Sabal Palm Loaded
A sabal palm tree dug up and ready for transport.
Sabal Palm Digger
The excavator used to unearth sabal palm trees to be transplanted.
The Nature Conservancy of Texas and Audubon Texas are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Border and Customs Protection to save hundreds of rare sabal palm trees that would otherwise be felled by continued construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The trees, some over 100 years old, belong to one of the last remaining tracts of sabal palm forests in the country (scientific name Sabal mexicana). The palms are currently located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and on private lands upon which the fence will be built.
Starting in June, the partners will oversee the extraction of approximately 300 trees and facilitate their replanting out of harm’s way within the national wildlife refuge, The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve and the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary. Most of the replanting will take place within a few miles from where the palms originally grew. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
“These trees are an integral part of the living natural heritage of South Texas,” said Laura Huffman, director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. “We owe it to future generations of Texans to protect this iconic species which has been reduced to just a few hundred acres of patchwork forest. Losing these trees would mean the disappearance of an important piece of Texas history.”
The relocation of the sabal palms is being coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the border fence project.
Ernesto Reyes, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, worked with the Conservancy, Audubon Texas, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Border and Customs Protection to identify the trees to be moved. Also helping in the effort was the contractor responsible for relocating the trees, who is experienced in replanting sabal palms.
“We’re saving the older, bigger palms – ones that are probably 30 to 40 years old, but some that could be 100 years old or older,” Reyes said. “Because their root balls are relatively small, we’re optimistic about their survival rate.”
Sabal palms, which usually grow in river bottoms and can reach 65 feet, were once found along the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico upstream as far as 80 miles, and up the coast as far north as Corpus Christi. While the trees are not listed as endangered, sabal palm forests are rare in Texas because most stands have been cleared, largely for agriculture.
“Sabal palm forests provide outstanding habitat for a number of rare, threatened and endangered species,” said Max Pons, manager of the Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve. “On occasion, ocelots and jaguarundis have been reported at our Southmost Preserve, which is home to Southern yellow bats, Texas tortoises and Coue’s rice rats. Speckled racers, a rare snake, have also been sighted here, as has the black-spotted newt. We also have rare amphibians, like the Rio Grande siren, and the Mexican white-lipped frog.”
The Conservancy’s 1,034-acre Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve lies under a major migratory bird flyway, as do the 557-acre Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary and the 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Bob Benson, executive director of Audubon Texas, said that within Texas’ sabal palm forests, birders can spot interesting species such as the Altamira oriole, groove-billed ani, chachalaca and red-crowned parrot. Benson also said sabal palm groves offer some of the last known remaining nesting habitat for two rare subspecies of birds, the Brownsville common yellow throat and the Lomita Carolina wren.
The trees are being removed from a 13-mile section of the border fence that runs along the northern reach of a levee built by the International Boundary and Water Commission. Some of the property through which the fence will run is federally owned, including parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The remaining land, including the Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, is privately owned.
In December 2008, the Department of Homeland Security filed suit against the Conservancy to condemn land within the Southmost Preserve where the fence is to be constructed. The fence’s planned route will dissect the preserve, leaving three-quarters of the property, including the most critical wildlife habitat, in no man’s land – that area between the fence and the actual border. While the Conservancy is concerned that the border fence could affect wildlife at the Southmost Preserve, Pons said the site is an ideal place for the sabal palms that will be relocated there.
Additionally, the Sabal Palm Audubon Center is situated south of the border fence’s path.
“The fence will take a toll on the nature of the border zone,” said Audubon’s Benson. “Hopefully, we can protect these unique parts of the ecosystem along with some of the wildlife that depend on them.”
In the Lone Star State, The Nature Conservancy of Texas owns more than 30 nature preserves and conservation projects and assists private landowners to conserve their land through more than 100 voluntary land-preservation agreements. The Nature Conservancy of Texas protects some 250,000 acres of wild lands and, with partners, has conserved 750,000 acres for wildlife habitat across the state. Visit The Nature Conservancy of Texas on the Web at nature.org/texas.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.