to this facility or even to Lubbock County. According to Dabbert, Quail-Tech partners with between 20 and 25 ranches in the Rolling Plains. These are referred to as their “anchor ranches.” As the name implies, the goal of working with these private landowners is to “anchor” habitat that is suitable for healthy quail populations.


“As we monitor things, they can learn from each other, and we can learn from them,” Dabbert said.


The partnerships involve listening to landowners’ observations and integrating that information with scientific research conducted by Quail-Tech on the properties. All work for these partnerships is done on privately-owned land.


“It’s a unique agreement that they have to let us have access to their quail populations,” said Matthew McEwen, full-time manager at Quail-Tech.


Managing for quail conservation in the Rolling Plains has implications that go beyond just the quail populations themselves. The research and management by Quail-Tech has significant impacts on both the environment and society.


According to Dabbert, these impacts are twofold. One important factor is they are an indicator species, meaning their population conditions are indicative of the habitat quality.


“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here,” Dabbert said.


Another positive impact of managing for quail conservation is it boosts the local economies in rural communities. When the populations are healthy, quail hunting drives visitors to these small towns, generating business for restaurants, hotels and gas stations. Additionally, landowners can profit from leasing their properties to hunters. For these reasons, keeping the quail populations healthy and stable is a goal of Quail-Tech.


“We’re trying to find ways to make them more sustainable, and we have been able to do that to a certain extent,” Dabbert said.


Some of the techniques for managing these populations are developed on the anchor ranches.


“We have some of the most famous ranches in Texas involved,” Dabbert said.


Perhaps the most notable of these is the Four Sixes Ranch, where Quail-Tech has been able to experiment with various management techniques, including supplemental feeding. Dabbert said supplemental feeding has been one of Quail-Tech’s biggest successes. By providing supplemental feed to the quail populations, they have been able to increase adult survival rates by an average of 22 percent. Such an increase is important because it means 22 percent more hens will nest that year.


“What we have done, instead of just being reactive and kind of watching what happens with quail populations, we’ve tried to actually do experiments to see if we can basically make the lows not as low and the highs higher,” Dabbert said.


Additionally, Quail-Tech’s practice of supplemental feeding has been able to reduce weather-related mortality. During the heavy snowfall of 2014, quail that did not receive supplemental feed suffered a 50 percent mortality rate, while those that did only experienced a 9 percent mortality rate due to improved body conditions, such as sufficient fat deposits.

“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here.”


Researchers cannot depend on supplemental feeding alone to save the quail populations as other needs must be managed as well.


“One thing I want to emphasize is supplemental feeding won’t work without proper habitat management,” Dabbert said.


He compared the matter to people wanting a “quick-fix pill” for weight loss, rather than exercising and eating right. If quail populations are to be managed sustainably, wildlife biologists must also manage for the vegetation component of their habitat. Quail-Tech plans to analyze what type of vegetation the birds use for cover by looking at percentage of woody cover and vegetation height. This is where technology comes in.


Rowdy White, a graduate student and full-time biologist at Quail-Tech, works with GPS transmitters and a drone to analyze the quail’s habitat use during the winter. After bobwhites are trapped, they wear GPS transmitters as backpacks, allowing White to track their locations upon plugging the data into a computer software.


“These are all actual locations where a bird had been,” White said, gesturing to red dots on the computer screen.


Once this information has been acquired, White then flies the drone over the locations where that bird had been and captures aerial images of the vegetation. The images are of high enough quality for White to identify some individual plant species.


White said as he finishes the project, he hopes it will give insight to researchers and landowners on the type and amount of woody cover used by quail.


Much of this is conducted at Quail-Tech’s research facility, where large buckets sit next to the quail coops and flight pens. The buckets contain native grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which were propagated by researchers. Wind continues to blow across a landscape of beige, brown and more beige. With the help of Quail-Tech, this region will continue to be an important home for quail and other wildlife.

