The wild and remote Davis Mountains region is one of the most scenic in Texas. Indeed, it is one of the most biologically diverse. Rising above the Chihuahuan desert, the range forms a unique sky island—a cooler, wetter landscape surrounded by arid lowland desert. The Davis Mountains are one of just three sky islands in Texas and support rare plants and species that occur nowhere else in Texas.
To help protect this unique ecosystem, The Nature Conservancy established the 33,075-acre Davis Mountains Preserve. Subsequent land acquisitions combined with conservation easements on adjoining property have allowed the Conservancy to protect 102,675 acres of the Davis Mountains.
Davis Mountains Preserve.
Diverse Desert Life
The preserve encompasses the heart of a functioning landscape; the conservation techniques employed there are crucial to protecting a hydrological system that originates at Tobe Gap and Bridge Gap on Mount Livermore (the tallest peak in the sky island), then extends through rugged canyon lands and into the desert flats near the town of Balmorhea.
The preserve also supports a unique assemblage of animals and plants. On the wetter, shaded slopes is a montane forest, including some of the last stands of ponderosa pine trees in Texas. There are also small but thick stands of quaking aspens sheltered under a cliff beneath Mount Livermore. Pinyon pine, gray oak, alligator juniper and mountain mahogany dominate south-facing slopes, while madrone trees dot the valleys and deep canyon streambeds. Eleven rare plant species have been documented, including the Livermore sandwort, many-flowered unicorn plant and fringed paintbrush.
An array of wild animals dwell in the mountains, including black bears and mountain lions, while higher elevations support birds more commonly associated with western mountain ranges, such as the common black-hawk, golden eagle, dusky-capped flycatcher and Montezuma quail. Various birds of prey, 10 species of hummingbirds and other seasonal species, like the painted redstart and Grace’s warbler, use the preserve as a migration corridor, while two Mexican spotted owls and slate-throated redstarts, two rare birds for Texas have also been documented there.
Montezuma quails at the Davis Mountains Preserve.
Protecting Ponderosa Pines
The Conservancy has understood the importance of preserving this natural area for some time. Three priorities guided us to action: the preservation of West Texas’ history and ranching heritage, safeguarding the dark skies surrounding University of Texas McDonald Observatory and protecting the unique and limited ecosystem of a West Texas sky island.
Conservation challenges such as overgrazing, habitat fragmentation and increasing pressure on limited freshwater supplies are of ongoing concern in this desert region. Ponderosa pine trees throughout the upper elevations of the Davis Mountains face additional challenges, including extreme drought, destructive wildfires, extended cold snaps and infestations from the Western pine bark beetle. A 100-year history of fire suppression across the region has also undermined the health of these pine forests; an overabundance of trees and vegetation increases competition for a limited supply of water, which creates drier conditions and weakens the entire forest. A changing climate has also led to less precipitation and more extreme temperatures throughout the region. Taken together, such conditions can lead to catastrophic wildfires.
Ponderosa pine trees.
To improve the health of these critical ponderosa pine forests and help the preserve become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, the Conservancy has collaborated with Texas A&M Forest Service on a forest thinning project. Woodlands spanning 350 acres in and around its mesic canyons—the coolest, wettest part of the Davis Mountains—will be thinned to help reduce drought stress, decrease insect outbreaks and minimize wildfire intensity. The thinning will also enhance the canyons’ ability to shelter rare and unique flora and fauna, helping to improve the health and resilience of one of the preserve’s most biologically diverse areas.
Tree thinning field work at the Davis Mountains Preserve.