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endangered species

The red wolves of Galveston County

Very cool.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes Ron Wooten spotted on Galveston Island’s west end had eye-catching dark, reddish fur and long, slender builds. In the golden dusk of that July evening in 2013, about a dozen of the animals rested in what appeared to be a wetland dried by a seasonal drought.

These canids — mammals of the dog family — looked different. Most coyotes that inhabit this region have gray or pale-brown fur. And while coyotes typically scavenge alone or in pairs, these appeared to be traveling and interacting as a pack.

Wooten had a hunch he had stumbled onto something more important than satisfying his hobby as a wildlife photographer.

“They didn’t look like coyotes at all. I thought they actually looked like a big Great Dane or something like that,” Wooten said. “I looked at some images of red wolves and it kind of looked like they might have been leaning more towards red wolves than coyotes, so that’s when I started pursuing somebody to take a look at these animals.”

Nearly six years later, Wooten learned that his photographs played a significant role in a groundbreaking genetic study released in December by a group of scientists led by biologists from Princeton University. The study suggests that canids native to Galveston Island carry DNA elements of the red wolf, an animal declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago but whose ancestry has endured in parts of the eastern United States and Gulf Coast, including southern Texas and Louisiana.

Red wolves inhabited the southeastern United States before being declared extinct in the wild in 1980 due to habitat loss, predator control programs, disease, and, ironically, interbreeding with coyotes. A captive breeding program developed in the 1970s helped stave off total extinction, with 14 red wolves able to reproduce.

[…]

Several months after spotting the pack of coyotes in Galveston, Wooten, a regulatory specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spotted two dead coyotes with similar reddish fur on his commute along FM 3005. Intrigued, Wooten scooped up the remains, hoping the carcasses might pique the interest of someone who studied wolves and coyotes professionally. He preserved the tissue samples the only way he knew how — in his freezer.

“Of course, my wife loved that,” Wooten said.

Several wildlife agencies rebuffed Wooten before he finally connected with a group of wolf biologists who put him in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University. VonHoldt had been studying genetics shared between North American canids for a number of years, and Wooten’s tissue samples and photos presented possible evidence of “ghost alleles” — surviving red wolf genes different from those of the red wolves in zoos or those in the wild in North Carolina.

VonHoldt, in an interview conducted via email, said it was “phenomenal” that Wooten had both pictures and tissue samples of the canids found in Galveston. The eye-catching photos he took of the pack of coyotes with reddish fur caught her her interest.

“Coyotes have a wide range of variation in colors and markings,” vonHoldt said. “But the photo from Ron just somehow caught my interest as being unique in a very specific way.”

VonHoldt and her team extracted and processed the DNA from Wooten’s samples and compared it to each of the legally recognized wild canid species in North America, including samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 eastern wolves from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the captive breeding program.

They found that the Galveston Island animals were more similar to captive red wolves than to typical southeastern coyotes — one of Wooten’s samples was 70 percent red wolf, while the other was 40 percent red wolf.

The study is here if you want to know more. I don’t have anything to add, I just love stories like this.

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.

What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

They’re doing what they need to do, which they should be doing.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as Macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey’s torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured Brown Pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It’s become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

“We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,” he said.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Storm, by the way, is a Magnificent Frigatebird that the aquarium rescued right after Harvey. They’re doing a lot of good and necessary work at the Texas State Aquarium, and they deserve our support. I love aquariums and have visited several in my travels on the west coast, but I need to find a reason to call on this one.

Border walls are bad for the environment

Not that anyone pushing for a border wall cares, but just so you know.

There’s been a lot of debate about how effective the Bush-era barrier has been at keeping out illegal crossers and drug smugglers. Some data indicates the barriers have encouraged people to cross in places where there isn’t one. But the handprints show that a determined person can still easily scale it.

