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Lone Star Land Stewards Protect Wild Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — Outside the big cities, out where the deer and the antelope still play, the Texas natural landscape is under siege. It’s a slow motion war that gradually frays and fragments the land as human beings expand into what used to be open range.
On the front line are the traditional ranching families, private land stewards who use their money, spunk and ingenuity to roll with the punches of change and try to protect the best of what’s left–and there’s still a lot of good left. Joining them are the growing ranks of a new breed of rural landowners who live in cities, many of whom also want to help, though they may be newer to the task.
“City folks, who include most of us in Texas these days, don’t know much about what happens on private land in the country, and that’s one reason we started the Lone Star Land Steward Awards,” said Robert L. Cook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “Most people don’t know what these land stewards do to provide habitat for wildlife, how they restore the landscape with prescribed fire and native plants, how that benefits water resources we all depend on. These awards showcase the best out there, and this year we’ve got some new twists on stewardship that reflect the changing face of Texas.”
On May 25 at the Omni Southpark Hotel in Austin, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will recognize 11 land stewards, including nine private ranchers in various ecological regions, plus a cooperative category recognizing landowners who band together to help wildlife, and a corporate recipient. (See list below.) The statewide land steward of the year will also be announced at the May 25 banquet.
The Lone Star Land Steward Awards program recognizes and honors private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. The program is designed to educate landowners and the public and to encourage participation in habitat conservation.
For the first time since the program was created in 1996, TPWD has selected an urban city park as a model of land stewardship. White Rock Lake Park in Dallas will be recognized in the corporate category.
“It’s important that people understand the key to diverse and abundant wildlife is well-managed habitats, and in Texas that occurs mostly on private land, since 94 percent of the Texas landscape is privately owned,” said Linda Campbell, TPWD private lands program leader. “However, wildlife conservation can and does happen in public parks and in urban and suburban areas, as the White Rock Lake example shows. And those examples are important to educate the majority of people who live in cities, as well as to actually provide some valuable habitat for wildlife in urban settings.”
The importance of private stewardship to preserve history and cultural resources is also emphasized this year with the selection of Cibolo Creek Ranch as the Trans-Pecos eco-region recipient.
Land Steward program objectives are to recognize private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation on their lands, publicize the best examples of sound natural resource management practices, encourage youth education and participation in promoting responsible habitat management and improved ecosystem health, promote long-term conservation of unique natural and cultural resources, promote ecosystem awareness and acknowledge the best conservation practices in the state’s 10 ecological regions, enhance relationships between private landowners and Texas natural resource agencies, and illustrate the important role of private landowners in the future of Texas natural resources.
Blackland Prairies — Ellis County — Rey Rosa Ranch
Owner Rusty Rose has worked a dramatic rejuvenation of native flora and fauna through a series of management regimes, including rotational cattle grazing, prescribed burning and marsh construction. At the Rey Rosa, selected fields throughout the ranch are annually disked in late winter to encourage forbs such as common sunflower and croton, which provide seed for mourning dove, bobwhite quail, and wild turkey. The prescribed burning program optimizes nesting and brood habitat for upland game birds, and the development of eight small, moist soil management units provide habitat for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Wildlife diversity is encouraged by the placement of nesting structures and endangered songbirds are protected through an intensive brown-headed cowbird trapping program. The white-tailed deer population is maintained below carrying capacity through intensive doe harvest and selective harvest of bucks, which has improved age structure in the buck population and increased fawn survival.
Cooperative — Gillespie County — Cave Creek Wildlife Management Association
The Cave Creek Wildlife Management Association is recognized as the first wildlife management association in this region of Texas, organized in 1983 by Duery Menzies and Milo Shult with the Texas A&M Ag Extension Service to encourage community involvement in native wildlife management efforts. Currently, there are 45 landowner members controlling 22,400 acres in Gillespie County. Properties range in size from 3,000 acres down to 45 acres. The association encourages deer management in a variety of ways, including participation in the Texas Youth Hunting Program’s “Super Hunts” for about 50 youth each season. They also hold an annual Big Buck Contest, the reduced hunting lease license for participating tracts and the annual Hunters Chili Supper on the eve of opening day of deer season.
Cross Timbers — Jack County — Richards Ranch
The 15,333-acre Richards Ranch shows how some traditions still run deep, having been owned by members of the same family since 1865. John Hackley, the ranch’s general manager for the past 25 years, is a direct descendant of ranch founders James and Elizabeth Hensley. Hackley’s son Brent represents the 6th family generation to have loved, managed, and benefited from the ranch. The 7th generation, Brent’s pre-school aged children, are being mentored by their father, grandfather, and great-great-uncle and are waiting in the wings. Livestock is still the primary management emphasis and rotational grazing has doubled the conventional stocking rate in most years while increasing the biomass and diversity of grasses, which benefits groundwater by improving water infiltration through the soil. Recreational uses including hunting, birding, wildlife photography, and ranch heritage tours provide important revenue sources for the ranch. The Hackleys have freely shared their management successes and failures via field days, training seminars, and ranch tours conducted for other land managers. They have also freely provided hunts to youth and women to help promote hunting among non-traditional user groups.
