Nature Notes: Oil Patch Wilderness

The oil industry has often been demonized, but plentiful wildlife still abounds among the wells and equipment typical in the oil patch. Have you ever wondered how birds and animals can thrive in the middle of a sea of oil and gas wells?

From the air, an oil field is a grid of roads, stretching miles over an almost flat landscape. The land looks scarred. But in some oil fields, small pronghorn herds graze at the edge of the caliche roads and aren’t fazed by the passing of the pumper, the brine water trucks and the workover rigs. Moreover, rattlesnakes, scorpions, bullbats, killdeer and jackrabbits can be seen along almost every lease road – if you look hard enough. 

Since pump jacks only move part of the time, kestrels and kingbirds have built nests in the pump jack heads that move slowly when the pump is working, they’ll even come to feed their young when it is moving.  On the catwalks of the tank batteries, great horned owls hiss and clatter at the pumper checking levels, defending nests of sticks and fuzzy white chicks in February and March.

Along the edges of the caliche rock pads the nighthawks and killdeer push a few chunks of crumbly calcified caliche aside and lay eggs where vehicles pass within inches. The mothers never flinch as the trucks rumble purposefully past. African rue, a plant toxic to livestock, loves the side of the gravel lease roads and has spread across the landscape. Many ranches in the oilfield require the oil industry vehicles to be washed to remove native bitterweed seeds, another plant toxic to livestock. 

On ranches in the oil patch, the landowner or grazing lessee visits perhaps once a week to check the waterings at the old fashioned windmills. This leaves just the oilfield workers in the West Texas landscape 90 percent of the days. The cattle are stocked lightly, only five per square mile in most years, maybe up to 10 per square mile in rainy years, and in dry years, there will be none at all. 

A few sheepmen still have flocks, but for the sheep to survive, the coyotes have to be trapped or hunted every few years. Twenty three hours a day or more, there is not a human soul to be seen in a landscape that stretches 15 miles to the horizon. A dust plume rising from the caliche as a worker’s truck carries him on his rounds announces his presence long before the rumble of the engine.

Life goes on around the industrial infrastructure.  150 years ago there might have been buffalo visible in wet years and more pronghorn. The increased brush here is the result of a climate change that has been going on 150 years since the end of the little Ice age, and the seeds left behind in the droppings of livestock. 

Today there might be more hawks, ladderbacked woodpeckers and ashthroated flycatchers because of the grid of electric lines powering the pump jacks. The landscape never stays the same over long periods of time. In another century there might only be rusting metal- half buried by blown sand in a landscape mostly abandoned, the way it was years ago, for no one lived in the oil patch until windmills came and then long distance utility waterlines were laid from far far away reservoirs to the cities built for the extraction of the oil. No matter what, in the future the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes will still seek the shade of the gnarled and twisted mesquites.  

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams, Executive director of the Sibley Nature Center.