Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texas Department of Agriculture

Harvey was hard on farms, too

It wasn’t just the cities like Houston that suffered a lot of damage from Harvey.

Harvey did more than transform cityscape by turning highways into rivers; It also upended life for farmers and ranchers across dozens of counties that Gov. Greg Abbott declared disaster zones. The powerful winds and rains destroyed crops, displaced livestock and disrupted trade.

Texas typically exports nearly one-fourth of the country’s wheat and a major portion of its corn and soybeans, according to the state Department of Agriculture, but a shutdown of ports ahead of Harvey halted export.

At least 1.2 million beef cows graze in in 54 counties Abbott had added to his disaster list as of Tuesday, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. State and industry officials did not immediately have data on how many were lost, but news reports and social media have circulated images of wandering cattle and dramatic rescues of the animals from floodwaters.

[…]

Harvey also affected cropland. Texas rice producers had already harvested about 75 percent of the year’s rice crop, according to the Agriculture Department, but wind and water likely damaged storage bins, leading to more crop loses.

Harvey hit cotton farmers like Reed particularly hard, destroying their prospects of a banner year. While of region’s crops — corn, for instance, were out of the ground before the storm hit, cotton was another story.

“A lot of cotton didn’t get harvested,” said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. “We know that they were racing the clock trying to beat landfall…I think anything left on the clock, you got to consider that a total loss.”

In Matagorda County, for instance, just 70 percent of cotton had been harvested, while only 35 percent was out of the ground in Wharton County, Hall said.

What’s more, high-speed winds ripped apart cotton modules — machines that pound processed cotton into rectangular blocks — leaving them strewn about fields and gin yards.

You can help farmers and ranchers affected by Harvey via the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund. There are a lot of small farms in the path of Harvey, and a lot of farms that supply Houston’s restaurants. One example of that is Gundermann Acres, which was completely wiped out. They farm vegetables – you’ve probably eaten some of their produce – so they can’t get crop insurance. You can help them out here if you want. As with everything else, it’s going to take all of these folks some time to recover, too.

No more feral hog poison

It was not to be.

The manufacturer of a controversial bait used to kill feral hogs withdrew its state registration for the poison, putting Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s plans for a Texas “Hog Apocalypse” on hold.

“We have received tremendous support from farmers and ranchers in the State of Texas, and have empathy for the environmental devastation, endangered species predation, and crop damage being inflicted there by a non-native animal,” Colorado-based company Scimetrics wrote in a news release Monday. “However, under the threat of many lawsuits, our family owned company cannot at this time risk the disruption of our business and continue to compete with special interests in Texas that have larger resources to sustain a lengthy legal battle.”

Earlier this year, Miller announced that he wanted to use the poison to take out the state’s invasive feral hog population and that using the poison could save the Department of Agriculture $900,000 that was designated for feral hog control. He wrote that the poison could mean “the ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon.”

The poison was classified as a “state-limited use pesticide,” which means anyone wishing to use it must be licensed by the department. Scimetrics withdrawing its registration means the department can no longer license people to use the poison — a move Miller called a “kick in the teeth for rural Texas.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that once again the hard working folks who turn the dirt and work from sunup to sundown have fallen victim to lawyers, environmental radicals and the misinformed,” Miller said in a prepared statement. “Once again, politically correct urban media hacks and naysayers win out against the rural folks who produce the food and fiber everyone needs.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Just for the record, the bill to require a state study of the use of any pesticide in this manner – which was filed by a Republican from Denton – passed the House by a vote of 128-13. Who knew there were so many “environmental radicals” in the Legislature? Clearly, the place has gone to hell since ol’ Sid was there. This doesn’t have to be the end for warfarin, the poison in question. There’s no reason why a study on its environmental effects couldn’t be done. Maybe a Texas governmental agency with an interest in such a study – like, say, oh, I don’t know, the Texas Department of Agriculture – could put up some grant money to fund one. Just a thought. The Trib has more.

Hog apocalypse update

The poison plan for controlling feral hogs is set to be put on pause by the Legislature.

A bill poised to pass the Texas House would amend the Texas Agriculture Code to prohibit the Department of Agriculture from registering, approving for use or allowing use of any pesticide for feral hog control unless a study by a state agency or university recommends such action.