Pineywoods — Angelina County – George H. Henderson Family Partners
The Henderson’s conduct selective timber harvest and prescribed burns every year or two to help maintain ideal habitat conditions on their almost 800 acre property. An effort is made to preserve standing snags to increase habitat diversity. In addition, the Henderson’s provide year-round supplemental food for deer and other wildlife through protein pellet feed troughs and about 25 acres in warm and cool season food plots. Construction of a 12-acre lake provides habitat for waterfowl species and several wood duck nest boxes have been erected around the lake. In conjunction with the Texas Youth Hunting Program, annual youth hunts are conducted on the property, which has also been made available for Boy Scout outings. A historical marker on site recognizes the former sawmill town of Ewing that was built on the property in the early 1900s. This property has excellent road access and frontage on lake Sam Rayburn, which would make it highly desirable for commercial development. However, the Henderson’s are maintaining the property in its natural condition and are currently exploring the possibility of a conservation easement to protect it into the future.
Corporate Winner — Dallas County — White Rock Lake Park
Created in 1911 as a water source for the growing city, White Rock Lake Park has evolved into a model for urban outdoor recreation and conservation. By 1930, the City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department began developing the 2,115-acre area into a recreational park with trails, picnic areas, boating and fishing. The park is comprised of a 1,088-acre lake, riparian areas along creeks, which include bottomland hardwoods and wetlands, and contains some of the rarest remnants of the Blackland Prairie ecosystem in existence. Members of Dallas Archeological Society discovered that this site has been used by people since the Late Archaic time period beginning in 1550 B.C. Two bison skeletons dating from 1475 A.D. were found on the east side of the lake. Several Civilian Conservation Corps structures are present at the park, including recreational buildings, bridges, restrooms and picnic pavilions. In one area of the park, 192 plant species were identified 10 years ago, and today more than 330 species have been identified in the same area. Wildlife has increased to include 240 identified species of wildlife. Educational opportunities include school field trips for studying and observing the environment and natural resources.
Edwards Plateau — Menard & McCulloch counties — Treadwell Brady Ranch
The Treadwell Brady ranch implements all five of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold’s essential tools: axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun. Efforts include habitat management, erosion control, supplemental food, water and shelter for wildlife, predator control, and wildlife population surveys. Cattle are managed with a light, rotational grazing regime and owners conduct prescribed burning throughout the year, burning 20-35 percent of the ranch annually. Mechanical brush control keeps undesirable invasive species in check, and six dense mesquite flats have been converted to fenced supplemental food plots for wildlife. Numerous water improvements have also been made on the ranch that benefits wildlife resources. There are low-cost hunting opportunities for many hunters, and deer, quail and turkey youth hunts are offered. The ranch also provides nature tourism activities like bird watching and trail rides. The landowners were instrumental in the formation of the Calf Creek Prescribed Burn Co-op, which later evolved into the McCulloch County Prescribed Burn Co-op. The ranch readily helps neighbors with prescribed burns, coordinates field trips with neighbors to wildlife and range management seminars, and provides speakers at seminars.
Gulf Prairies & Marshes — Jim Willis — Colorado County — WW Ranch
The 224-acre WW Ranch is a jewel on the prairie. Jim Willis is restoring native prairie grassland habitat for quail and other wildlife on his acreage through a variety of wildlife management practices. Willis has become the “Johnny Appleseed” of quail habitat restoration through proactive involvement with the Wildlife Habitat Federation, an organization whose goal is to restore and enhance native habitat in South Central Texas. After purchasing the property five years ago, Willis has converted it from a virtual wildlife desert to pristine native conditions that now support deer, quail, dove, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, rabbits and other wildlife. Cattle are moderately stocked and grazed on a rotational system and native grass seed hay is baled and fed in areas of the ranch lacking in native grass stands. The list of habitat enhancement projects is astounding and include disking for native forb production, annual prescribed burns, creation of food plots, planting of 3,000 native sand plum trees to provide loafing/escape cover for quail, native prairie restoration on more than 100 acres, construction of a five-acre wetland and strategically placed bird nesting boxes. Water resource improvements include seven ponds and an elaborate pipeline distribution system for cattle and wildlife. There have been several landowner tours conducted on the property. The ranch has also been used for Boy Scout projects.