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Cresten Sledge, Texas Tech student, is a senior technician at Quail-Tech.
Flight pens and huts
Quail-Tech’s research facility in Lubbock includes a flight pen and some huts.

The Full-Time Part-Timer

Brandon Ray photographs the wildlife and landscape on his ranch.

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s a kid, Brandon Ray would head up to Palo Duro Canyon once or twice a year to visit his grandparents’ ranch that has been in the Ray family since 1948. When Ray realized he could go to college at Texas Tech University, only an hour and a half from the ranch, he knew that was where he was meant to be.

“I grew up in Dallas, and I’m kind of the kid that grew up in Dallas that never should have been in Dallas,” Ray said.

Ray graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in ranch management, then moved to Canyon, Texas, to take over his grandparents’ land. His main job was ranching and guiding hunts, but then he found himself excelling in another niche.

Right after he graduated from college, he sold his first journal article. Today, he has written and photographed for over 20 different hunting and fishing publications including: Journal of Texas Trophy Hunters, Texas Wildlife Magazine and Bowhunter Magazine.

It’s like I have three part-time gigs, which is good, because when one is slow, hopefully another one is picking up, and you don’t have all your eggs in one basket with one job, Ray said.

“It’s like I have three part-time gigs, which is good, because when one is slow, hopefully another one is picking up, and you don’t have all your eggs in one basket with one job,” Ray said.

In addition to his many jobs, Ray also participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Canyon. These programs provide assistance to agricultural producers to implement conservation practices on their land.

Ray said he has many different species to manage on his ranch, such as mule deer, aoudad sheep, feral hogs and turkeys. He said most of the time he sees ranchers that are completely invested in cattle or wildlife, but he strives to balance it all together with the assistance of the USDA-NRCS programs.

Jeff Lewter, NRCS district conservationist in Canyon, assists Ray in his conservation efforts, which include wildlife-friendly fences, improved grazing management for soil compaction on rangeland through monitoring activities, mesquite control through aerial chemical spray applications, and solar panel water tanks. Lewter said he has enjoyed working with Ray over the last few years and he is an exceptional steward of the land.

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The Natural Resource Conservation Service is assisting Brandon Ray with conservation practices, such as solar panel water tanks.

 

“Brandon understands the importance of taking care of the land,” Lewter said, “as well as protecting and conserving the natural resources found on the ranch.”

New Partnership Program to Benefit Farmers, Environment

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) and six other underground water districts for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, known as RCPP, to help farmers remotely monitor soil moisture.

Greg Sokora, NRCS civil engineer in Lubbock, said the RCPP consists of a soil moisture monitoring system that measures the amount of moisture in the ground. A telemetry receiver, much like a cellphone tower, is placed either at the pivot or in the field allowing farmers to receive up-to-date soil moisture information every 15 minutes to an hour on their smartphones, tablets or home computers.

“Water flow meters and chemigation valves are the high priority practices in the RCPP program,” Sokora said.

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Image courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Brandt Underwood, NRCS conservation agronomist in Lubbock, said the RCPP program is going to help farmers match their irrigation scheduling closer to their crop water needs by using the most advanced soil moisture monitoring technology available.

“I would call [the RCPP program] a three-way partnership between us, the landowner, and the contractor,” Underwood said. “It’s beneficial for us all to work together. What NRCS is doing is providing some technical and financial assistance. When we’re done, we have a quality installation and a quality practice on a piece of land that will help us increase that conservation level on that farm.”

Jason Coleman, general manager for HPWD, said he sees a possibility for the continuation of the program if it is as successful as producers believe it to be. He said there is roughly $2 million for the next five years to allow producers an opportunity to utilize those funds for some of the areas of water conservation and water management.

“It would be nice if this program is as successful as we believe it will be, and that this partnership program remains available through USDA,” Coleman said.