That legislation – HB 3451, by Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton – was filed in the wake of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s emergency rules issued earlier this year (and since suspended by a state judge) that set regulations for use of the first pesticide approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for use controlling feral hogs. Texas holds more than 2 million feral hogs, an invasive species causing significant environmental and economic damage in the state. While extermination of feral hogs is almost universally approved by Texans, the move allowing use of the pesticide proved controversial, drawing intense opposition from a wide range of individuals and organizations concerned about the potential negative effects on humans and non-target animals from warfarin, the pesticide’s active ingredient.

Stucky’s bill, which has more than 120 House members as co-sponsors, sailed through its committee hearing, initial procedural readings on the House floor and could see final passage by the House as soon as this week.

The bill can expect to be well received in the Texas Senate, where a companion bill – SB 1454 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin – has almost a third of the Senate as co-sponsors.

See here and here for the background. That column was published on Wednesday. HB3451 was postponed, first till Thursday and then till Monday, at which time it was overwhelmingly approved by the full House.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s push to use a warfarin-based poison to kill feral hogs in the state has a long list of opponents that now includes more than two-thirds of the Legislature where Miller once served.

House lawmakers voted 128 to 13 to preliminarily approve legislation Monday that would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs. A companion bill in the Senate has 10 co-sponsors.

[…]

A coalition of hunters, animal rights advocates, conservationists and meat processors has mobilized against the use of the poison. The Texas State Rifle Association, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, the Texas Hog Hunters Association and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association are all among the groups that support the bill.

Lotta love for ol’ Sid there. SB1454 has not had a committee hearing yet. Sure seems likely this will pass, especially given that House vote, but it’s never over till it’s over in the Lege. There’s more about other outdoors-related bills in that column, so check it out if that’s your thing.

Let’s have a study of that hog apocalypse first

Maybe we should figure out what the effects of poisoning feral hogs might be before we start poisoning them.

Two bills from Texas lawmakers — state Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs.

The legislation comes after outcry from Texas hog hunters and meat processors over state approval of a new feral hog poison called Kaput, which they say would hurt their businesses and contaminate other game animals and livestock. A state judge issued a temporary restraining order against the rule on March 2. Wild Boar Meat, the Hubbard-based company that sued to stop use of the poison, processes hog meat to sell to pet food companies.

Kaput contains a chemical called Warfarin, which at varying concentrations is used as a rat poison and a blood thinner in humans. It causes hogs that consume it to die of internal bleeding, a process that takes four to seven days.

House Bill 3451 and Senate Bill 1454, both filed this week, would require scientific studies of the poison to include controlled field trials and assess the economic consequences to the state’s property owners, hunters, and agriculture industry.

[…]

When Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced a state rule change in February that allowed the use of Kaput — which the Environmental Protection Agency approved for feral hog control earlier this year — he called the poison a “long overdue” solution to the extensive damage the wild pigs cause every year.

“The ‘Hog Apocalypse’ may finally be on the horizon,” said Miller, who as a state legislator passed a measure known as the “pork-chopper bill” that allowed the hunting of hogs by helicopter in 2011.

The department has defended the new rule, saying it imposes licensing restrictions to protect against misuse of the poison.

See here for the background. On the one hand, it’s long been clear that hunting the hogs, even with no restrictions or bag limits and even from helicopters, will never be enough to slow down the population growth. Warfarin is approved by the EPA, and it just might work. On the other hand, it’s hard to take seriously any claim by Sid Miller that’s he’s being a careful and conscientious steward of the environment. On balance, I’d say it’s better to be a bit more deliberate with this.

If you can’t porkchop ’em, poison ’em

The war on feral hogs enters a new phase.

At a Feb. 21 news conference in Austin, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced the agency had issued a rule that would allow Kaput Feral Hog Bait, a pesticide containing the anticoagulant warfarin as its active ingredient, to be used in the control of feral hogs. The emergency rule, issued Feb. 6, makes Texas the first and, so far, only state to adopt regulations allowing the use of a lethal toxicant – poison – to control the invasive swine.

Miller, who as a member of the Texas Legislature in 2011 sponsored a successful bill allowing aerial gunning of feral hogs by private citizens with the permission of landowners, trumpeted the new rule as a significant advance in the state’s ongoing war against feral hogs, which compete with native wildlife, carry and transmit diseases such as brucellosis, and annually cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to property, including an estimated $50 million in annual losses to agriculture.