Post Oak — Washington County— Shepherd’s Mountain Ranch
Shepherd’s Mountain ranch owners John and Nellie Colson are attempting to restore much of their 1,300-acre ranch back to a native habitat; no small task after a portion of the property was mechanically cleared and planted in Bermuda and Bahia grasses by previous owners during the 1970s. With the assistance of ranch manager Gary Chalmers, an active controlled burning program has been implemented on the ranch to restore the understory to an open Post Oak savannah habitat. A large-scale cedar removal program is planned to re-open some of the heavier wooded sites. The Colson’s actively manage the ranch’s deer herd through annual census and hunting and have planted about 135 acres of Austrian winter peas and wheat in the fall and 135 acres of cowpeas, milo and millet in the spring for supplemental food. The ranch has been very cooperative in field trials to convert pastures of introduced grasses to native plants. The owners continually extend an open invitation to company employees and their families to fish, hunt and recreate on this great ranch.
Rolling Plains — Stonewall County— Snipes Ranch LP
Rick Snipes began hunting the ranch in 1980 and the Snipes Family purchased the ranch in 1993. They have utilized management tools such as brush sculpting, prescribed fire, and planned grazing to convert once overgrazed rangeland into healthy and diverse plant communities. While bobwhite quail is their passion, the management practices on Snipes Ranch have benefited a variety of wildlife species such as white-tailed deer, Rio Grande wild turkey, various bird species and the Texas horned lizard. No artificial supplementation occurs on the ranch in the form of feeders or “food plots.” However, in areas of soil disturbance, native forbs such as annual sunflower, prairie acacia, ragweed and croton are planted. Sprinkler systems are placed strategically within pastures to provide additional moisture that attracts insects, an important food source for bobwhite quail. Planned grazing using cow-calf and stocker cattle is used to manage plant succession and enhance plant diversity, including warm season grasses. Management practices are also implemented to improve the quality of Conservation Reserve Program land, converting formerly cultivated land into healthy native pasture.
South Texas — Jim Hogg County — Las Vivoritas
The ranch, owned by Edward H. Austin Jr., is part of an original Spanish Land Grant in Jim Hogg County history and is a living history of what this country once looked like. All of the management practices on the property promote natural development of the habitat, including deferment of grazing, which has led to an increase in native perennial grasses and re-establishment of native prairie. Both the Baluarte Creek Drainage and the Los Palos Creek Drainage traverse the ranch. Each of these has been protected from grazing and has small depressions created to hold water naturally or water is pumped to these locations. The ranch creates several hundred miles of soil disturbance with a disk on an annual basis. Disking is traditionally done from December through March. Road edges, small food plots, fire breaks, fence lines, and grid strips are disked to promote forbs and insects for wildlife. Disked areas are alternated periodically to increase the diversity of plant species. Several hundred acres are burned annually when conditions allow. Fire is the main tool used in brush management on the ranch. Several old watermelon fields have been reclaimed to optimal quail habitat with prescribed fire and disking. Overall, less than 100 acres of the ranch have been cleared by the Austin family. The ranch has 500-plus supplemental watering sources with a drip system, five large lakes, and 10 windmills with overflow troughs and earthen tanks. Upland game birds, especially bobwhite quail, are plentiful on the Vivoritas. The ranch has actively managed for quality whitetails, with a few bucks in the 170 B&C and above class each year. In addition, the ranch has served as a project site for the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute’s Quail Associates Program, the South Texas Natives Plant Project, and has been a stellar trap site for TPWD’s dove banding program. Gas production, caliche, water, and commercial deer hunting are or have been used as income sources on the ranch.
Trans-Pecos — Presidio County — Cibolo Creek Ranch
Taking a page out of the Texas history books, Cibolo Creek Ranch holds three buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Ranch owner John B Poindexter has obtained five Texas State Historical Markers for the property commemorating the achievements of the pioneers who established the Cibolo Creek Ranch in 1857. Among the primary objectives for the property is the restoration of cultural resources that include more than 20 historical sites including cemeteries, buildings, and agricultural (field) walls dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Efforts to date include the rebuilding of more than one mile of historical rock corrals and fences and the re-excavation of three large springs co-located with the three adobe forts; reinstallation of fruit orchards on historical sites and the restoration of more than one mile of 19th century irrigation channels to service the orchards and other landscaping. Cataloging and protection, assisted by Sul Ross State University personnel, was done on more than 20 Native American sites on the property, including settlements (mounds), caves, pictographs and casual encampments. Poindexter offers tours, open houses, and the use of the historical structures on the ranch by schools and other public institutions, all to benefit the local community. In addition to conservation of the cultural resources, Cibolo Creek is actively involved in habitat restoration through brush management on 6,000 acres to remove invader species and return the terrain to its pre-pioneer state. The ranch is also placing about 12 miles of seasonal stream beds in the Riparian Buffer Program so as to control erosion and preserve natural vegetation. The ranch has reduced cattle numbers on the 30,000-acre property to about one-third of the recommended stocking rate to allow the vegetation to recover. Some pastures now have been rested for as long as seven years for this purpose. Efforts to restore wild turkey to the property and enhance scaled quail populations are also under way.
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