AUSTIN – The ability to manage land in good times as well as bad is the mark of a good land steward. This year’s recipients of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards are prime examples.
On Wednesday, May 21 at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, TPWD will recognize land stewards representing private ranches in various ecological regions, plus awards recognizing achievements of a landowner cooperative, and an educator.
Also, the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas will be presented to the 2014 statewide land steward, yet to be announced, by the Sand County Foundation.
The annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in land, water and wildlife stewardship. The program is designed to educate landowners and the public and to encourage participation in habitat conservation. TPWD is partnering with the Sand County Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation with Toyota as Presenting sponsor. Additional sponsors include: Luther King Capital Management, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado River Land Trust | Lower Colorado River Authority, Capital Farm Credit, Dorothy Drummer & Associates, East Wildlife Foundation, Llano Springs Ranch, Ltd., Nature Blinds, Nueces River Authority, Oncor, San Antonio River Authority, Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Texas Westmoreland Coal Co., Texas Wildlife Association, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Initiated in 1996 by the TPWD Private Lands Advisory Committee, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program objectives are to recognize private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation on their lands, publicize the best examples of sound natural resource management practices, encourage youth education and participation in promoting responsible habitat management and improved ecosystem health, promote long-term conservation of unique natural and cultural resources, promote ecosystem awareness and acknowledge the best conservation practices in the state’s ecological regions, enhance relationships between private landowners and Texas natural resource agencies and illustrate the important role of private landowners in the future of Texas natural resources.
This year’s recipients characterize the unique cultural and natural heritage of Texas. Landowners restoring degraded habitats while conserving flora and fauna are a common thread. Following are summaries of stewardship highlights for each of the ecoregion and category recipients.
Progressive, innovative grazing management and livestock production are skillfully employed on Bear Creek Ranch to create and maintain an ecologically stable, diverse, and functional landscape and to generate income. Bear Creek Ranch is divided into 32 grazing units to allow for abbreviated grazing periods and long recovery periods. Each unit is grazed for only 5 to 15 days each year and is rested from grazing for the remainder. A combination of cattle and sheep are used to mimic the historic grazing patterns and grazing habits of bison and pronghorn. Education and outreach is a primary function and purpose of the Dixon Water Foundation. Using their ranches as practical real-world laboratories, the Foundation hosts and sponsors numerous field days, training sessions, tours, seminars and conferences each year.
As a third-generation cattle woman, Ruth Russell understands the needs of the range as well as those of livestock. Her goal is to protect, share and communicate the public benefits, such as the beautiful vistas, native wildlife habitats, clean air and water, provided by private lands stewardship. Located 60 miles north of Del Rio on the beautiful Devils River, the ranch supports the diverse vegetation and wildlife of three distinct biotic regions. Range management strategies such as deferred grazing, aggressive whitetail and Aoudad population control, prescribed burning, and riparian area protection and management provide habitat that supports a diversity of native wildlife. Nature tourism is a primary source of income for the ranch, providing outstanding opportunities for birding, fishing and kayaking. In 2011, Mrs. Russell protected the property with a perpetual conservation easement with the Texas Agricultural Land Trust.
Land management goals on the Laborcitas Creek Ranch include use of wildlife management techniques required for each species to improve and sustain a healthy wildlife habitat and populations. To create waterfowl habitat, the ranch has developed 15 wetland ponds and converted bermudagrass pastures into wetlands, creating lush green areas that attract insects, invertebrates, and a diversity of waterfowl. Ranch water is provided by windmills and solar and electric wells, which feed ponds, wetlands, and reservoirs. Deferred grazing is used when needed to allow native grasses to flourish, providing critical nesting habitat for the bobwhite quail and Rio Grande turkey. Pastures where native bunchgrasses have grown too dense for quail are treated with the “Quailerator”, a modified pasture aerator designed to simulate grazing and the hoof action of cattle. Winter prescribed burning is conducted in strips; 100-300 yards wide and up to a mile long, to create areas of lush green growth and insect habitat, while brush control is a key tool for managing quail, deer, and dove habitat. Bulldozers and roller choppers are used to sculpt dense brush to enhance wildlife habitat.
A family ranch since the 1920’s, the Tanksley Land Company’s goals are to leave the land in better shape than they found it, bring flowing water back to Musquiz Creek, restore historical springs on the ranch, sustain healthy wildlife, and grow grass while holding water. When the Tanksleys took over the ranch in 1989 it was dominated by creosote and tarbush. Under their management, the ranch has slowly recovered back to grassland with a good mix of native forbs and grasses. Pronghorn, scaled quail, and mule deer have benefitted from the return of diverse grasslands. During the last few years, pronghorn fawn crops have been good on the ranch, even though in other parts of the Trans-Pecos the fawn crops have been low – an indicator of good healthy grassland with plenty of fawning cover. To hold soil and increase infiltration, the ranch has employed divots and spreader dams to capture runoff, creating numerous small oases of green grass and forbs for scaled quail, small mammals, insects and birds.
These landowners practice both excellent land stewardship and “stewardship outside the gates” through extensive outreach and volunteer service. Each family reaches a different audience and acts in a different “theatre” according to their own interests. The Gileses work tirelessly to help fellow landowners, agricultural producers, FFA and 4H groups to manage the land both sustainably and profitably in the production of food and fiber. The Langfords work to spread the message in their community and in the capital that private lands are critical for wildlife and to our state’s water infrastructure. The Leslies and Pasztors outreach in San Antonio help urban residents understand the importance of rare plant conservation, wildlife habitat, and the dangers of non-native plants and animals. Each of these landowners are recognized experts in their fields, including ranching, rare plant propagation, Ethnobotany, and cultivating statewide conservation partnerships.
Sky Lewey is a conservation educator with extraordinary leadership and dedication. A key figure in the efforts to restore healthy riparian function to the Nueces River Basin and beyond, Sky is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for the Nueces River Authority. In that role she has established many highly successful programs including the Remarkable Riparian Workshops and the Pull Kill Plant Campaign targeting giant river cane removal in the Nueces River basin. Lewey is always sharing her river protection experience with others. She has provided guidance and hands-on learning opportunities for landowners and organizations from Uvalde County to the Rio Grande and Mexico. Lewey is at the forefront of research and efforts to develop the best practice for treating, restoring and preventing giant river cane infestations. Through her hands-on involvement and direction, the current method for treatment has evolved and developed into a protocol specific to the Nueces River Basin. Sky practices what she preaches, undertaking many of these treatments on her personal ranch, the Open V. She has hosted researchers studying everything from turtles and springs to invasive species and hydrology. With the NRA, Sky has created a powerful river and water stewardship education program centered around hands on classroom demonstrations, reaching over 72,000 young people in 13 counties within the Nueces River Basin.