“I am pleased to announce that the ‘feral hog apocalypse’ may be within Texans’ reach with the introduction of Kaput’s hog lure,” Miller said.

Miller’s action was made possible by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conditional registration last month of Kaput Feral Hog Bait under the federal statutes governing pesticide use across the country. Kaput, the brand name of pesticides produced by Colorado-based Scimetrics Ltd. Corp., is the first and, so far, only toxicant approved by federal authorities for use in feral-hog control.

Warfarin, laced in prepared baits designed to be eaten by feral hogs, is toxic to pigs in the same way that it is lethal to rats, mice and other rodents for which the substance has been used as a toxicant for more than 60 years. Warfarin has therapeutic uses – it is one of the most common medications taken by humans as a blood-clot preventive. But ingested in sufficient quantities by some mammals, warfarin triggers fatal internal hemorrhaging.

Warfarin’s effects are anything but therapeutic in pigs. Feral hogs’ physiology makes them susceptible to warfarin’s toxic effects at a much lower dose than almost any other animal, research has shown. The percentage of warfarin the Kaput Feral Hog Bait approved by EPA is 0.005 percent by weight – five times lower than the 0.025 percent warfarin by weight used in rats/mice baits.

The poison has proven very effective at killing feral hogs, according to research conducted in Texas by Genesis Labs, a sister company of Scimetrics.

[…]

To limit exposure of non-target species such as deer, raccoons, birds and other that might ingest the baits, protocols for distributing it mandate use of a specially designed feeder with a heavy “guillotine” door that must be lifted to access the bait. Feral hogs have little trouble using their stout snouts to lift the door, while the door’s weight and mode of operation stymies most other wildlife.

Additionally, use of the pig poison in Texas will be restricted. Under the rule change announced by Miller, the warfarin-based bait is classified as a “state-limited-use pesticide,” and it can be purchased and used only by state-licensed pesticide applicators.

Landowners or others who want to use the hog toxicant on property in Texas and who do not hold the required license will have to hire a licensed applicator to legally set up the approved bait dispensers and distribute the bait. That almost certainly will limit its use.

Some Texans would rather it not be used at all.

In the wake of Miller’s announcement, the Texas Hog Hunters Association initiated an online petition to have the rule revoked. The group cites concerns about the potential human health effects of eating feral hogs that have ingested the warfarin-infused baits as well as questions about collateral damage to non-target species such as deer or domestic dogs that ingest treated baits and possible secondary poisoning of animals and protected birds such as hawks and eagles.

As of early Saturday, the online petition at change.org had garnered 10,400 supporters.

Texas Department of Agriculture statements counter those concerns, noting the low levels of warfarin in hogs that consume the baits pose little threat to humans, especially if they avoid eating the animal’s liver, where most of the warfarin will be concentrated. Also, the bait contains a blue dye that transfers that color to the fatty tissues of hogs. Hunters taking a hog and finding blue-tinted fat can decline to eat the animal.

Here’s the petition in question. It turns out that these hunting groups did more than just create a petition, and they got some results.

A Waco-area feral hog processor on Monday said he was racing to get a bill filed that would shoot down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s call for a “hog apocalypse” through use of a poisonous bait.

Will Herring, owner of Wild Boar Meats, last week won a court order temporarily halting Miller’s Feb. 21 rule allowing use of “Kaput Feral Hog Lure,” arguing the measure would spook pet food companies he sells to and put him out of business. Herring said he’d since secured Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, as primary sponsor for legislation that would require study of chemicals before they are approved. The deadline to file bills for the current state legislative session is Friday.

“All our bill says is, ‘Let’s have a state agency and/or state educational institution study this poison and any other poison before it before it becomes legal,’” Herring said from Austin, where he was recruiting state lawmakers to back the bill. “There’s not one public study, and by public study I mean a study available to the public, that has looked at using the product Kaput to poison feral hogs.”

[…]

Herring said he was processing as many as 5,000 hogs a month and was getting ready to break ground on a new facility when Miller announced a rule that could potentially put he and other wild hog processors out of business.

“We have not developed a way to test for it, nor have we developed a way to inactivate it,” Herring said. “If someone said, ‘Look, I only want to buy warfarin-free wild hog meat,’ we do not know a way that we could guarantee that. And that’s a problem to me.

