By Clay Carrington
Millions of Attwater’s prairie chickens once roamed Texas’ coastal plains. Now fewer than 300 of these grouse remain in the wild, making it one of America’s most endangered birds.
For conservationists, it sometimes seems like the only thing standing between the survivors and extinction is a long wall of fire.
The precipitous decline in the Attwater’s prairie chicken population can be traced directly to the loss of their habitat in the tallgrass prairie, a system that once covered six million acres across Texas and Louisiana but that exists today only in patchwork fragments.
Less than 1 percent of this rare, incredibly productive habitat remains in Texas, with the best of it located in the Refugio-Goliad Prairie, a 664,000-acre expanse between Houston and Corpus Christi that is home to some of Texas’ largest and oldest cattle ranching operations.
There, The Nature Conservancy and partners are teaming with ranchers to rebuild a diminished culture of fire and restore prairie chicken habitat to its natural state.
Like grassland habitats around the world, the Refugio-Goliad Prairie thrives on regular fire. Conservationists believe the prairie was historically subjected to regular wildfires roughly twice each decade. These fires thinned out mesquite and other woody plant species and created nutrient-rich soil that bolstered the growth of native prairie grasses.
As ranching operations grew throughout the prairie, landowners began mimicking wildfires through controlled burning. But widespread shifts in cultural attitudes towards fires all but halted the use of this important management tool.
As a result, trees and shrubs invaded the prairie and aggressively displaced grasses on a massive scale, leaving less forage for cattle and severely degrading habitat for Attwater’s prairie chickens and other native species requiring large expanses of open land to survive.
Launched a decade ago, the Fire Learning Network is a cooperative program among the Conservancy, the Forest Service and four major Department of the Interior agencies (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management) that helps restore our nation’s forests and grasslands and make communities safer from fire. Since 2002, local FLN collaboratives have conducted burns on almost 400,000 acres in 39 states.
In order to address the fire imbalance in the Refugio-Goliad Prairie, the Conservancy’s Texas program hired and outfitted a crew of fire professionals in 2003. This team works closely with local ranchers whose lands contain the last potential sanctuary for a recovered Attwater’s prairie chicken population. The fire crew burns extensively across the region and has successfully demonstrated the value of prescribed fire as a land management tool.
In 2008, in order to expand the Refugio-Goliad Prairie fire team’s impact across this vast landscape even more, the local Conservancy program began partnering with the FLN.
While the combination of private property and federally endangered species can potentially create an atmosphere of contention and mistrust, Jeremy Bailey, the Conservancy’s Fire Training and Network Coordinator, cites relationships with landowners in the Refugio-Goliad Prairie as “the keystone of our conservation efforts there.”
“Whatever success we’ve achieved we owe to real relationships with these families that work this ground,” Bailey says. “These ranchers want to leave a legacy for their families. They love their land as much as we do, and they want to share it with their children and their grandchildren.”
Stephen Diebel echoes that sentiment. A rancher in Victoria County, Texas, he’s also chairman of the Coastal Prairie Coalition of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, an organization that offers technical assistance to landowners and operators interested in grazing.
Diebel often finds himself acting as an unofficial liaison between the FLN and local ranchers. He believes the success of the program boils down to relationships built firmly on trust and mutual respect.
“The Conservancy’s professionalism and ability to work with landowners have made the battle against brush that much more successful,” says Diebel. “Without their help and their ability to put fire on the ground, we’d be much more behind. It’s a team effort working towards a common goal—without cooperation from the landowners, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are now. Hats off to those folks.”
For their part, participating landowners have united as prescribed fire ambassadors to local and state policy makers, effectively demonstrating that controlled burning is a necessary and cost-effective tool.
Each year since 2008, the success of the program has been on display at FLN prescribed fire training exchanges conducted in the region. In these events, professional practitioners from federal agencies, municipal fire departments and other conservation organizations around the country gather with Conservancy hosts to develop classroom and field skills necessary to earn and advance fire credentials. They also participate in controlled burns on participating landowner properties.
By demonstrating and sharing prescribed burning techniques, the FLN and the Conservancy have doubled the prescribed fire capacity within the Refugio-Goliad Prairie. This increased capacity, in combination with newly supportive policy-makers, has increased prescribed fire for ecological purposes within the core conservation area by a factor of ten. The Coastal Bend Prescribed Burn Association has been instrumental in facilitating and conducting much of the new burning.
In addition to restoring habitat through fire, ranchers in the region are also helping in Attwater’s prairie chicken recovery efforts by allowing captive-bred birds to be released onto their lands. Through partnerships with the Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Grazing Land Conservation Initiative and the local Natural Resources Conservation Services district, more than 50,000 acres have been enrolled in “Safe Harbor” agreements that allow the birds to be released onto private properties while allaying landowners’ fears about future property use restrictions related to the Endangered Species Act.
It’s fitting that “refugio” is the Spanish word for “refuge.” For the Attwater’s prairie chicken, partnerships between conservationists and private landowners in the Refugio-Goliad Prairie—and the beneficial fires they create—are the difference between life and death.
September 25, 2013