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The Harvey effect on the Waugh Street Bridge bat colony

It was bad, but we hope they will recover.

Tens of thousands of bats perished or were displaced from their home at the Waugh Bat Colony when Hurricane Harvey swept through the city this summer, according to bat experts.

“Pre-Harvey, we had at least 300,000 bats in the bridge,” said Diana Foss, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and coordinator of the Houston area bat team.

“But watching the emergence at Waugh right now is kind of depressingly lower than that,” she continued, describing the daily flood of bats from beneath the bridge at Allen Parkway and Waugh Drive, during which bats emerge en masse at twilight to hunt for food. “What I’m seeing is, about half the bats are emerging.”

When the hurricane dropped more than 50 inches of rain on the city, the bayou’s water downtown surged to record levels. For the first time since the bats took up residence in the cracks beneath the Waugh overpass, the elevated highway was submerged. Bats lacked the 15 feet of clearance they need to drop down from their roosts and take to the sky. Their plight didn’t go unnoticed. Residents tried to save the bats, hanging off the bridge and scooping them from the water as they rushed by. But it wasn’t a perfect science.

[…]

In the days and weeks after the storm, residents noticed a new pattern in the sky during the bats’ evening emergence: In addition to a swarm of winged mammals flying out from beneath the bridge, smaller populations exit from nearby buildings. They join up with the bats from the bridge during their hunt, then return to their new homes for the night, before repeating the same cycle the next day.

Whether these displaced bats will return to their former home under the bridge isn’t yet known, said Cullen Geiselman, a member of the local bat team, who earned her doctorate studying bats.

“I guess they could have moved on,” she said. “We’ve played with some ideas and haven’t gotten very far.”

Houstonia wrote about this in the immediate aftermath. As noted, some number of bats managed to move to other dens, and some others have returned to Waugh. The overall population is definitely smaller, and bats don’t have high reproduction rates, but the hope is that over time the colony under the bridge will get back to its previous side. I’m rooting for them.

Save the bats

In case you needed something else to worry about.

Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for years, looking for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings, the erratic hibernation patterns, the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.36 million being handed out in the U.S. and Canada for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and Southern Co., an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant regional director for ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too, because Texas is a very bat-ful state, and we need them around. Go visit Bat Conservation International if you want to learn more or get involved.

The zebra mussels keep invading

Can anything stop them?

Zebra mussel

When zebra mussels exploded in the Great Lakes region during the early 1990s, fisheries managers in Texas and many other southern states certainly noticed, but most weren’t overly alarmed.

Yes, the alien freshwater mollusks, native to northern Eurasia and introduced to North America through the ballast water of commercial ships, had quickly become a major environmental and economic problem. Able to reproduce at tremendous rates – a single, fingernail-size mussel can produce a million eggs during spawn – and lacking any significant predators, the mussels swarmed northern waters, triggering considerable negative consequences.

But, evidence suggested, the invasive mussels were likely to remain a regional problem. They were confined to the Great Lakes. The mussels couldn’t transport themselves across scores of miles to infect river systems not directly connected to the infected waters. And, even if they escaped to new waters, the mussels’ relatively small native range was cold-water lakes; the mollusks might be able to live in the upper Midwest but almost certainly would wither and perish in the sultry waters of a southern summer.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Zebra mussels have spread at an alarming rate, thanks mostly to human actions. And the mollusks have proven much more tolerant of warm water than just about anyone suspected. They now are found in at least 30 states. By 2009, they had made it to Texas, first taking hold in Lake Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border.

Last week, barely seven years later, Texas fisheries officials announced discovery of zebra mussels in three reservoirs, boosting the number of lakes hosting the potentially devastating invasive species to a dozen spread across the Trinity, Red and Brazos river systems.

One of the new reservoirs on the list is Lake Livingston, the 90,000-acre lake on the Trinity River about 80 miles northeast of Houston. Livingston, a hugely popular fishing destination and a primary water source for the fourth-most populous city in the nation, is the southernmost and easternmost Texas waterbody in which zebra mussels have been documented.

“We knew Lake Livingston could be at risk for zebra mussels, but we were hoping they wouldn’t show up,” said Brian Van Zee, Waco-based regional director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division. “You don’t want to see any new infestation; there can be a lot of negative consequences.”

