feature By: John Flores, text and photos | August, 19
A retired environmental engineer from Austin, Texas, Mike McCloskey is on a mission.
The bucolic Texan purchased his Twistflower Ranch, a 5,800-acre spread in West Texas near the town of Iraan some 20 years ago after his retirement. His quest has been a race against time to restore the ranch to its natural state.
McCloskey says in the mid-1800s, the region historically was mostly shortgrass prairie. However, today, the casual observer looking at this part of the Chihuahuan Desert would in all likelihood consider it a barren wasteland unfit for fauna. The countryside once flourished with gramma, tobosa and burro grasses but is now inundated with tarbush (flourensia cernua).
Overgrazing by cattle and sheep affected the native prairie so dramatically that tarbushes, also a native species, replaced the dominant grasses. The tarbush’s network of roots spread like tentacles horizontally through the soil, where the resinous shrub becomes invasive to beneficial grasses.
As a result, since the late 1800s the landscape in this southwestern region of the country, once inhabited by Native American tribes and other indigenous peoples dating back some 6,000 years, went into decline. In 2018, studies were done by the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center on some ancient rock art McCloskey discovered on the property. Shumla’s report helped provide some clues to understanding the timeframe ancient people may have used Twistflower Ranch prior to European American settlement.
Lithic studies conducted by archeologists on McCloskey’s ranch show that Native Americans for centuries had utilized and preferred this part of the country. The shortgrass prairie offered an abundance of game animals and natural resources required to sustain life. Above the bank of one dry riparian streambed on the ranch is a supply of chert, rock used in prehistoric times in the construction of stone tools.
Additionally, near the chert location are limestone shelves or strata where grinding and midden pits for debris occurred.
McCloskey, in his early seventies, has worked diligently for nearly two decades restoring the property. The ranch has two riparian zones, one of which he says hasn’t been grazed in 19 years. The rancher also has worked with state and federal agencies, applying for grants to help him with the cost of expensive chemicals required to kill the sea of tarbush shrubs in his pastures.
The initial area that McCloskey treated consisted of a modest 60 acres. In 2017, the amount of acreage he treated increased tenfold to some 600 acres in the riparian zones on the ranch. And he was in the middle of a contract treating additional acreage during the spring of 2018.
What’s key is the ranch is not devoid of wildlife. On the contrary, mule deer, whitetail deer, javelina, gray fox and other mammals scratch out a living in this part of Texas. In fact, McCloskey has built cabins and a lodge, and each fall he caters to big game hunters. McCloskey, though, prefers wing shooting. He annually hunts scaled quail and dove with friends, where the restoration of prairie grasses has had a huge impact on both game and nongame avian populations.
McCloskey has attempted to make his property available for more than just hunting. He opens his ranch up for a fee to hikers and those interested in archeological education, stargazing, nature photography, botany tours and birding.
The rancher points out the good part about Twistflower is it’s in the middle of nowhere, and the bad part about it is it’s in the middle of nowhere. The idea of people driving four, five or more hours from home can be impractical when contemplating whether it’s worth their time McCloskey says.
All of the ranch cabins are attractive in their southwestern motif – spacious, clean and comfortable with plenty of fresh linens. The back porch of each cabin provides a magnificent view from the top of the plateau where they sit overlooking the escarpments below. McCloskey also provides meals as part of overnight stays and activities. And it’s fair to mention, Mike is a good cook.
There are other amenities worth mentioning, but it is the prairie habitat restoration and what it means to wildlife that is the true attraction of the Twistflower.
McCloskey has set up a photography blind overlooking an earthen pond on one of his two riparian areas. It’s here the impact of grass restoration with water supplied by a windmill has been most favorable. In one morning session we photographed 39 different species of passerines as well as javelina, gray fox and whitetail deer.
The incredible beauty of painted and varied buntings; vermilion flycatchers; Audubon’s and Wilson’s warblers; and Bullock’s, Scott’s and orchard orioles provided a kaleidoscope of colors on the backdrop of greenish-yellow mesquite trees. But it was the gray and bluish-colored scaled quail walking out of the prairie grass to the edge of the pond to drink that showed McCloskey’s efforts are proving to be successful.
Preferred scaled quail habitat can be associated with and typified by low-growing prairie grass, with a mix of forbs and shrubs. The bird is found in dry regions with open valleys, plains and foothills, with rocky slopes, draws, gullies and canyons, things the Twistflower has in spades.
During the ’70s and ’80s, a dear friend and I hiked miles and miles of Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico chasing scaled quail. As Air Force buddies who grew up hunting upland game, he in West Virginia and I, Michigan, we quickly adapted to the arid desert. Moreover, we learned to pick out prime scaled quail habitat, which typically was isolated pockets of knee-high grass in the middle of nowhere.
Partners in Flight, a network of more than 150 partner organizations throughout the western hemisphere dedicated to maintaining healthy bird populations, estimates the scaled quail breeding population to be somewhere around 5 million between Mexico and the United States combined.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions scaled quail populations declined 2 percent per year from 1966 through 2014. What’s more, their accumulative numbers fell some 57 percent according to the North American Breeding Survey over that period. Essentially, the decline came as a result of an overgrazed landscape. Moreover, studies indicate that in states where it is allowed – Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas – hunting of this species “does not” appear to reduce the numbers of this bird also known as blue quail and cotton top.
With scaled quail populations in such steep decline, McCloskey’s passion to restore his property’s landscape to its original shortgrass prairie certainly doesn’t solve all of the problems. But it is a good conservation step in the right direction in this part of Texas, where tarbushes carpet the countryside.
Whether McCloskey’s twilight years and passion are enough to see his desire through remain to be seen. Nevertheless, he is clear-eyed about his goal: “By the time I die or run out of money, I’d like to restore this land as much as I can to what is was in the 1860s or 1870s, before the Europeans came with their sheep and cattle. And basically overgrazed the land.”