Pineywoods Wildlife Management
The Pineywoods of eastern Texas, an area containing roughly all, or portions of approximately 30 counties, is the western-most extension of the forests and woodlands of the southeastern United States. This portion of Texas is part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, and is characterized by pine, pine-hardwood, and hardwood-pine forests on the uplands and upper terraces, bottomland hardwoods on the lower terraces and river bottoms, and cypress and tupelo swamps in perennially wet areas.
The pine, pine-hardwood and hardwood-pine forests of the uplands were primarily dominated by shortleaf pine in northeast Texas, and longleaf pine in southeast Texas. Loblolly pine dominated, and co-dominated with shortleaf pine in extreme southeast Texas, and the southern Pineywoods close to the coast. In northeast and southeast Texas these trees occurred on sandy, and sandy-loam soils of the uplands and grew in association with drought-tolerant hardwood species like post oak, blackjack oak, bluejack or sandjack oak, southern red oak and black hickory. These forests developed with the occurrence of fairly frequent natural fire events. The lower slope coastal pine-dominated upland forests likely had a higher hardwood component, but were still of open character, and dependent upon fire.
Plant species that survived in these communities were not only fire-tolerant, but many were fire-dependent, including longleaf pine which is considered rare throughout its range. The pine and oak trees that dominated the overstories of these communities were in many cases several hundred years of age. The understories of these open pine savannah upland forests were dominated by grasses, forbs and herbaceous plants. This understory layer in the pine savannahs of the southeast was among the richest communities, in number of species, on the North American Continent. Frequent fire in these communities prevented encroachment of a number of competitive species of hardwoods and loblolly pine from the lower terraces. There was an ever-shifting ecotone, based upon the most recent fire events, along the mid- to lower-terrace where lower terrace species, largely fire-intolerant would occur. At time of settlement these forests were largely older, or later-successional forests in excess of 100 years of age, and many several hundred years of age.
These same pine-dominated upland forests contained a wealth of high quality timber; both pine and hardwood. Original logging of the United States was whole-scale logging. This meant that all merchantable logs across the landscape would be removed. This logging was largely completed in eastern Texas by the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
One species, dependent upon the older mature upland pine savannah forest, that is now considered endangered is the Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). This species lives and forages exclusively in mature, open “park-like” pine forests. It needs older pines with sufficient heart rot present to construct its cavities. This heart rot, created by a fungus called red heart, occurs in mature pine forests. The open savannah forests also have been shown to contribute to arthropod (spider) and insect diversity that the RCW depends upon for its food supply. These birds live in family units known as groups, and each group needs a fairly significant amount of suitable mature pine forest to survive. Populations of this species are dependent upon large areas of largely unbroken high quality habitat for their survival.
The greatest current threat to this species is loss of mature pine savannah habitat. The primary factors contributing to this loss are urbanization, conversion of pine forest to agriculture, dense loblolly pine plantations (in areas formerly occupied by shortleaf or longleaf pine) on short rotation cycles for harvest of pine timber (currently between 25-45 years), and encroachment of hardwoods and lower terrace vegetation that occurs with fire suppression.
The RCW is a “keystone” species for the upland pine savannah habitat in eastern Texas. Some other rare animal species that occurred within the pine savannahs of eastern Texas include Bachman’s sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, Louisiana pine snake and northern scarlet snake. A fire-dependent endangered plant species that occurred within this system was the Texas trailing phlox.
High quality lower terrace, bottomland hardwood and swamp forests of eastern Texas have also declined across the landscape of eastern Texas. Many of these areas were converted to loblolly pine plantations, agriculture and pasture lands, or were logged whole-scale in a similar fashion to the logging of the pine uplands in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many of these terraces and bottomlands contained very high quality bottomland hardwood species like willow oak, water oak, overcup oak, swamp chestnut oak, sweetgum, baldcypress and a number of other significant species. Removal of the “highest” quality trees, from a timber perspective, resulted in a forest that had been “high graded,” and the trees remaining for reforestation were largely of very poor quality.
One former species that occurred within the later-successional or mature bottomland hardwood forests of eastern Texas that is now considered extinct by most biologists is the Ivory-billed woodpecker. This species needed great expanses of mature forests, including bottomland hardwoods for its nesting and foraging requirements. This species made its last stronghold in the bottomland hardwood forests of the southeast, but was unable to survive the initial whole-scale logging of the bottomlands. It is still on the federal and state endangered species list, but it is very unlikely that any remain.
Another important species dependent upon bottomland hardwood forests of eastern Texas that was considered extirpated that is now slowly starting to occur again within the forests of eastern Texas is the Louisiana black bear. This species is dependent upon large expanses of bottomland hardwood forests as well. This is a federal and state-listed threatened species, and the majority of remaining Louisiana black bears currently occur across our border in the state of Louisiana. American black bears also occur across our border in the neighboring states of Arkansas and Oklahoma, and are starting to move into portions of northeast Texas; these bears are considered as threatened due to similarity in appearance to Louisiana black bears.
There are a number of other animal species that are dependent upon bottomland hardwood forests, and quality wetland areas within those forests that occur within eastern Texas, including; Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, wood stork, American swallow-tailed kite, bald eagle, alligator snapping turtle, timber rattlesnake, prothonotary warbler and a number of other declining neotropical migratory birds.
The largest threats to these species are conversion of bottomland hardwoods to loblolly pine plantations, conversion to agriculture and pastureland, short rotation harvest cycles and small, fragmented patch harvest of bottomland timber, and destruction through the inundation of bottomland hardwood forests to create reservoirs. This region, like most regions throughout the southeastern United States, went through a massive reservoir building era in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many of the largest, highest quality bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed during this era. To-date, as much as 75 percent of the original bottomland hardwood forests of eastern Texas are now gone.