Some of those consequences are economic. Zebra mussels reproduce so quickly and in such dense concentrations they can carpet lake bottoms and anything under the water. They attach themselves to water management and transportation infrastructure such gates and pump parts and, especially, intake screens and pipes. The concentrations are so thick they clog and close these crucial systems.

This damage to water infrastructure systems has cost billions nationwide. It has cost hundreds of millions in Texas.

See here and here for some background. The main defense against zebra mussels has been trying to slow their march across the landscape, but that hasn’t been much of a success, and recent flooding appears to have helped them spread out to new locations. I hope someone’s thinking of a way to try and control their population, because we’re beginning to run out of places where they haven’t yet invaded.

Here come the drones

Look! Up in the sky!

Companies in Austin and Addison on Wednesday became the first two firms to become officially credentialed to operate unmanned aircraft systems under a new training and safety program that officials said promises to boost Texas’ place in the emerging drone market.

At a statewide conference hosted by the Texas A&M University System’s Corpus Christi campus and its engineering extension service, officials presented HUVRdata, of Austin, and Aviation Unmanned, of Addison, with their certificates, among the first granted in the nation since the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules governing the use of drones.

The new program, though voluntary, provides a way for drone operators who register with the Federal Aviation Administration to become certified in safety and operational procedures, a step advocates say will be key to expanding the commercial applications of low-level unmanned aircraft without endangering commercial air traffic or clogging airspace since drone use mushroomed in recent years.

Under current FAA rules, “it’s like getting a tag for your car but not having to get a driver’s license,” said Joe Henry, director of outreach and commercialization at the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence and Innovation, which is part of new program. “This certification is the driver’s license.”

“Through this credentialing program that will ensure the safety of operations for unmanned aircraft systems, Texas is in a position to be a leader in this emerging industry,” he said.

With the new credentials, which the A&M center and similar programs in five other states have been approved to grant, conference officials said operations safety can be assured, a step that will allow the drone industry to grow as more companies find ways to utilize the technology, and perhaps slow a surge of new state laws aimed at privacy and safety issues.

[…]

In Texas, drones already are used by the wind-power, oil and gas and transportation industries to provide aerial inspections and mapping, and for port and border security and coastline monitoring. As a business hub for many of those concerns, as well as home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which is developing unmanned craft to explore Mars, Houston stands to be a center for the growing industry.

“If you have a public company that’s trying to integrate this new technology into their operations, they want to make sure that whomever they hire to do that work is qualified to it properly and safely,” said Bob Baughman, CEO and founder of HUVRdata. “This credentialing program is important because it’s an industry partnership with the FAA to make sure that operators know the FAA rules, know how to safely operate their UAS, and so companies know who is certified and qualified when they hire them. As this technology develops, as UAS isused more, credentialing will become even more important.”

Drones have also been used by, among other things, environmental scientists to track bird habitats and invasive species, and S&R groups like Texas EquuSearch, which had to fight for their right to employ them. They’re employed for movie and TV filming as well, as the Mythbusters can attest. The drone has flown, so it’s a matter of how we regulate them now. I won’t be surprised to see this issue come up in the 2017 Legislature.

Another kind of feral hog to worry about

Texas now has a warthog problem.

Over its 46-year history, the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area has been the site of a long list of achievements that cemented its reputation as the premier state-owned wildlife and wildlife habitat research, education and public hunting complex in South Texas.

This year, the “Chap” added a new feat to that list. But it’s not one the staff of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 15,200-acre tract in Dimmit and LaSalle counties wanted or covets.

“I’m guess now we’ll be known as the first public hunting area in North America where a hunter harvested a warthog,” said Stephen Lange, Chaparral WMA manager.

And not just one warthog. During public deer hunts on the Chaparral WMA this autumn, hunters have taken four warthogs, wild swine native to Africa and cousins of the feral hogs whose booming population swarms like locusts over Texas’ landscape causing millions of dollars of property damage and untold harm to native wildlife, habitat and other natural resources.

The Chaparral WMA is in the center of what evidence indicates is a growing, range-expanding, self-sustaining feral population of African warthogs, the first such population on this continent. And that worries state wildlife managers such as Lange, who see the non-native warthogs, which can weigh more than 200 pounds, as having the potential to negatively affect native wildlife and habitat.

“There certainly are some concerns,” he said of evidence warthogs are gaining a cloven-hoofed hold in South Texas. “Any non-indigenous animal competes with native wildlife for resources.”

