Despite its aspiration of becoming a technology hot spot, the state of Texas recently placed a $45 million bet on an ancient occupational category: agriculture. In October 2021, the Texas Legislature approved and the governor signed a bill that included nearly $45 million earmarked for an agricultural complex at Texas A&M at Commerce. For rural landowners and urban bird hunters, the most intriguing aspect of the new facility will be its research on the decline of game birds such as quail.
The National Laboratory for Gamebird Research will be housed in the complex in East Texas. For bird hunters, landowners, conservationists and businesses that rely on tourism, the work of this lab could change the trajectory of the populations of several bird species.
For many Texans, agriculture was once the family business. It was a job, or more accurately a lifestyle, that the old timers pursued until the mercurial nature of this business, with its droughts and widely fluctuating prices for goods produced from the land, forced many to call it quits. In the early to mid-20th century, “agriculture” consisted of farming and ranching. Growing crops and livestock were the extent of life in rural America.
But as more young people in rural areas moved to cities, leaving fewer family members to take over the farms and ranches, the agriculture industry was forced to expand from just growing crops and livestock to include other commercial endeavors that depend on the land. In many cases, pastures and cultivated fields became “habitats” for wild game such as deer and game birds, including dove, turkey and quail. Commercial hunting fundamentally changed the economics of rural land ownership.
Meanwhile, a young biology professor, who has earned the moniker “Professor Quail,” is eager to be a part of this evolution of farming and ranching.
Kelly Reyna, a professor at Texas A&M at Commerce and the person who will lead the research efforts and outreach programs as director of this new facility, is nationally known for his work in California Valley transplant to East Texas. His research on the decline of the native bobwhite quail, which has seen an 80% drop in population in Texas since the 1960s, prompted a passion for studying quail species to understand the effect of climate change and habitat destruction on all game birds.
As it turns out, quail act as the fabled canary in a coalmine.
“Quail are an ‘umbrella species,'” Reyna said. “This means that they indicate the health of all other grassland species. Our new facilities will allow us to look at the impacts of stressors like extreme climate, pesticides, habitat destruction and nutrition on chick development and adult health across multiple generations.
“We will also be able to re-create environmental conditions in the laboratory and directly observe how stressors impact quail and other game bird populations across multiple years. This will further our knowledge of game bird population dynamics and sustainability and help us develop solutions to mitigate these stressors.”
The effects of the research and outreach from this new organization could be felt nationally and even internationally. They will include studies, publications and conferences on waterfowl (ducks and geese), upland birds (dove and pheasant) in addition to quail.
Reyna said he hopes to partner with organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Quail and Pheasant Forever, the Wild Turkey Federation and other wild game, nonprofit organizations, offering them scientific information that’s helpful for hunters. Plus, the facility could be used by biologists around the world for conferences and meetings.
“Our facility is being designed to be fan-friendly, with constantly evolving, interactive exhibits for landowners, outdoor sports enthusiasts and other visitors,” he said, adding that the center will also “build a series of ‘nature’ trails that will enable us to collect data on our efforts to reinvigorate declining game bird species.”
Texas A&M System leaders anticipate this effort can have substantial economic benefits for rural landowners and other businesses that are in the game bird hunting ecosystem. Reyna pointed out that a quail hunter might spend as much as $8,800 on gear, hunting licenses, local restaurants, lodging and more. Quail hunting is part of a $2 billion annual upland game bird industry. The quail decline has cost Texas millions of dollars in lost spending. Plus, duck, pheasant turkey and dove hunters also spend money pursuing their sport in Texas.
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp expressed optimism for the potential of the complex’s facilities that will be dedicated to game bird research.
“More birds, of course, is great news for hunters like me, but increased quail populations also mean more opportunity for hunting-related businesses to thrive in Texas,” Sharp said.
Art Young is an outdoor sportswriter and editor. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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