“It’s not just me that’s concerned about this,” Herring added. “I only do the pet food business. There’s a couple of companies that deal with the human consumption business, and it’s the same issue.”

Herring last Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Miller’s rule, with the Texas Hog Hunters Association and Environmental Defense Fund filing supporting briefs. State District Judge Jan Soifer in Austin on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order stopping Kaput use in Texas until March 30, saying the TDA did not follow the Texas Administrative Procedures Act and agreeing that allowing Kaput would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to Wild Boar Meats.

All right then. I have some sympathy for the hunters here, because introducing poison into the environment, even in a fairly controlled fashion like this, carries a higher level of risk. Even with the protocols in place, there’s no way to fully prevent unintended consequences of this. It should be noted that this isn’t the first attempt at poisoning the pigs, but it is the first one with an EPA-approved toxin. We’ll see how this plays out in court, and I’ll keep my eyes open for an anti-warfarin bill in the Lege; as of yesterday, I didn’t see anything authored by Rep. Kacal that sounds like this.

On selling junk food in Texas schools

Every session, there’s at least one bill that gets passed with little to no notice that has completely unforeseen effects. The Lunch Tray breaks a story about one such bill from this past regular session, which has to do with the sale of junk food in Texas schools.

When it comes to the sale of junk food on campus, high schools tend to be the biggest offenders. Here in Houston ISD, for example, high school students, PTOs and coaches often set up fundraising tables at lunch to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to Chinese food, creating veritable “food courts” of junk food.  Students often prefer to buy these items rather than eat in overcrowded cafeterias or go off campus, and the fundraisers are so lucrative that some principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when TDA fines the school for a violation.

Last spring, though, [Texas Department of Agriculture] got serious and imposed fines totaling $73,000 on eight Houston high schools for illegal competitive food sales.*  Those eye-popping fines made headlines and local TV news, and apparently motivated someone to head up to the state house in Austin to successfully lobby on the issue.

Alluding to the recent TDA fines imposed in Houston, Republican House Representative Ken King introduced in the last legislative session HB1781 which “ensure[s] that Texas high schools have the freedom” to continue junk food fundraisers and which expressly forbids the TDA from fining those schools based on the food’s nutritional content.  Six Republican and two Democratic representatives joined King in co-sponsoring the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 14th.  The law is now in effect statewide.

So while the nation as whole is moving forward on issues relating to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Texas has taken a big leap backward in protecting fundraising that directly and adversely impacts student health.  That development is disheartening enough, but here’s where it gets really messy.

Whoever drafted HB1781 decided to use some legislative shorthand to describe the types of foods that high schools may continue to sell.  But instead of referring back to the state regulations the bill is trying to thwart, HB1781 instead allows Texas high schools to sell “foods of minimal nutritional value” (FMNV), as that term is defined by federal law.

The federal definition of FMNV harks back to the 1970s when there were virtually no rules regarding competitive food and the government was trying to keep the “worst of the worst” out of school cafeterias during meal times.  FMNV is defined generally as foods providing less than 5% of the daily value of certain nutrients and specifically as: sodas and other carbonated beverages; water ices; chewing gum; and certain types of candy — hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallows, fondants, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

As TLT notes, when new federal regulations go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, Texas will be in violation of them. Will Greg Abbott and/or one of the Abbott wannabees sue the federal government to defend Texas’ precious right to let its public schools sell Royal Crown and Moon Pies in school cafeterias? I’ll be honest, I’m kind of rooting for them to do so, just because I think the briefs would be hilarious. Be that as it may, I will point out that HB 1781 passed the House unanimously on the Local and Consent calendar, meaning that it was a bill that was fast-tracked for passage on the grounds that there was basically no opposition to it. What that says to me is that the contents and effect of the bill where not well understood. The TDA may be able to do some things with the implementation of this bill to mitigate its effects, but ultimately it will take an act of the next Legislature to fix this. Hopefully now that this issue has been raised, it can be dealt with.

Hog killin’ update

Because I know you like to know about this sort of thing.

After a competition to kill feral hogs left more than 1,000 of the destructive animals dead in Hays and Caldwell counties, plans are emerging to further control the population.

Both counties participated in the state’s Hog Out County Grants Program, a competition among counties to kill the most feral hogs and to educate people about the hogs from October through December.

