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Two bright white birds with red patches on their face and long slender legs standing in the a dormant grassy field.
Information icon Whooping cranes. Photo by D. Serverson, USFWS.

Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Coastal Bend

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Coastal Bend focal area.
Map of the Coastal Bend focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS. Note: For Biological Planning Unit purposes, this focal area is combined with the Texas Mid-Coast.

The Texas Coastal Bend Focal Area lies primarily between the Nueces River and Corpus Christi Bay system to the west, and the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay system to the east. The focal area includes multiple rivers, including the Guadalupe River, that drain central Texas and feed productive estuaries.

The area is internationally known as the winter home of the last wild migratory population of federally endangered whooping cranes. People come from all over the world to view these federally listed cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and other places in the focal area. The watershed has a large agricultural composition, and the area has intact barrier island systems with seagrass beds, marshes and sand flats. It also includes some of the largest coastal prairie grasslands in Texas, which are important habitat for two other federally listed bird species, the Attwater’s prairie chicken and the northern aplomado falcon.

Light green and brown shrubs border a marsh.
Oak savannahs and adjacent wetlands of Aransas NWR. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

Loss of coastal grasslands to woody species encroachment and development present the greatest conservation challenge in this area. This habitat loss threatens the Attwater’s prairie chicken, the northern aplomado falcon, the whooping crane, the mottled duck and a host of associated species listed below. There is an urgent need for the Service and others to work together to protect additional grasslands, and to greatly increase prescribed fire capacity, scale and frequency to restore and maintain protected grasslands.

Target Species

Biological objectives established to date have been created for a geography that includes the Coastal Bend and Texas Mid-Coast focal areas together as one unit. Conservation, restoration, and continued management of grassland and prairie habitats across these two focal areas are necessary to meet objectives for the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken (6,000 breeding adults) and a species of conservation concern, the Le Conte’s sparrow (210,198 individuals). Among the most iconic wetland species in this focal area is the whooping crane. Significant work continues to ensure adequate freshwater inflows are maintained to meet the reclassification targets needed for this species outlined in its recovery plan (1,000 individuals are needed for its status to be changed from endangered to threatened).

Two bright white birds with black feather tipped wings come in for a landing in a marsh.
Federally endangered whooping cranes. Photo by Diane Nunley, USFWS.

Mottled ducks (161,326 individuals), buff-breasted sandpipers (20,545 individuals) and long-billed curlews (11,953 individuals) are dependent on an appropriate interspersion of grassland and wetland habitats in this region and benefit from practices that address both aspects of their habitat needs. Other migratory birds which have objectives established by the Gulf Coast Joint Venture and primarily benefit from those activities that produce high quality marsh and wetland habitats include migrant shorebirds like stilt sandpipers (278,292 individuals) and western sandpipers (534,226 individuals); wintering waterfowl such as pintail (775,775 individuals) and gadwall (224,926 individuals); and landbirds like seaside sparrows (a share of 65,000 individuals).

The Gulf Coast Joint Venture has assessed seagrasses in this focal area relative to target waterfowl populations that utilize them as a food resource. While existing seagrass beds appear to be sufficient to meet waterfowl demands, if disturbance and/or lack of adjacent dietary freshwater renders 42 percent of seagrasses effectively unavailable, then habitat would become insufficient. The Gulf Coast Joint Venture has similarly assessed flooded rice fields and other inland palustrine wetlands in this focal area (combined with Texas Mid-Coast) relative to the needs of target waterfowl populations, and on average only one third of the approximately 136,000-acre winter habitat objective is met.

A frog with dark brown/black spots on it's face and back with a white belly in a sandy hole.
Southern crawfish frog. Photo by Andrew Hoffman, USFWS.

While many of the proposed actions in this focal area specifically list trust resource species as their targets, implementation of these actions will be advantageous to other species as well. For example, among the benefits of targeting whooping cranes are the associated benefits to species known to serve as a food resource including, but not limited to, blue crabs, red drum, speckled trout and other aquatic species. Restoring natural drainage features in grasslands will also provide habitat for the southern crawfish frog, a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Texas. Marsh restoration will also benefit species like black rail, which is not only an at-risk bird species but one with an important breeding (and even larger non-breeding) population in the Coastal Bend Focal Area.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Manage non-native species, reintroduce native plants, restore natural drainage features and use frequent prescribed fire to restore grassland savannas and prairies on former farmland and working ranchlands.

Next Steps

  • Complete landscape assessment and species modeling for whooping cranes. Use this decision support tool, and a similar tool recently completed for Western Gulf Coast mottled ducks, to guide conservation and restoration actions.
  • Establish an invasive species control collaborative that can share resources, enhance management capabilities, and leverage funds and expertise to implement invasive species control, prairie management and restoration actions across priority focal area lands.
  • Greatly increase prescribed fire application (e.g., at least 125,000 acres annually) to high priority public or private lands to meet habitat conditions for target species.
  • Enhance the capability to flood active or idle rice fields and shallow water impoundments (i.e., moist soil units) for wintering waterfowl and migratory shorebirds on both conserved lands and with willing private landowners.
  • Conserve interconnected grassland corridors between Attwater’s prairie chicken core areas to allow for dispersal and genetic exchange.

Support water-sharing efforts to provide freshwater input to coastal ecosystems that account for the needs of people and natural resources, including commercially significant fisheries and culturally important species like the whooping crane.

Next Steps

  • Facilitate conversations between water providers and user groups to identify water-sharing concepts and to understand interests, conflicts and/or concerns of the stakeholders.
  • Develop a collaborative strategy to consider concerns and identify potential solutions to meet needs for wildlife and people; for example, consider the approach of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program.

Create a conservation network of lands through conservation easements or acquisition of grassland savanna and prairies, woodlands and riparian areas.

Next Steps

  • Complete a Landscape Conservation Design for the Coastal Bend that integrates existing conservation planning tools such as the Texas’ Ecological Indices Project, Grassland Decision Support Tool, Texas Ecosystem Analytical Mapper, Sea Level Rise Viewer, and other site specific and scientific sources of information.
  • Work with partners to develop and implement conservation projects to reach an initial target of 10,000 - 20,000 acres in the next five years identified as sustainable habitat for whooping cranes and associated species such as the mottled duck and the seaside sparrow.

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