What the border fence has kept out instead, according to environmentalists, scientists and local officials, is wildlife. And the people who have spent decades acquiring and restoring border habitat say that if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to turn the border fence into a continuous, 40-foot concrete wall, the situation for wildlife along the border — one of the most biodiverse areas in North America — will only get worse.

Right now, a mix of vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing covers only about one-third of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Even with all those gaps, experts say the barriers have made it harder for animals to find food, water and mates. Many of them, like jaguars, gray wolves and ocelots, are already endangered.

Aaron Flesch, a biologist at the University of Arizona, said most border animals are already squeezed into small, fragmented patches of habitat.

“If you just go and you cut movements off,” he said, “you can potentially destabilize these entire networks of population.”

Still, the impacts of the border fence on wildlife aren’t totally understood. That’s in large part because Congress let the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ignore all the environmental laws that would’ve required the agency to fully study how the barrier would affect wildlife.

Flesch and other scientists say the federal government also has made almost no research money available to support independent studies. Most of the studies that have been done are limited in scope, but their findings are pretty clear: Impeding animal movements puts them on a faster path to extinction.

Environmentalists and conservation groups say the border fence also has compromised the federal government’s own efforts to protect those vulnerable species, pitting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The latter agency bought large tracts of land along the border decades ago and turned them into national wildlife refuges.

It’s a long story, so click over to read it, and see also the border fence slideshow that accompanies it. But just reading those few paragraphs above, we all know there’s literally nothing here that would deter Dear Leader or any of the fervent wall zealots. What do they care about a bunch of stupid animals, or the scientists who say we’re hurting them? There are some fights you can win by being right and having the evidence on your side. This isn’t one of them.

Texas v the feds, Endangered Species edition

One more for the road.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

For perhaps the last time before President Barack Obama leaves office, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed suit against the federal government for what he considers federal overreach, this time in an endangered species matter.

[…]

One rule revises the definition of “destruction or adverse modification” of habitat.

Under the old definition, habitat destruction involved “a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species.”

But courts found that the definition was wanting. Thus, the new definition holds that destruction is anything that diminishes “the conservation of a listed species.”

Another rule clarifies the procedures and standards used for designating critical habitat.

Federal officials say the changes are meant to increase transparency.

“The Endangered Species Act is the last safety net between our most at-risk species and extinction, and, as such, we want to do everything we can to make sure it functions efficiently and effectively,” Gary Frazer, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for ecological services, said in February, when the rules were finalized.

But the suit says the changes would allow the government “to exercise virtually unlimited power to declare land and water critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, regardless of whether that land or water is occupied or unoccupied by the species, regardless of the presence or absence of the physical or biological features necessary to sustain the species, and regardless of whether the land or water is actually essential to the conservation of the species habitat protections for endangered species.”

Whatever else you can say about this strategy of making Texas federal district court judges our lords and masters, it has had its share of success. As the Trump regime is unlikely to do any policymaking that will make Texas want to sue it (though all bets are off for California), this may be Ken Paxton’s last hurrah, modulo the 2018 and 2020 elections. The Chron has more.

Another bad year for Kemp’s ridley turtles

This does not look good.

The nesting season for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is ending with zero nests found on either Galveston Island or the Bolivar Peninsula for the first time in at least a decade, although the number rose for the entire coast.

The decline in nesting on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast comes as a recent study shows that the nest numbers for Texas’ official sea turtle, whose primary nesting grounds are in Texas and Mexico, are at less than one-tenth of their historic levels.

Only five Kemp’s ridley nests were found on the upper Texas coast – four at Surfside and one at Quintana Beach – during the nesting season that runs from April until the middle of July, although there are always a few late nesters.

“We’ve had some extremely high tides and a lot of flooding this year, and many times the ocean was right up to the base of the dune,” which could have discouraged turtles from digging nests, said Christopher Marshall, lead turtle researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Nesting numbers were up for the entire Texas Gulf Coast and at the main nesting grounds in Tamaulipas, Mexico, near the Texas border. But scientists and conservationists remain concerned that the increases are far below those prior to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“We’ve got two years of increases, however it’s discouraging that we have not gotten back to the numbers we were at in 2009,” said Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore.