The 28 counties that participated last year, including Hays, Caldwell and Williamson, earned points for the number of hogs killed and the number of participants at educational workshops.

According to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Texas is home to nearly 2.6 million feral hogs, the largest population nationwide, and one that’s growing. The Hog Out County Grants Program is one of two the department funds that is aimed at eliminating feral hogs, which damage property, crops and pastures.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that the economic damage cause by hogs statewide is $500 million annually. The funds the department will award as a result of the Hog Out program are to be used by counties to implement a plan to reduce their feral hog populations.

The county with the most points wins $20,000. The second- and third-place counties earn $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.

It’s all just a drop in the bucket, really. As we heard before, killing 750,000 of these beasts a year would not be enough to cause a drop in their population. But what are you gonna do? And in case you were wondering, yes, they’re going to try to do something useful with all that meat. Good luck with that.

RIP, Department of Rural Affairs

People say they want to shrink government, except when it happens to them.

The Texas Department of Rural Affairs, the office that helps keep rural Texas communities afloat, is scheduled to close in October, and the lawmaker who wrote the legislation in 2001 to create the department said he’s worried about the consequences.

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said the department was designed to make sure rural areas are treated fairly and can get access to needed grants from state and federal governments. He added that he’s worried rural Texans will suffer.

“Rural Texas is losing more and more representation,” he said.

Most of the duties of the office will be shifted to the Texas Department of Agriculture, as part of a cost-cutting strategy introduced in February by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry said in his State of the State speech: “There should be no sacred cows in this business, and that reality is reflected in the budget that I submitted this morning. To eliminate duplication, let’s consolidate functions, like moving the Department of Rural Affairs into the Department of Agriculture.”

But if the main idea behind the consolidation is savings, Chisum said, then the effort might not be worth it. Closing the department will have only a slight effect, about $1 million a year, Chisum estimated.

That’s as may be, but as I’ve said before, these people are getting exactly what they voted for. If it turns out that’s not really what they wanted, they should consider voting differently the next time. I don’t know what else there is to say.

More on the broadband map of Texas

Shouldn’t a map that purports to document broadband availability in Texas do a better job than this of actually including broadband providers?

At an unveiling last month, the Texas Department of Agriculture touted its map of broadband Internet availability as the first step in closing a “digital divide” that denies rural Texans critical services.

But a political divide has opened instead, as critics question the tool’s accuracy and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ relationship with the organization that created it.

Staples’ Democratic rival, Hank Gilbert, and a handful of local providers, consumer groups and mapping organizations say the agency tailored the application to fit Connected Nation, the nonprofit selected by the department and the Texas Public Utility Commission to create the map. The Agriculture Department and the company defend the process, while their critics contend that the map will direct federal stimulus money toward major telecommunications companies at the expense of smaller Internet providers.

“They hit the big guys,” said James Breeden, founder of LiveAir Networks, which covers rural parts of Central Texas. “I didn’t even know they were putting together a broadband map until I saw it on the news and went ‘Oh.’ Then I logged in and went, ‘Oh, really!’ ”

He said he couldn’t find his company or two nearby providers on the map. Some areas didn’t show the correct distributor. Others named one when none existed. “The map is just off. It’s not technically accurate,” he said.

Perhaps if the Department of Agriculture had hired a local non-profit to do this work instead of sending the stimulus dollars that paid for it out of state, the results might have been better. There’s a lot of other questions about the process that led to this map as well as the map itself, which the article does a good job of highlighting. I’m sure there’s more there as well, if someone has the time to dig in. Check it out and see what you think.

Was there no one in Texas that could tell us about our broadband situation?

I’m a little late in picking this up, so bear with me. Last week, the Texas Department of Agriculture published a map detailing where broadband access exists and doesn’t exist in Texas. Democratic candidate for Ag Commish Hank Gilbert, after criticizing the map as being much ado about not very much, then had some strong words about how the study that led to the map’s creation was funded.

“It was inappropriate for the Texas Department of Agriculture to outsource more than $3 million in federal funding to a Kentucky non-profit organization with a questionable record and significant ties to telecommunications companies when federal law allowed the state to conduct this project on its own,” Gilbert said.

He accused [Ag Commissioner Todd] Staples and the Texas Department of Agriculture of bypassing state agencies and public universities within Texas that could have completed the project.

