Texas Ranchers Help Recover Birds, Toads, Flowers

by Ben Ikenson

December 9 - December 15, 1999

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This week Weekly Alibi begins a new feature called Tree Hugger's Corner. The column will run periodically and will be about conservation efforts in New Mexico and the Southwest.

Before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, the San Bernard River passes through John and Taunia Elick's ranch in southeastern Texas, a ribbon of water and hardwood trees unspooled across rolling Gulf Coast prairies. The ranch is home to the Elicks' Texas Longhorn cattle and a wide range of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl and bald eagles which use the tall cottonwoods that line the river for their winter roost. It's no wonder John named the 1,800-acre spread near Sealy, Texas, the Eagle Roost Ranch.

If ranches were always named for the birds that populated them, there once was a time the Elicks' place would have been called the Attwater's Prairie Chicken Ranch. A grouse species that thrived on the land before the Elicks' time, the Attwater's prairie chicken, unfortunately, has become North America's most endangered bird. But Elick and fellow ranchers in the area have joined an effort to bring the bird back, to restore something of a lost element to the important Gulf Coast prairie ecosystem.

"I want to do something for wildlife," Elick said. "I want to help create and maintain habitat for wildlife because I believe that what is good for the ecology of the land is good for me and my ranch."

Elick is one of eight landowners working to restore Texas coastal prairie habitat on more than 17,800 acres. As part of the Coastal Prairie Conservation Initiative, partnerships with private landowners are aimed at improving lands for the endangered bird. Jointly sponsored by the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, the Sam Houston Resource Conservation and Development Board, and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, landowners can volunteer to receive cost-share incentives to carry out prairie habitat conservation practices such as brush control, grazing management, and prescribed burning to improve the health of their range land.

Landowners can also sign a "Safe Harbor" agreement, which essentially immunizes them from liability under the Endangered Species Act if management practices attract endangered species. In addition to the Attwater's prairie chicken, other rare species covered under the Safe Harbor provisions include the endangered Houston toad and the Texas prairie dawn-flower.

Before he was involved, Elick had been worried that the federal government would, in some way, infringe on his property rights if it was discovered that his property attracted such a splendorous array of wildlife, including the prairie chicken and the bald eagle. After hearing about the Safe Harbor agreements, Elick approached program representatives within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local Resource Conservation and Development Board.

"Basically," Elick said, "I learned that the Safe Harbor was designed to protect the ranch owner's property rights on his land, and yet provide the government special use ranchland for endangered species habitat without the price tag of acquiring the land. Both the government and private landowner benefit without any negative drawbacks to either party."

"It's a win-win situation for everyone involved," said Terry Rossignol, manager of Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. "The rancher improves his habitat for his cattle operation, and the Attwater's prairie chicken benefits from the improved habitat as well."

If participating landowners carry out the agreed-upon, cost-shared habitat improvements, they may develop, farm, or ranch without fear of being stopped. They are only required to notify the Fish and Wildlife Service and give the agency an opportunity to relocate any endangered species expected to be adversely affected.

Promising Partnerships

On Sept. 7, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Texas to honor Elick and the other landowners. Babbitt joked about his visit with the friendly group: "I went to the heart of Texas cattle country, and there was no lynch mob to meet me." An additional four landowner agreements totaling more than 22,000 acres are pending.

"This program has mushroomed in popularity and, because Texas is more than 97 percent privately owned, it now holds the key to successful recovery of the Attwater's prairie chicken," Rossignol said. "Without the help of private landowners, the bird is doomed to extinction."

Since 1996, releases of captive-reared birds have been conducted at the refuge and Galveston Bay Coastal Prairie Preserve. However, these release sites can only support a limited number of prairie chickens. Success of the recovery and captive propagation/release program really depends on the cooperative efforts of private landowners.

Recent landowner participation may prove that cattle grazing and endangered species recovery can go hand in hand. Hopefully, things might start looking brighter for the bird, thanks to people like John Elick who represent a growing population of large ranch owners who feel that managing land for wildlife can enhance property value as well as protect endangered species.

In his own words, Elick said he uses the "holistic approach to managing the ranch for cattle grazing, wildlife habitat, and recreational enjoyment of the land." His cattle roundups, chuckwagon trail rides, and quail hunts are extremely popular with his friends who want to experience "early Texas landscape and lifestyle."

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