So far this season, 185 Kemp’s ridley nests have been found on the Texas Coast, said Shaver, who tallies every discovered nest and oversees a turtle egg incubation program on Padre Island. The real indicator of the health of the Kemp’s ridley is the number of nests at the main nesting grounds in Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas. The count this year is 17,000 nests, up from 14,000 last year but still far short of the record 22,000 in 2012. The record that year was barely higher than the 2009 number and far less than what scientists expected.

“It came up, but it didn’t come up anywhere close to what we hoped it would if it had grown at the same rate as in 2009 and it didn’t keep going,” said Thane Wibbles, a biologist at the University of Alabama. Wibbles said there should have been more than 30,000 nests in 2012.

“It’s still not back to its historical levels where we were seeing a 12 to 15 percent increase every year,” said Pat Burchfield, who heads the U.S. contingent of the Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Recovery Project and is director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

[…]

Most scientists speculate that either the oil spill caused a temporary pause in Kemp’s ridley reproduction and that it will rebound, or that conditions in the Gulf have become inhospitable for the turtle’s historic population size, Wibbles said.

“It may be that the carrying capacity of the Gulf of Mexico may not be what it used to be,” Wibbles said. “I would say in five years if it hasn’t got on an exponential recovery trend then we have to look at the possibility that the Gulf of Mexico is not allowing them to come back.”

If the Gulf can’t support as many Kemp’s ridleys as it once did, he said, then the Gulf may be in trouble. Said Wibbles, “The ridley could be considered a metaphoric canary in the coal mine.”

See here for some background. I sure hope things start to look up, but it’s getting harder to feel optimistic. I don’t care how much that oil spill cost BP. It wasn’t enough.

Whither the monarch butterfly

We should try to keep them from going extinct. That would be bad.

The state’s chief financial officer has approved a $300,000 grant to investigate why the number of monarch butterflies is declining in Texas, and what can be done about it.

The bottom line for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, is less about butterflies than it is about commerce.

The state’s interest in the study by the University of Texas at San Antonio includes the potential economic impact on Texas should the federal government decide to list the official state insect as a threatened species.

Kevin Lyons, Hegar’s press secretary, said that if the iconic butterfly is listed, “many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production.” Texas, he said, is trying to take the lead nationally on monarch conservation efforts.

“This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity,” Hegar said in a statement announcing the grant.

The monarch study is the latest funded by the state in an effort to “gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings … and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state’s economy,” according to the website for the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which Hegar chairs.

[…]

In Texas and other states, studies weighing economic development against the cost of saving endangered species have become the latest battleground between environmental groups and big business.

“We’ve seen this with the sage grouse, wolves, freshwater mussels and other species,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument is that if we have to protect anything, the world will end, when actually it won’t. There is a public benefit to protecting butterflies and other species, but it’s hard to monetize. … Studying the economics of a listing is a very clever way of saying the cost will be high – something most people can understand – when that doesn’t measure the cost of losing a species.”

In Texas, officials said the monarch study will evaluate the abundance and distribution of the otherwise unremarkable nuisance plant known as milkweed, the butterfly’s primary food source.

If the butterfly is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened, officials fear much of the state could be affected because Texas is a major flyway for the annual migration of the monarch between Mexico and Canada each year.

Environmental groups seeking to have the monarch listed note that the butterfly’s population fell from about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever logged.

“There’s been an 80 percent decline in the population, a precipitous decline,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that filed to have the monarch listed. “They can’t survive in smaller numbers. We’re really at the precipice with the monarch.”

That’s actually a 96.5% decline, which sounds pretty bad to me. Butterflies have an important role to play in pollinization, so to say the least there would be a significant cost if they were to become endangered or worse. Let’s for once please not be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

Making room for quail

Preservation isn’t just for urban elites.