“The fact of the matter is that federal law allowed the state or any of the public universities in Texas to conduct this project,” Gilbert said, citing the provisions The Broadband Data Improvement Act, 47 U.S.C. §1304, which states that multiple entity types-including government bodies-were eligible for the funds.

Gilbert also questioned why Staples would allow the Texas Department of Agriculture to do business with a company that has left controversy in its wake in North Carolina and Kentucky, signed restrictive non-disclosure agreements with telecom companies prohibiting disclosure of detailed coverage information, and has been accused of providing misleading information to the Federal Communications Commission.

Staples’ response to Gilbert’s charges came from his campaign. As yet, as far as I know, there has been no comment from the TDA itself about the substance of Gilbert’s remarks. (For that matter, neither has the Staples campaign.) Politics aside, that’s a pretty straightforward question: Why not fund the study through a Texas university? Surely any number of them could have done it, quite possibly for less than $3 million. This was paid for with stimulus money, so regardless of the actual price tag, it would have been nice to keep it here. It would be nice if the TDA could tell us why it chose not to do that.

The Texas Partnership for Children in Nature

The National Wildlife Federation was in town this weekend for a summit to advance a national policy agenda to connect children with the outdoors. Basically, kids spend a lot less time outside these days, and there are measurable effects of this change in behavior. For example, from the Be Out There web page:

Children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg et al., 2007)

Sixty minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)

The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11. (Wells and Lekies, 2006)

There’s a lot more information available at BeOutThere.org. This is something I struggle with, as I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I want to encourage healthy behaviors in my kids, though, and the best way to do that is by example, so I try to do what I can. Anyway, part of this movement is policy-oriented, as there are many things that can be done at the state and federal level to positively affect children’s daily lives. To get a feel for some of that, I had a brief conversation with Allen Cooper, who has been working for the past 18 months to help establish the Texas Partnership for Children in Nature. The Partnership was formed at the request of a bipartisan group of state legislators by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and the Texas Education Agency. Right now this partnership is working on a strategic plan to bring nature experiences into the daily lives of the 6.7 million children in Texas. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

The Partnership will be presenting its report in December, just in time for the next legislative session. I’ll be watching to see what they come up with.

“Crazy ants” becoming a bigger menace

You may recall hearing about the “crazy ants”, also known as Rasberry ants, last year. They’re apparently gaining a large foothold in Texas and other states, and are threatening honeybees wherever they go.

The range of the so-called Rasberry crazy ant has more than doubled in the past year, creating a swath in 11 counties beginning near Houston and moving north, scientists say.

Given the ant’s encroachment on livestock, hay bales and a few honeybee farms, some are trying to classify it as an agricultural pest, one that must soon be stopped.

“It really is spreading at an alarming rate and we need to do research now,” said Danny McDonald, a Texas A&M University doctoral student who is examining the tiny creature’s biology and ecology. “There’s no time to wait.”

But serious research requires serious dollars.

The Texas Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund in-depth research on the Rasberry crazy ant, but only if it gets the pest classification. And to do that, state officials say more research must be done. It’s a sticky Catch-22.

“This is absolutely idiotic,” said Tom Rasberry, the exterminator for whom the ant is named because he fought against them early on. “If killing honeybees does not put it in the ag pest category I don’t know what does.”

[…]

The ants — formally known as “paratrenicha species near pubens” — are called “crazy” because they wander erratically instead of marching in regimented lines. Although they eat stinging fire ants, they also feed on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and honeybees.

The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service recently released about $30,000 for a yearlong study by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and A&M’s Center for Urban & Structural Entomology to determine how quickly the ants are spreading.

“Our folks know this is a very serious issue and we’re jumping on it to make sure we find a solution very quickly,” said Bryan Black, Texas Department of Agriculture spokesman. “We want to protect agriculture and we want to protect the public, absolutely.”

Critics say the initial study won’t address the ant’s food preferences, reproduction cycles, lifespan, temperature tolerance or effect on wildlife.

“There are literally thousands of things we need to find out to get on a fast track, otherwise we’re going to do just like we did with the fire ant and wait until it was too late,” Rasberry warned.

I sure hope that’s not how it goes. If money is an issue I would hope that this is the sort of thing that can get bipartisan cooperation and thus done relatively easily. Who wants to be pro-ant?