Most rivers are dependent upon consistent, high-quality freshwater inflow to maintain ecological stability for the organisms they support. The Pecos River is no exception, especially for those sections which run through the arid Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas. Unfortunately, in this part of the desert southwest, freshwater sources are becoming increasingly scarce and precious commodities.
In 1991, the Chandler family and The Nature Conservancy in Texas permanently protected 702 acres along the pristine, free-flowing Independence Creek through a conservation easement.
In 2000 and 2001, The Nature Conservancy purchased the Oasis and Canon ranches to create a 19,740-acre preserve adjacent to the Chandler family’s easement. Soon after, TNC and Robert McCurdy entered into a lifetime lease that grants Mr. McCurdy recreational rights on the Oasis Ranch portion of the preserve. Some of Mr. McCurdy’s rights include hunting, fishing and grazing. Mr. McCurdy has encouraged TNC to conduct research, create an education program for area schools and demonstrate a variety of land management techniques.
The Independence Creek Preserve is a significant piece of West Texas’ natural heritage. The pristine waters of this desert oasis make a substantial contribution to the Pecos River corridor wildlife community downstream. Furthermore, the creek itself sustains diverse and abundant flora and fauna including several rare and endangered species.
The lower Pecos area shows about 12,000 years of occupation by archaic people and more recently by the Apaches. The region exhibits large concentrations of rock art and other culturally significant sites.
From the 1870s-1890s, cattle ranching was the mainstay of the area’s economy. From the early 1900s until present, sheep and goat production has dominated with an increase in wildlife-related income over the past ten years. The Chandler and Hicks families were some of the first to settle the Independence Creek area for ranching.
Independence Creek is a large, spring-fed creek. It is the most important, and one of the few remaining, recoverable freshwater tributaries of the lower Pecos River. Caroline Spring, located at the preserve headquarters produces 3,000 to 5,000 gallons per minute and comprises about 25 percent of the creek’s flow. Independence Creek’s contribution increases the Pecos River water volume by 42 percent and reduces the total dissolved solids by 50 percent, thus improving water quantity and quality.
The preserve hosts a variety of bird and fish species, some of which are extremely rare. The black-capped vireo, for example, is a federally listed endangered songbird. The canyon oak shrub community around Independence Creek provides nesting habitat for this shy and elusive migratory species. Numerous other birds have been sighted on the property including vermilion flycatchers, three species of kingfishers, indigo buntings, scissor-tailed flycatchers, prairie falcons, golden eagles, golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpeckers, zone-tailed hawks, wood ducks and great blue herons, to name a few.
Many different fish species inhabit the creek. The most threatened aquatic inhabitant is the proserpine shiner. This and several other small fish species are slowly disappearing from the Pecos River. Their declining numbers are the result of the vanishing spring-fed stream habitat. The preservation of Independence Creek ensures a safe haven for these desert stream fish.
For the proserpine shiner, Rio Grande darter, headwaters catfish and several other native fishes, Independence Creek is an important refuge during stressful river conditions. Following periods of low-water quality and occasional toxic algae blooms on the Pecos River, fish populations in the clear waters of the creek help to repopulate the river after a fish kill.
This rugged canyon preserve’s vegetation is composed of hillside juniper woodlands and Chihuahuan Desert scrub, contrasted with scattered stands of large plateau live oaks along the creek banks. These communities of ancient oak trees are at the western extreme of their range in Texas. The oaks are remnants of the vegetation that grew in this location thousands of years ago, when the climate was wetter and cooler; also, Warnock’s coral-root is sometimes found living in association with these live oaks. Additionally, plateau loosestrife and spiny water niad, two rare aquatic plants, have been found in Independence Creek.
The management of the preserve includes daily activities such as maintenance of facilities, wildlife watering sites and equipment. Additionally, there are several large projects being conducted at this time. The ongoing restoration of the yards and improved pastures into native grass species is one of the largest. Over the past three years, the exotic grasses once found in the yards and pastures were replaced with native grasses that are more water efficient and nutritionally beneficial to wildlife. These new pastures also offer the potential for the collection of native seeds that can be used on the preserve and with our conservation partners in the lower Pecos area.
The preserve deer herd is managed at or near the habitat’s carrying capacity in order to maintain healthy deer and habitat. The overpopulation of deer reduces the nesting and foraging cover for neotropical migrant and resident birds.
TNC is conducting a multiyear hydrology study to help understand the hydrologic processes of the lower Pecos River, what sustains the river and what might threaten the river in the future.