IrrigationTech_BHeff using app 2
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said through the program, the HPWD hopes to offer services and assistance to producers and well owners, specifically for producers with flow tests. Coleman said those services are aimed at educating and helping people understand changing water levels and changing water conditions on their properties. This allows the farmers to leverage that information with the equipment to better manage water resources on their properties.

Underwood said this program is designed to assist farmers with more opportunity to build on their existing management for irrigation scheduling.

“Depending on how a farmer has set up his operation determine how many flow meters he will need,” Underwood said. “Sprinkler systems are designed to run at a certain number of gallons per minute, and it’s hard to manage what you can’t measure. A flow meter is just another tool to help them manage what they’ve got.”

This program is also helping the environment in relation to managing water resources. Sokora said this program is pertinent to West Texas and water resources in the area.

“Saving water: That’s the big intent,” Sokora said, “That’s our intent, that’s the groundwater district’s intent.”

“If a farmer can stop two irrigations — one at the beginning of the season and one at the end of the season — he would have left that much more water in the aquifer,” said Sokora.

Example Root Summary Plot (Fig. 7)
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said farmers who want to sign up for the RCPP program may go to their local USDA-NRCS offices and inquire about the program. Sokora said there’s been heavy interest despite the program just beginning.

“I think it’s got off to a good start,” Sokora said. “There’s been a lot of outreach. A lot of the water districts had a waiting list for people to apply…we’re looking forward to a good sign up. There’s a lot of interest in that. Farmers have to save everything they can with the water and the energy and the money that they save by not pumping water.”

Collaborating to Catch Criminals

Matthew Barnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management, is looking for a criminal in the Sabine River. This criminal left behind DNA, in the form of skin cells, that Barnes will utilize to identify the suspect.

However, in this case, the criminal Barnes is looking for is not human. It’s Silver Carp, an invasive fish species in Texas’ waterways.

Barnes is an aquatic community ecologist who has an interest in invasive species. Although his lab uses a variety of tools to study invasive species, one of his favorite management tools is testing for environmental DNA.

Environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, is the genetic material organisms shed into their environment like skin cells, blood, feces and other bodily fluids, Barnes said. The material provides clues that a particular species is present in a particular environment.

Barnes said there are benefits to using eDNA testing as a management tool. It has been proven to be cost effective in searching for invasive and endangered species. It can be a less intrusive tool when looking for a species in a sensitive ecosystem. It can also be useful when looking for an invasive species with low population numbers that has been recently introduced in an area.

“The first step in studying or managing an organism is to know where it is,” Barnes said.

Barnes said managers can use tools like eDNA testing in order to start the research or management of an organism. Searching for an organism can be costly, time consuming, and work intensive. Barnes said developing eDNA testing as a new tool is important for aquatic community ecology, invasive species management, and natural resources management.

We are applying eDNA to new species in this case, and that will provide new opportunities for natural resources management. Matthew Barnes, Ph.D.

Although eDNA testing has most frequently been used in aquatic systems, Barnes and his graduate students are applying eDNA testing in new ways for both aquatic and terrestrial systems.

New researcher brings new ideas

Mark Johnson, a graduate student in Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management, is a part of Barnes’ lab and is in charge of researching eDNA testing in terrestrial systems. His research is being done with help from across the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Robert Cox, Ph.D., and Peter Dotray, Ph.D. are assisting with the research.

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Johnson removes a filter filled with eDNA and other particles

Johnson said he grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by trees, mountains and rivers. After taking a botany class during his undergraduate education, he realized how much he liked natural resources management and chose to pursue a master’s at Tech.

Johnson said he is looking at airborne eDNA and how it works as a survey method for plant communities.

“My work is looking at plant communities, how eDNA can be used to identify plant communities and how that all fits in together on a landscape scale,” Johnson said.  “I think that it’s really important to try and find uses for eDNA that aren’t just finding an organism and reporting on it.”