You can say that again. Warthogs have only been seen in the wild for a year or so, after presumably escaping from a private ranch to which they had been legally imported. Feral hogs had been here for a long time before causing a problem, so maybe it will be awhile before these critters do the same. They do breed like feral hogs, though, so don’t think the problem will just go away. Like feral hogs, they can be hunted without limit, though whether they can be pork-chopped or not is unclear to me. Perhaps like feral hogs, whose menu name is “wild boar”, you will see these on the menu of the more adventurous restaurants in town. I suppose that will be a small consolation for whatever problems they do cause.

Please don’t feed the gators

Should be obvious, but apparently not to everyone.

In the time it took for something to hit the water and the unseen creature lying in wait to snap at it, the legend of the “killer gator” was born.

It didn’t take much longer for the story to spread around the world, from the small Texas city of Orange where it took place all the way to Europe, much to the annoyance of Gary Saurage, who has devoted his life to the prehistoric creatures that he says are marvels of biological efficiency and no threat to anybody with a lick of sense.

“It was an accident, pure and simple,” said Saurage, owner of Gator Country outside of Beaumont and a longtime trapper of so-called nuisance alligators for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “This is not an animal that attacks people. I don’t like it even being called an attack.”

Think of it this way, he says. Millions of gators live in warm coastal areas from Corpus Christi up into the Carolinas. Always have, forever and ever. More than half a million are estimated to live in Texas, but reports of attacks of any sort are rare. As for deaths, how many have ever been recorded?

“Until now – zero,” he said.

[…]

In the three counties that make up the southeast corner of Texas, alligators outnumber humans. The saltwater surge of Hurricane Ike killed more than 100,000, but they have rebounded in the years since and have thrived in the midst of one of the rainiest years in recent history. Floods caused by those rains, as well as development and infrastructure improvements that add more ponds and widen waterways, serve to expand the alligators’ range.

People who live in the area say Woodward’s death and a second attack that involved a man and his teenage son in Lake Charlotte in Chambers County were fluke events that do not bespeak any increased danger.

Alligators in the wild typically avoid humans. One exception is a female alligator protecting her nest. Another is a gator that was getting food from people.

Saurage said he believes the alligator that went after Woodward, which later was killed illegally by a nearby resident, had for some time been fed from the deck behind the small, neighborhood Burkart’s Marina along an offshoot of Adams Bayou. An employee of the modest bar and hamburger restaurant said that was not the case, that people had only fed smaller juvenile alligators that had been around in previous months.

Saurage is skeptical. Why would a gator hang around if there was no obvious food supply?

“When I go to remove a gator, the first thing I look for is whether he moves away from me or comes toward me,” he said. “If he does not swim away, I know he is one who’s been fed.”

The same is true for bears, who like alligators interact more with people as human habitation moves into their turf. Alligators that associate people with food become nuisances. It’s not their fault, it’s ours. As long as the people don’t do anything stupid, they and the gators can coexist just fine. I’m a damn Yankee city boy, and even I know that much.

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.

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.

Two environmental stories

Some good news, and some bad news. The bad news: We have an oyster shortage.

Add an oyster shortage in Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.

But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the slimy delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008, continually increasing water temperatures – as well as hyper-salinity due to drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.

Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.

“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”

[…]

Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there’re hopes for market-size oysters two years from now.

For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change – and not good.”

Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster- producing states.

“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala.

The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.

On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.

Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in. “The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t worry, climate change is still just a fairy tale invented by Al Gore. I’m sure this will all work itself out.

For the good news, the pine trees of East Texas are doing a lot better now.

From Texas 327, the two-lane highway that cuts a straight east-west line though Hardin County, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

There are sweetgum and Texas hickory, loblolly pine and bluejack oak in the blur of green. But just beyond the dense thicket is one of the state’s last stands of longleaf pine, a towering tree that dominated these sandy flatlands before the area was heavily logged a century ago.

This remnant of a once common landscape is the centerpiece of the 5,600-acre Sandyland Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy-managed property some 100 miles northeast of Houston. It’s also part of a new push to preserve and restore a key piece of the Southeast’s environmental heritage.

Across the eight-state region, timber companies, conservation groups and government officials are working to revert millions of acres to longleaf-pine forests and keep them free from development. It’s no small task because most of the land is privately owned, but there seems to be real interest in bringing back the native hardwood throughout its historic range.

That’s because the open piney woods are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey – as well as nearly 900 plant species found nowhere else – live among the majestic trees.

