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Taking Pride in Conservation
Landowners Restore Rare Species in Texas
By Chris Best
Photo Credit: Chris Best, USFWS
Is it possible to protect endangered species in Texas, a state where 95 percent of the land is privately owned? Increasingly, Texas landowners are saying "Yes!" and voluntarily taking steps to conserve endangered plants and animals on their land. Recently, I interviewed members of four Texas families to find out what motivated their sense of stewardship.
One November morning, I joined a small flotilla of canoes and kayaks that drifted down the San Antonio River. Ancient bald cypress trees, still draped in mist, towered over the river banks. An alligator as long as my canoe plunged languidly into a murky pool. Soon, the quiet river became a series of whitewater rapids and tumbled over sandstone ledges. We were there to collect seeds from remnant patches of grasses and forbs for a savanna restoration project on the nearby Kirchoff Farm.
In 2008, Don, Scott, Susan, and Brenda Kirchoff inherited their parents' 200 acre (80-hectare) farm in Wilson County. As a memorial to their parents' conservation ethic, they decided to restore the land to its pre-settlement condition, a subtropical savanna of native grasses and shrubs. Don acknowledges that their land may be too small and isolated to support endangered species, but he hopes it will have great educational value and inspire others to restore habitat. Ultimately, many small habitats might coalesce into an ecological corridor along the San Antonio River.
Photo Credit: Chris Best, USFWS
David Bamberger is a businessman who became a conservationist in 1969 when he purchased 5,500 acres (2,225 ha) of over-grazed rangeland west of Austin. Inspired by the delicate beauty of the Texas snowbells (Styrax platanifolius ssp. texanus), an endangered shrub adorned with bright white flowers, David took on its recovery as a personal goal. He went from ranch to ranch promoting the species' conservation, but it took seven years to overcome the mistrust many landowners have of government agencies.
With $35,000 of his own savings and a $17,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, David established an extensive cooperative program to survey private ranches, collect seeds, propagate, and reintroduce Texas snowbells on private lands, including his own ranch. His efforts inspired others to join the cause, including Steve Fulton, whose research on Texas snowbells earned him a master's degree from Texas State University, San Marcos. Currently, 24 landowners voluntarily manage Texas snowbells populations scattered over 130,000 acres (about 52,610 ha) of private land. David has also reintroduced more than 800 surviving snowbells plants into the wild. Now 82, he says he will "retire" after the thousandth of the reintroduced snowbells survives for at least two years in the wild.
Dr. Ashley McAllen traces his family's Texas heritage to 1797, when his ancestors received part of the Llano Grande Land Grant in what is now Hidalgo County. In 1998, Ashley and his brother Geoffrey acquired land in Bandera County where the Sabinal River slices a canyon through the rugged limestone ridges of the Edwards Plateau. The McAllens raise a few cows there, in deference to family tradition, but they believe the real value of the property lies in its recreational use, natural beauty and biodiversity. Ashley requested a rare plant survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and was delighted when Dr. Dana Price and I discovered a small population of the endangered Tobusch fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii) there in March 2007. He and his children periodically monitor the population, and they became alarmed when they discovered rodents were nibbling their cactuses. They decided to design and install screen cages that effectively protect the cactus clusters. Ashley stated that his positive experiences show that landowners have nothing to fear and much to gain from working with government conservation agencies.
Photo Credit: Chris Best, USFWS
I met Kathy Corbett at her family's ranch in Willacy County, where dense, subtropical shrubland borders La Sal Vieja, a natural salt lake. While much of the surrounding land has been cleared, most of the Corbett's 4,200-acre (1,700-ha) tract remains intact. Rare plants and animals, including the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), two endangered cat species, still live there. In the 1980s, Kathy's husband Michael set aside his concerns about the Endangered Species Act and allowed a fellow Texas "Aggie," Mike Tewes, to capture and study ocelots there for his doctoral dissertation. In 2003, Bill Carr, a botanist for The Nature Conservancy, discovered a third endangered species there—the largest known population of Tamaulipan kidneypetal (Ayenia limitaris).
Although Michael Corbett passed away in December 2008, his feelings for the land live on in the journal he kept to record the ranch's natural history. Kathy read for me the dedication to his journal: "For the love I have for my wife, Kathie and my daughter, Katie, and for the affection I have for this ranch, for this land, for its abundant wildlife, for the salt lake, for the incredible miles of scenic views, for this special habitat of huge, old ebonies, comas and the large areas of wild olive trees growing on our hills, for the large collection of Indian artifacts, the presence of the endangered ocelot and the rare Ayenia plants, all give me great pride that we made a good effort for conservation and financial gain to work together and have a ranch that we, the Corbett and Green families, could all be proud of."
Chris Best, the state botanist in the Service's Austin, Texas, Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-490-0057, ext. 225.
Editor's note: This article originally published in the Summer 2011 edition of the Endangered Species Bulletin.
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