Johnson said he has set up various dust traps in the field to collect airborne eDNA. He visits the testing sites every two weeks to wash the dust traps out. He then takes the water back to the lab, filters it, and extracts DNA to run tests on the samples.

Johnson said he hopes his research will provide a new way for wildlife biologists and natural resources managers to utilize eDNA testing in terrestrial systems.

This research is entering new territory. Johnson is the first to compare a traditional plant survey with an eDNA survey. Because this is new research, there are a lot of unknown aspects to his research.

One of the unknowns is they do not know how far eDNA can travel through the air, Johnson said. They are unsure what species are able to produce eDNA. They do not know whether pollen spreading species or species that are insect pollinated produce eDNA. Johnson said he believes this is what sets his research apart from others.

“I think the research that Mark is doing in particular is expanding this method, to say, terrestrial plants,” Barnes said. “We are applying eDNA to new species in this case, and that will provide new opportunities for natural resources management.”

Lab’s new research

Barnes said although his lab is interested in applying eDNA testing in different systems and species, another thing that sets them apart is their focus on the ecology of eDNA. The unique focus on the ecology of eDNA is another new way his lab hopes to impact natural resources management.

The ecology of eDNA focuses on the interactions between genetic material after it is shed from the organism and the role the genetic material plays in its environment, Barnes said. The research being done on the ecology of eDNA has helped distinguish Barnes’ lab from other natural resources labs in the country.

Barnes said he has had the opportunity to filter and look for eDNA in thousands of liters of water in very diverse systems, ranging from the Chicago area waterways and Great Lakes to the reservoirs and streams of Texas.

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Johnson and Barnes discuss the impacts of eDNA on plant ecosystems

Although he has spent most of his research in aquatic systems, Barnes said Johnson brings enthusiasm and an expertise in terrestrial plant systems, and he has pushed Barnes out of his typical work in aquatic systems.

“He also challenges us to develop and learn new skills in terrestrial plant census and ID,” Barnes said, “and it has been a lot of fun having him on board.”

Pushing the boundaries

Barnes said his lab is pushing the boundaries and increasing the amount and type of information researchers can gain from eDNA testing. He said this is an exciting time to be in research.

Barnes said it is stimulating to be asking questions that nobody has asked before, and it is compelling to be producing knowledge that nobody has produced before.

Barnes and Johnson credit Tech for giving them an opportunity to do research.

“One of Texas Tech’s main roles is providing an area for us to help build on its foundation,” Johnson said. “It has the resources we need, areas where we can go study environmental DNA, and the work being done here is really helping to build on what we know about eDNA and expand it broader as a field.”

Tech has provided the resources for Barnes’ lab to continue their work searching for invasive fish and zebra mussels in Texas, detecting threatened and endangered fish species in New Mexico, and looking for the vector for white-nose syndrome in bats in Louisiana. Barnes and Johnson look forward to expanding the natural resources field with their research, and they will continue to spend their days searching for traces of criminals.

Between Earth, Sky and Texas Tech

David Weindorf, Ph.D., knew when Chien-Lu Ping retired from academics his knowledge of arctic soils would be leaving with him. Weindorf, a plant and soil science professor at Texas Tech, wanted there to be a way to continue to share Ping’s knowledge with the world. He knew, if successful, he would be saving knowledge for future generations. What Weindorf did not anticipate was that it would culminate into a documentary produced by Texas Tech Public Media, Between Earth and Sky.

About 10 years ago, Weindorf began taking students on an arctic soils field tour, which is a course offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The course is taught by a man named Dr. Chien-Lu Ping,” Weindorf said, “and he is considered one of the preeminent arctic soil scientist in the world.”

Weindorf said eventually he became so familiar with the course he was made a co-instructor.

“The students that go on this course, every one of them, will tell you that when they come back from this course they never looked at the world the same way again,” Weindorf said.

After seven years, Ping and Weindorf continued to teach the field course on arctic soils. However, Ping, who is in his late 70s, eventually expressed his desire to retire.

