September 1, 2006
`Endangered songbirds' used to be forbidden words in the Hill Country. Now those birds sing a medley of dollars for Central Texas ranchers...
By Mike Barnett
You'll never convince one Bosque County landowner that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Those birds in the bush on his property in Coryell County are worth their weight in gold as he takes advantage of a pilot incentive program to not only protect and enhance endangered birds' habitat, but manage brush and improve his rangeland as well.
In the not too distant past, landowners like this one in Bosque County, who chose to remain anonymous due to mistrust of certain environmental groups, figured that finding Black Capped Vireo or Golden Cheeked Warbler habitat on their land was a curse. Today, however, that attitude toward these endangered birds is changing. Some landowners are finding the birds an asset as they enter into cost share agreements to improve both their land and the bird's habitat.
"This is a program where they pay you to get it done," said the Bosque County landowner, who is one of three working with the Texas Watershed Management Foundation in the pilot program. "It's going to make it easier to keep the land in good shape and from what I've seen so far, I'm getting technical supportwhich I never would have known which agency to go toto learn how to take care of the pastures and what the pastures need. I think most people want to do as good of job of maintaining the property as we can, where it will be economically feasible to run cattle...to get back to the land and get it in proper shape where we have wildlife, too."
To participate in that 85 percent Foundation/15 percent landowner cost share program, the landowner must follow a time-specific management plan for the land put together with input from himself, a biologist from the Environmental Defense organization, a management specialist with Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and Don Petty, manager of the Texas Watershed Management Foundation and former associate director of commodity and regulatory activities for Texas Farm Bureau.
David Wolfe, a wildlife biologist with Environmental Defense, said the Bosque County landowner has existing warbler habitat on the hillsides of his property. The management plan calls for protecting this habitat and tweaking potential warbler habitat by pulling out some small cedars and letting hardwoods grow. The plan also calls for "pretty aggressive" clearing on parts of the ash juniper-infested land to create open shrub land, which is not only good for the vireo, but cattle, deer, quail and turkeys as well.
"He's got a little bit of everything here," Wolfe said. "Cost sharing to improve habitat is a part of the program. That's really one of our primary goals. But we're also clearing and creating savannas and enhancing grassland conditions. That's part of it, too."
These endangered birds and Central Texas landowners have a long, mostly contentious history. During the "warbler wars" of the mid-90s, there was talk by environmentalists and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of designating critical habitat for the vireo and warbler in a 33-county area in Central Texas, which could have led to severe land use restrictions. Met with massive protests by landowners, that plan was eventually dropped. But the shadows of critical habitat designation and land use restrictions remain today.
Enter the U.S. Army, Fort Hood and the Central Texas Cattlemen's Association (CTCA). In an effort to keep leases with the Army in the '90s at Fort Hood, CTCA members had to start dealing with endangered species issues, said Steve Manning, who has been active in that organization. From that discussion, the association sponsored a water quality demonstration project that removed ash juniper and members faced the endangered species habitat issues inherent in that removal. The group also started a cowbird trapping project to lower predation on endangered species' nests.
Fort Hood had its own problems with the endangered birds restricting where they could carry out their training. Unless some way could be found to deal with its vireo and warbler habitat issues, the Army post faced severe cutbacks, which could have been devastating to the Central Texas economy. An idea was born for a system where Fort Hood could buy credits off site that would be applied to loss of habitat on site.
Drawing on the experiences of CTFA's relationship with Fort Hood and other organizations, a working group convened by Ag Commissioner Susan Combs including partners such as Texas Parks & Wildlife, Central Texas Cattlemen, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Environmental Defense, Nature Conservancy and various Army segments, put together the recovery credit system that provides incentives for landowners to get credit back to Fort Hood. It was an idea that had never been tried before.
"The closest thing to this was conservation banking, which is basically perpetual easements, and in certain parts of the nation those are pretty popular," said Manning, who is also president of the board of the Texas Watershed Management Foundation. "But Texas is a strong property rights state and there are a lot of concerns with perpetual easements. There are some people in Texas who will sign those easements but there are a larger percentage of the landowner base that will not."
The working group convened in December of 2005, and by Feb. 1 had a draft proposal ready to go the Secretary of Interior.
"A lot of people did a lot of high quality work in an incredibly short period of time on something that had never been done before," Manning said.
There are several basic premises in the recovery credit system:
1) A temporary take (a take is when you damage endangered species habitat) can be offset by temporary agreements. Those temporary agreements could range from 10 to 30 years but are not permanent.
2) The use of term agreements, much like Conservation Reserve Program agreements, and the use of a bidding process.
