Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Texas Mid Coast

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Texas Mid-Coast focal area.

Map of the Texas Mid-Coast focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

Southwest of Houston, the Colorado and Brazos Rivers run through the coastal plain and empty into the Gulf or Texas bays. Situated along their floodplains are a multitude of old river oxbows and what used to be vast bottomland forests and tallgrass prairies. This ecosystem presently encompasses bottomland hardwood wetland forests, associated wetlands and prairies. Habitats within this focal area have been adversely impacted by development, fragmentation and invasive species encroachment. Among the federally listed species found in this focal area are the whooping crane and the Attwater’s prairie chicken, both of which rely upon its prairie habitat. Unfortunately, only about one percent of the coastal prairie that once covered nine million acres from Mexico through Texas and into Louisiana remains. The loss of suitable habitat is one reason why populations of Attwater’s prairie chicken exist in the wild in only two locations, with one being the Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR near Eagle Lake, Texas.

This ecosystem is especially important for Nearctic migratory birds (species that nest in the United States and Canada and migrate south to the tropical regions of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean for the winter) because it contains the only expanse of forested wetlands adjacent to the Gulf in Texas. Millions of migrants depend on its bottomland forests for rest and feeding before and after crossing the Gulf on their fall and spring migrations, respectively. Studies have shown that 237 species of birds, totaling at least 29 million individuals, migrate through these forests every year. The forested areas are important resting, breeding, feeding and escape habitats for a great number of other birds as well. In addition, waterfowl winter in the bottomlands and prairie wetlands.

Two brown birds with striations and orange markings around their head fight in a prairie.

Two male Attwater’s prairie chickens putting on a display. Photo by Tim Cooper, USFWS.

This focal area retains a rural character, with a relatively equal mix of crop and grazing operations. It is not, however, a landscape in isolation. The nearby Houston-Galveston metropolitan area is expected to nearly double in the next 40 years, and the consequences of this will spill over into the focal area. For example, water supply and apportionment problems will only increase in the region. Local and rural communities in this focal area are expected to struggle in adapting to these rapidly changing conditions. We see their challenges as real and daunting; however, we also see them as presenting opportunities for new approaches, partnerships, and solutions that can better serve the interests of multiple parties. We believe engagement at the local level can support a community-based vision of the future that supports the conservation of fish and wildlife resources as well as their recreational and industrial use.

Target Species

A small brown headed bird standing on a tree branch.

The migratory Swainson’s warbler. Photo by USFWS.

Species of special interest in the bottomland forests of this focal area include Nearctic migrant landbirds. In order to represent migrating songbirds, a warbler suite was chosen by the Gulf Coast Joint Venture to represent the Gulf Coast wooded habitat used by multiple species: the Swainson’s, golden-winged and cerulean warbler suite. These three birds utilize different parts of these coastal forests and provide a good example of total forest health for other species. Although conservation targets for these are still under development, actions will be pursued to conserve healthy bottomland forests for hundreds of species that depend on them during migration.

Conservation, restoration, and continued management of native grassland prairie habitats across the Coastal Bend and Texas Mid-Coast are necessary to meet objectives for the federally listed Attwater’s prairie chicken (6,000 breeding adults) and a species of conservation concern, the LeConte’s sparrow (210,198 individuals). Meeting the reclassification goal for whooping cranes outlined in its recovery plan (1,000 individuals are needed for its status to change from endangered to threatened) will require viable coastal wetlands and upland prairies in this focal area for them.

Species objectives for mottled ducks (161,326 individuals), buff-breasted sandpipers (20,545 individuals) and long-billed curlews (11,953 individuals) are also 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. Gulf Coast Joint Venture objectives for other birds that are primarily supported by activities that produce high quality marsh and wetland habitats include: migratory birds, most notably 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).

While proposed actions specifically target our trust resource species, they can have a broader positive impact on the landscape and benefit many other species. Priority actions in this focal area feature habitat improvements to coastal and freshwater marshes, rivers and hardwood forests. Whooping cranes will ultimately profit from enhanced freshwater flow and tidal connectivity to estuaries that provides foundational benefits to many other coastal species like blue crabs, shrimp, oysters and red drum. Beyond migratory species, bottomland forest conservation, reforestation and drainage improvements will recharge aquifers, improve freshwater flow and reduce sedimentation in inland rivers and wetlands, to the benefit of aquatic fauna (e.g., largemouth bass, spotted bass, alligator gar, freshwater mussels) and terrestrial wildlife (e.g., southern flying squirrel, the white-tailed deer and many amphibian species).