Jim Willis knows it isn’t easy to love a prairie. The quilt of burnt orange and brown that covers his Colorado County land can’t awe or inspire the way a canyon or mountain range does. But he can step onto his porch on a crisp morning, take a sip of coffee and hear the three-count whistle of the northern bobwhite quail.

The moment is enough to reveal the subtle beauty of an unbroken terrain of yellow Indiangrass, little bluestem and other tall grasses. That’s because the land was barren of wildlife not too long ago, unable to support anything but cattle.

Willis began restoring his overgrazed pasture into native grasslands more than a decade ago, placing him at the fore of a new prairie populism in Texas. Across the state, rural landowners, a new generation of urban refugees, are removing acres of Bermuda grass and creating pioneer-era landscapes that require less water and chemicals and provide habitat for a variety of critters.

The push is in response to the steady decline of the quail, an iconic Texas bird that uses the tall grasses for shelter and food. But the benefits of native grasslands go beyond one species, Willis said.

“Quail really is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “If they’re healthy, you have a healthy ecosystem. ”

Texas is known for its bucolic hill country and mysterious piney woods, the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park and a seemingly endless coast. But it’s largely a prairie state, and those grasslands are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices, development and fragmentation by roads and ranchettes.

The changing landscape has put quail in peril, with the bird’s numbers dropping 75 percent over the past 30 years or so, according to state biologists.

A carpetlike pasture planted for cattle grazing “might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot” to quail, said Jon Hayes, a biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the bird to nest, forage and hide from predators, heat and wind.

To help reverse the quail population’s decline, Texas lawmakers last year earmarked $6 million for restoring prime habitat, expanding research into the species and educating landowners.

The state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate prairie in three areas: the Interstate 35 corridor just south of Dallas, the rolling plains near Oklahoma and a 12-county cluster beyond the westward march of Houston’s sprawl. The key is to connect restored plots to one another to increase the bird’s odds of survival.

Already, what began with 225 acres owned by Willis now stretches across 40,000 acres. That includes seven miles of contiguous reconstructed prairie that connects his property to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles west of Houston.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the A&M Agrilife Extension Service have lots of information about the decline of the quail population in Texas and the ongoing efforts to do something about it. As a to-the-bone urbanite, I know nothing about any of this, but I’m glad there are people who do and who care enough to try to make it better. I wish them the best of luck.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle in trouble

Dammit.

Texas’ official sea turtle is on a slide that could eventually lead to extinction after a spectacular comeback and years of effort to save it, according to figures released Tuesday at a gathering of scientists and environmentalists.

“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010 and we don’t know why,” Selina Heppell, professor at Oregon State University’s department of fish and wildlife, said in comments before a presentation. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

Scientists had worried about the meaning of decreases in the number of turtle nests for 2010, 2013 and this year, the only decreases in the new century. But Heppell, who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population, offered the most definitive numbers showing that the Kemp’s ridley was again in trouble.

To understand the reasons for the decline, some say, it’s important for the federal government to restore money it took away this year for the Mexico/U.S. Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Population Restoration Program.

An earlier story has some more details.

The first symposium in Galveston in 1985 came at a time when the Kemp’s ridley was at the edge of extinction and efforts to protect the main nesting grounds in Mexico seemed to make little difference. A series of new efforts followed the symposium, including new laws protecting the turtles from being killed by fishermen. The efforts began to show signs of success by 2000, and by the middle of the last decade the population was increasing by 12 to 17 percent per year.

Then in 2010, a fiery explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil boiled into the Gulf just as the Kemp’s ridley nesting season got underway. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally forage after nesting at the main nesting grounds in Mexico or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Scientists found scores of dead Kemp’s ridley juveniles floating in oil scum in the deep sea among clumps of seaweed. Kemp’s ridley turtles spend the first year of their lives floating at sea in islands of sargassum seaweed.