“Gosh,” said Weindorf, recalling his feeling at the time, “When he leaves, that is going to be such a tremendous amount of knowledge that walks out the door.”

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Chien-Lu Ping with students on soils field tour. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Concept Development

Weindorf began planning to document Ping’s last arctic soils field tour.  He said he wanted to develop a way to archive Ping’s knowledge of arctic soils for future generations.

He took his idea to the Soil Science Society of America who then appointed Weindorf as chairman of a task force devoted to the idea of documenting arctic soils.

How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska? David Weindorf

“We started wrestling with this idea of: How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska?” Weindorf said.

According to Weindorf, arctic soils have large amounts of organic matter resting on top of them. These soils are known as permafrost, which are soils that remain frozen, below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least two consecutive years. As permafrost begins to thaw there is increased microbial activity as the previously frozen organic matter begins to decompose.

Weindorf said that as the organic matter decomposes more carbon is released into the atmosphere.

“As long as that permafrost stays frozen,” Weindorf said, “any methane or organic deposits that are there are locked away. When things start to melt, that’s when all those gases start to be liberated.”

Weindorf said that was when the task force began to realize why people should care about arctic soils.

“We said, ‘Boy, if we made a film where we talk about the arctic soils field tour, soil science, and carbon sequestration and how all of that links to global climate change, that is a really strong pyramid to build upon’,” Weindorf said. “That’s kind of how we arrived at the idea for the film.”

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Interpolygon ice wedge in melting permafrost. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Teaming with Texas Tech Public Media

Eventually, Weindorf contacted with Paul Hunton, the new station manager for KTTZ-TV, Texas Tech Public Media and two-time Emmy award winning director for his work with non-fiction films.  The two began working on the documentary Texas Tech Public Media would film, direct, and edit, Between Earth and Sky.

Weindorf said when shooting in Alaska two very unique angles began to present themselves: the angle of the scientist, which he said can sometimes be dull, and the angle of the laymen.

“We came up with this idea of presenting the science,” Weindorf said, “but also getting just the native Alaskan perspective.”

Jonathan Seaborn, from Texas Tech Public Media and co-director of Between Earth and Sky, said there were many personal stories from filming that stuck with him.

“Some of the more compelling stuff to me was talking to farmers or just random people that were telling us their experiences,” Seaborn said, “about how there was this glacier they used to go to as a kid. Maybe four miles off some highway. Now, it’s some 15 years later and that glacier is maybe 50 miles.”

Weindorf said while the film focuses on some of the negative aspects of climate change, they tried to take a balanced approach to the issue.

“Admittedly, there are going to be some positives to climate change,” Weindorf said. “As temperatures warm farther to the north there are going to be areas of Alaska that are now brought into agricultural production.”

Weindorf said it is necessary to view the whole cycle and that oil, which is extracted along the northern slope and commonly cited as one of the leading causes of climate change, is one of the driving factors of Alaska’s economy.

Filming

Seaborn, co-director of the film, said it was a much larger undertaking than anything he had done before. The long days of an Alaskan summer gave the crew lots of daylight hours to film, and the challenges they faced while filming in the Alaskan frontier added to the entire experience and film.

“It was almost a full month of just non-stop interviews or being out hiking up the mountain filming or out in the wilderness,” Seaborn said. “Everything was wet all the time, and there were crazy bugs everywhere, and the wildlife, and so there were just these extra little elements you have to overcome.”

According to Weindorf and Seaborn, Between Earth and Sky is the first documentary of its kind to look at the effects of climate change as it relates to soils. Between Earth and Sky will be showing at film festivals and specialty theaters throughout 2017.

“What makes it a little different than another climate change documentary,” Seaborn said, “is the fact that we talk about the effects of melting sea ice and these other things that are mentioned in every climate change documentary. But the main focus of the film, as far as the scientific part, is what’s happening in the ground because of climate change that’s also affecting it and intensifying it.”

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