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Protect critical bottomland habitat adjacent to the Trinity, San Bernard and Brazos Rivers that represent significant stopover destinations and staging areas for millions of songbirds and landbirds during their migration across the Gulf.

Next Steps

Hardwood trees one of which is covered in a green vine.

Bottomland hardwoods of the Texas Mid-Coast. Photo by Woody Woodrow, USFWS.

  • Describe and quantify how much bottomland is required to support the Gulf Coast Joint Venture’s woodland migrant focal species suite.
  • Identify key areas that provide the ecosystem services that overlap with priority conservation targets in major watersheds such as those of the Trinity, Brazos and San Bernard Rivers.
  • Protect near-coastal and bottomland forest habitats through fee or easement acquisitions focusing on mature forests along the Brazos and San Bernard Rivers. Conservation of intact forests enable surface waters to recharge ground water, and filters waters that make their way to the Gulf.
  • Work with partner agencies and organizations to restore bottomland hardwoods that will increase the ability to sequester carbon and stabilize stream bank habitats, and use retention areas to reduce nutrients entering coastal streams and rivers.
  • In addition to bottomlands, protect associated habitats such as coastal prairie and wetlands through fee acquisition or conservation easements.
  • Restore habitat that was converted for agricultural purposes and that complement existing conservation lands through invasive species control, supplemental planting and restoring natural hydrological flow.

Protect and restore coastal prairie in its historic upland and wetland complex on former rice cultivation fields to support pollinators, grassland and wetland dependent species like the mottled duck and the bobwhite quail, as well as wintering waterfowl, water birds and shorebirds.

Next Steps

  • Identify and set habitat goals for target species within the Texas Mid-Coast Bottomlands, Prairie and Wetlands Focal Area to be protected, restored or created.
  • Identify remnant coastal prairie sites and integrated freshwater wetlands in the former extent of the Gulf coastal prairie; use this information to explore easement, acquisition or restoration opportunities with willing private landowners and restore/conserve coastal prairie habitat on both public and private lands.
  • Consider the development of a prairie restoration cooperative that provides opportunities for members for restoration-related equipment sharing, and reference donor sites for native seed, cultivation and propagation (including of upland and wetland plant stocks needed for restoration).
  • Implement prescribed fire on coastal grasslands to promote a healthy landscape for prairie dependent wildlife and maintain coastal prairie plant species diversity.
  • Provide incentive-based opportunities for private landowners to work with conservation partners and water management entities to develop and integrate wetlands with agricultural activities so that habitat is provided for wildlife, water quality improvement and reduced flood risks in coastal wetlands. These agriculture-wetland systems are one alternative to restore wetland systems historically present in the coastal prairie.
  • Monitor and inventory shifts in species composition within prairie habitats due to a changing climate and/or other influences (e.g., contaminants, catastrophic events and disease).

Reconnect hydrology and watershed diversions to restore and enhance coastal wetlands and aquatic habitats to enhance fisheries and habitat for wetland dependent species.

Next Steps

  • Identify areas where hydrology can be restored or diversions modified to have the greatest potential to support target species population and habitat objectives and remove barriers and enhance tidal connectivity.
  • Where applicable, use dredged material to restore degraded wetlands and off set losses to erosion and subsidence. Restore freshwater wetland functions on the landscape through approaches that can include restoration or creation of wetland basins to improve water quality and reduce flooding risks; restoration of landscape geomorphology; and the provision of wintering habitat on private and public lands.
  • Control invasive species within wetland habitats that degrade value for wildlife and interfere with waterways.
  • Develop opportunities with drainage and flood management districts to restore hydrology on conservation lands, improve water quality of associated receiving waters, and reduce flooding risks to landowners and communities.
  • Work with navigation partners, private and public landowners to protect Gulf Intracoastal Waterway shorelines from erosion using breakwaters or other methods that may also help reduce the frequency of dredging.
  • Work with local municipalities to control and ameliorate erosion of shorelines along bay and water margins by using living shoreline techniques that improve habitats for fish and wildlife and reduce turbidity.