Scientists count the number of nests laid by sea turtles to determine their long-term prospects rather than estimating the species population. Although the number of nests set a record in 2012, the trend has been downward since 2010 and scientists are worried.

Presentations at the symposium may help explain whether the oil spill is connected to the Kemp’s ridley decline. Donna Shaver, chief of the U.S. Park Service’s sea turtle science division at Padre Island National Seashore, is one of three scientists involved in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment on the Kemp’s ridley since the BP spill who will offer information from the damage study. Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Laboratory director at Texas A&M University at Galveston, will make public for the first time information about turtle foraging habits in relation to the oil spill.

A later version of the first Chron story linked above adds some more information about that 2010 oil spill and its effects.

A study presented at the Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium found oil in the carapace, or shell, of 29 sea turtles that returned to feed in the spill area in 2011 and 2012.

And while experts say the only way to say with certainty that the oil came from the spill would have been to test the turtles’ blood right after they came in contact with the oil, the finding provides powerful evidence that the environmental disaster dealt a blow to turtle recovery efforts, including a downward trend in nesting since 2010.

“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010, and we don’t know why,” said Selina Heppell, a professor at Oregon State University who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

[…]

Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Lab director at Texas A&M University in Galveston, conducted the study that was discussed Tuesday. She pointed out that because turtles nest about every two years, those exposed to oil in 2011 and 2012 would have nested in 2013 and 2014, years that saw steep declines in nesting numbers.

Reich’s study is the first information released from a three-year damage assessment conducted to find out whether the spill affected the Kemp’s ridley, the smallest of five sea turtles found in the Gulf.

Much of the information gathered by Reich is being kept under wraps for use in legal proceedings to determine BP’s liability for the spill. Reich and other researchers signed confidentiality agreements, but she was able to release her study with special permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Other studies are underway that are being done either independently or as part of the damage assessment.

“We hope that when we come together, all our research will paint a picture,” Reich said.

So far the picture is dismal, according to an analysis of the Kemp’s ridley nesting numbers presented by Heppell.

That’s just deeply depressing. Here’s the website and Facebook page for the symposium. I sincerely hope that Texas’ elected officials pay heed to this and do their part to take whatever action is needed to help these animals survive.

A home where the Texas State Bison Herd can roam

Very cool.

It was a little confusing at first, but the bison at Caprock Canyons State Park are settling into a pasture that’s 10 times what they were used to — basically the entire park.

Park staff opened up 10,000 acres to the approximately 100 members of the Official Texas State Bison Herd on Tuesday, a big step in a program that has expanded their access since it started in 2010.

“We’ve kind of been working them with feed trucks to follow. When they got through the gate, they’d go into any opening to check it out,” said Donald Beard, park superintendent.

“And when they saw the bison metal cutouts (an art installation), they took off running to them. When they figured out they weren’t really bison, they moved on.”

And with all that range to roam on, the animals descended from the almost-extinct Southern Plains herd settled into an area of about 200 acres.

“They’ve been there for three days. It’s a restored area where we put a prairie dog colony,” Beard said.

[…]

It was a bit of a historic event in that the herd is wandering almost freely on prairie their ancestors used before hunting nearly wiped them out, and before pioneer cattleman Charles Goodnight captured remnants of the herd in 1878 to raise and breed.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff and volunteers rounded up the beginnings of today’s herd from JA Ranch, south of Clarendon and Claude, and brought them to Caprock Canyons, just north of Quitaque, in 1997.

“It’s been something we’ve been working on for years. It’s good for the bison and good for the park,” said Rodney Franklin, regional director for Texas State Parks Region 5. “This is a major step toward the ultimate vision. Being the Texas State Bison Herd makes it a pretty big deal.”

There are still areas that need the habitat restored, and TPWD wants to continue to grow the herd.