3) Keep the contract simple.
4) Make sure confidentiality for the landowner is maintained.
5) Find a way to measure habitat from the science side.
Funding for the project is also showing promise. The Department of Defense has allocated $500,000. USDA, Manning said, is finding a way to send $450,000. There's a potential $500,000 from the Army (different than Department of Defense). And there's a potential $5 million a year for five years written into a contract that allows money to flow into the project.
"They don't obligate that money, obviously," Manning said. "But it's an indication that they want to make sure they have the framework in place to handle that kind of money."
Regrowth ash juniper is a huge problem for Central Texas ranchers. Although they understand the kind of management needed to control the pesky shrub, the initial removal is very expensive.
"We have people in the community who understand what needs to be done, but don't have the resources to do it," Manning said. "And to justify from a ranching, a business perspective, they cannot automatically justify the expenditures."
The three landowners involved in the pilot project are working on a cost share percentage, which will be determined in the future by a bid process and could be as high as 85 percent Foundation and 15 percent landowner. In addition, they'll be paid an annual payment for a 10-year period to keep them actively involved in the program.
The Bosque County landowner, mentioned earlier, is from a family that has been involved in agriculture for a long time, but made their money in a different business. This is the smallest tract of land.
The second is a family that operates a large, well managed cow/calf operation on a large tract of land in Coryell County.
The third is a farmer that has some warbler habitat on his slopes and vireo habitat on top. The look of this habitat is entirely different from the other places and presents different challenges.
Manning outlined how the program works on the second operation, whose owner's name will also remain confidential.
The place includes 1,300 acres. The Leon River splits 300 acres of cropland on one side and 1,000 of rangeland on the other. There are just under 200 acres of warbler habitat in the canyons and along the river. There's quite a bit of potential vireo habitat on top.
"What we did on their deal, we're going to dedicate that 200 acres of warbler habitat for 10 years," Manning said. "As part of that, the dollar value of the contract is $65,000, with $10,000 of that in annual payments. That leaves $55,000 for implementation. They cost share 15 percent of that $65,000.
" With the $64,750 implementation ($55,000 Foundation plus $9,750 landowner), we'll hold a little back for grass seed. We're going to help them with a prescribed burn, so some is held back there. The rest of it goes to their priority, which is brush control. They want to control regrowth ash juniper. They have some spindly little live oaks they don't like, which makes perfect vireo habitat if you cut them off. It's a pretty good deal for them."
Although this land is managed properly with the correct stocking rate, Manning said it would be hard for the landowner to justify a $65,000 expenditure with the income of his cowherd.
"These folks in agriculture have to have some help," he said. "Now once you get past that initial, expensive mechanical treatment, we build into all these plans and contracts the right kind of management so we don't get to that point again. And they can afford to do that. And that works.
Manning admits to terrific landowner benefits, but the recovery of the species "is where we are going."
"We're not spinning our wheels here," he said. "We're trying to get recovery of species."
Biologist Wolfe with Environmental Defense agrees: "Back in the mid-90s, during all the problems with the Golden Cheeked Warbler and private land issues, really the only thing we talked about was the hammer of the Fish & Wildlife Service.
"But over the past five or six years, what Steve's done, what we've done, what others have done has been based on incentives, bringing something positive to the landowner, especially something that is going to affect their economic bottom line in a positive way."
Wolfe and Manning said the pilot project could serve as a model for defense installations across the country that face their own endangered species issues.
"The Department of Defense and other agencies that own and operate land are recognizing the benefits of working beyond the fence, so to speak," Wolfe said.
The biologist said the potential impact could stretch much farther, and possibly even harvest dollars from corporate America.
"There are utilities, energy companies for example, that are looking for ways to offset their impacts on endangered species, who are very interested in this concept of investing in private lands conservation as a way to do something beneficial for the species," Wolfe added.
The carrot and stick approach, too, rings well with the anonymous Bosque County landowner. He's excited about getting the shrub juniper off his land, allowing his land to use the added moisture to grow grass. The 10-year term of the contract appeals to him, as well its confidentiality aspects.
"It sounds like three or four times a year somebody's going to walk the land and look for birds," he said. "I'll probably never even know they're here.
" The main thing, I'm not going to get a call from Greenpeace or the Sierra Club telling me they're going to sue me because I have some kind of bird on my property."
The landowner is also interested in helping the endangered birds, but never dreamed that vireos and warblers could be key in turning his operation around.
"I know how to raise McCartny rose and cedars, but I can't make any money off that," he said with a laugh. "I think, looking across the board, this project will enhance my wildlife and cattle operations."