“Managing the herd has been an adventure for us,” Franklin said. “Managing the numbers and making sure the resources are protected is part of it, making sure we’re balancing the resources and recreational opportunities.”

Here’s a bit more from the Chron.

In 2003, media tycoon Ted Turner donated three bulls to help the herd, which had gone through more than a century of inbreeding that threatened its survival. At the time, the herd had dwindled to 53.

[…]

The Texas herd was started in the 1870s with five bison calves captured by Charles Goodnight, one of the most prosperous cattlemen in the American West, with more than 1 million acres of ranch land and 100,000 head of cattle at his peak.

His wife urged him to save the bison, also known as buffalos, because hunters were killing them by the hundreds of thousands for their hides and meat and to crush American Indian tribes who depended on the animals for food and clothing.

The herd was donated to the state in 1997 and moved to 330 acres of the state park, which was once part of Goodnight’s JA Ranch between Lubbock and Amarillo.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States in the 1800s, the bison – which are believed to have numbered in the tens of millions – were split into what was known as the Northern and the Southern herds.

I don’t have anything to add to this. I just love stories like these and figure they’re worth sharing.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

The extremely rare, utterly impressive and scary looking alligator snapping turtle is actually even more rare than first thought, according to a study out of Florida this week.

Researchers in in the sunshine state have found that the scaly creature, once common to Houston, is actually just one of three different kinds of the turtles.

Until this week the species has been collectively known as macrochelys temminckii and nicknamed the ‘dinosaur of the turtle world’ because of it’s fiercesome look and massive size. It can reach up to 200 pounds in weight.

Now two new species names have been added after scientists found distinct differences between the turtles that have grown up in river systems across the Gulf states.

The new study looked at data from turtles still in the wild as well as fossils that date back 15-16 million years and determined the turtles developed differently according to their geographical placing.

[…]

It means that the few who still live in East Texas are the last remaining of their kind, with just close relatives living across state lines, rather than direct decsendents.

A figure for how many of these prehistoric-looking beasts remain does not exist. Their shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle make it almost impossible to count them.

Some estimate the Suwannee still has around a 1000 of them but that figure could be much lower in East Texas and Louisiana because of the love of local populations for turtle soup.

“Whenever the (federal authorities) banned sea turtles from harvest, all the people, especially in New Orleans, who wanted turtle soup, turned to freashwater turtles,” said Thomas, “That was alligator snapping turtles, they hit them hard and they hit them hard in a short amount of time.”

I’m sorry, but a magnificent creature like this deserves a better fate than being wiped out by foodies. They’re not currently listed as endangered, but perhaps this re-classification will cause a review of that. At the very least, chefs ought to find more plentiful turtles to use in their soup.

Reintroducing the jaguarundi

Cool.

Jaguarundi (source: Wikipedia)

The federal government has established a recovery plan for the jaguarundi, almost four decades since the small wildcat was listed as an endangered species and almost three decades since one was confirmed in the U.S.

But don’t expect to see the reddish brown or grey feline returning to what remains of the thick brush in South Texas anytime soon. The plan recently approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is heavy on additional research and habitat restoration but is not especially optimistic about its prospects for success.

The jaguarundi, a bit bigger than the average house cat, had much of its preferred thorn scrub habitat cleared long ago in Texas for agriculture and more recently for development in the rapidly growing border region. The cats still prowl in northeast Mexico, where much of the research would take place.

“There’s just not a whole lot of information on the jaguarundi,” said Taylor Jones of the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, which sued and reached a settlement with the government that called for the recovery plan. She hopes the plan will spark new research, and in the near term contribute to additional efforts to conserve and restore the cat’s habitat. “You certainly couldn’t bring them back if they didn’t have any place to live.”

[…]

It’s not clear how many jaguarundis existed when the species was first listed as endangered in 1976, but it was determined they were in decline because of habitat destruction. The last confirmed sighting of a jaguarundi in the U.S. was a dead one on a road outside Brownsville in 1986. Before that, the last was seen in 1969.

Lesli Gray, a spokeswoman for the federal wildlife agency, said there is no guarantee funding will exist to meet the agency’s goals, but at least a plan has been developed that outlines what is needed to delist the species or at least improve its population.

The plan calls for spending more than $7 million in each of the first two years. Under a fully funded plan, the jaguarundi could be downlisted by 2040 if three or more established populations are found with a total of at least 250 cats. The species could be delisted 10 years later.

I have no idea how well this will work, but I wish them the best of luck. Loss of habitat is a tough thing for a lot of species to overcome. The Center for Biological Diversity has more.

How about those gators?

They’re doing well, with a little help.

The largest reptile in America was nearly extinct by the 1970s.

But, efforts to protect the American alligator resulted in a conservation success story that led to its removal from the endangered species list in 1987.

The Texas State Aquarium uses that story of conservation and action resulting in big impacts to educate people visiting baby alligators.

[…]

“Alligators are the flagship of conservation in North America,” said Jesse Gilbert, vice president and chief operating officer of the aquarium. “They were on the endangered species list. When we can take an alligator out and tell that story it helps us get the message across.”

Alligator populations in Louisiana are doing well and are stable or rising based on annual nesting surveys, which shows about 1.5 million wild alligators, said Ruth Elsey, biologist manager for the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.

During peak years, alligators have an economic impact of $60 million in Louisiana based on harvesting for hides and meat, which is part of the sustained use harvest program.

Annually, the commercial harvest is 300,000-500,000 eggs and 33,000-35,000 wild alligators.

Alligators are ideal for aquarium education purposes because their ability to function in the wild isn’t affected by time in captivity.

“Reptiles are one of those animals that always go back to their animal instinct,” Gilbert said. “Reptiles are machines. Whatever they are programmed to do, that is what they will do for life.”

More recently, alligators have persevered through Hurricane Ike and the drought. These guys have been around for millions of years, so I root for them to stay around a little longer. Not in my backyard, of course – this is why I live in the urban core – but in the marshes and rivers where they belong. Long may they live there.

The black bears return to Texas

Very cool.

SOMEWHERE IN BLUE ELBOW SWAMP — Hope, sometimes, is based on the strangest things. Here, deep in the near-impenetrable thickets of the Sabine River basin, it rides on sardines and tampons soaked in pastry filling.

That exotic bait, researchers anticipate, will lure the elusive black bear out of hiding, leaving behind exciting evidence of its renewed presence in its long-abandoned East Texas stomping grounds.

Once legion in the region’s swamps and forests, black bears effectively vanished from Texas by the mid-1960s — victims of overhunting and habitat destruction. But now, graduate students from Nacogdoches’ Stephen F. Austin State University, heartened by repeated reports of sightings, have taken to the woods to determine how many of the “threatened” animals may have returned.

Under forest wildlife management professor Christopher Comer’s supervision, master’s degree candidate Dan Kaminski last week began setting hair-snare traps — fragrant baits surrounded by a barbed wire-barrier — in swampland near the Texas-Louisiana border. The three-year project ultimately will encompass a vast swath of East Texas, notably the once bear-infested Big Thicket.

The history of the bears in Big Thicket is really interesting. I had no idea there had once been so many bears there. I just don’t associate bears with Texas. And now I know why.

Meanwhile, back in the swamp, Kaminski and his colleagues, scratched and sweat-drenched from their initial outing, plotted their next move.

Siegmund suggested sardine cans be only partially opened lest the contents quickly fall victim to insects.

Kaminski explained that, in efforts to maximize the appeal of his hair-snare traps, he would introduce a new variety of bait: a three-to-one mixture of cattle blood and fish oil. He already has found a slaughter house to provide his supplies.

I have to ask: Have you considered using picnic baskets? I hear they’re quite effective. Might also help us determine if our bears are smarter than average or not.