[…]

Estimates vary, but many experts figure the Southeast has lost up to 97 percent of its longleaf-pine forest. The all-time low of 2.8 million acres came in the 1990s.

Since then, the amount of longleaf-pine forest has increased to an estimated 3.4 million acres, mostly because of a federally funded effort to restore the woodlands. Several states, including Texas, have set a goal of 8 million acres over the next 15 years.

At least half of the new acreage will come from 16 targeted areas, known as significant landscapes. In Texas, the restoration work mostly will be done in and around the Sabine and Angelina National Forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“The good news is that it’s already hit rock bottom and it’s rebounding,” said David Bezanson, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Texas land through the purchase of easements. Under such deals, timber companies hold onto ownership but agree to some restrictions on how the property is used.

It’ll never be as it was, but it’s better than it used to be and it’s headed in the right direction. That counts as a win.

Make sure you check for zebra mussels

New boating rules are in effect in an effort to combat the spread of zebra mussels.

Zebra mussel

Starting on [July 1], boaters are going to have to take an extra step to clean their vessels if they want to cruise around on different lakes. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says people will have to drain all the water in and on the boat before going to a new body of water in Texas.

The department is worried about the spread of Zebra Mussels and other invasive species. The state says it grows to be about one-and-a-half inches and will have a zebra-stripped shell. The problem is it can also have a million microscopic larvae which like to hide on boats and trailers.

“Unfortunately zebra mussels have a microscopic larval stage that when they get in the water you can’t see and if you have a bunch of water taken out of one lake and you go to the next and you can transport the zebra mussels and that’s one of the main ways they get transported is by boats from lake to lake,” says Ken Kurzawski, Inland Fisheries Division, Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Zebra Mussels can clog public-water intake pipes, harm boats and motors if they’re left untreated. It can cover boat hulls if boats and motors are left in infested waters. Zebra mussels can also block water-cooling systems and pester lake property owners by covering anything that’s under water.

[…]

CLEAN DRAIN AND DRY

  • Clean boats, personal watercraft, kayaks, canoes, sail boats and other water vessels
  • Remove parts and clean
  • Drain all the water from motor, bilge, live wells and bait buckets before leaving lake
  • Dry boats and trailers for a week before going to another body of water
  • Use high-pressure washer with hot water, 140 degrees, and soapy water

The Parks and Wildlife Department also says people fishing also have to be careful. More information is listed on the state’s website.

See here for the background. The Express News has more information.

Texas Invasives, a partnership of “state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry, academia and other private and public stakeholders who share in the common goal of protecting Texas from the threat of invasive species,” has information on their website for boaters for how the new law effects them, including tips on how to stop the spread invasive species. It offers advice on how to properly clean and take care of any vessel, and how boaters can report a sighting.

According to Texas Invasives, possession or transportation of zebra mussels is a class C misdemenor for the first offense carrying a fine of up to $500. Repeat offenders could face a class B misdemenor, a fine of up to $2,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

Here’s the Texas Invasives website. Those of you going out boating this weekend, please pay heed. We all can do a part to stop the spread of these invasives.

Feral hogs cross the border

You can’t stop them, and hoping to contain them is not looking so likely, too.

If nothing else, the voracious wild hogs that years ago destroyed the lucrative melon and cantaloupe harvests in this isolated border city — and are now ruining the alfalfa, corn and oat crops — have discriminating tastes.

“They like vanilla. It really attracts them,” Leonel Duran, an animal control agent for the state of Chihuahua, said as he stirred two bottles of Vera Cruz vanilla extract into a blue barrel of fermented corn.

When the concoction was ready, the crew hauled it to a large octagonal trap in a fallow field near the dry, narrow channel of the Rio Grande. The mix was quickly spread inside, followed by dry corn and stale rolls.

With the sun going down, the wily, nocturnal hogs would soon be up, and drawn to the trap.

The people who farm the oasis-green irrigated croplands around here, just across the border from Presidio, are just the latest to suffer from hog predations.

Omnivorous and intelligent, the non-native beasts now roam almost all of Texas, as well as most of the continental United States and Hawaii.

Some 5 million feral hogs are found throughout the country and in almost every habitat, spreading as far north as Canada from their original territory in the South.

“They have expanded their range from 17 to 39 states in the last 30 years, and cause damage to crops, kill young livestock, destroy property, harm natural resources, and carry diseases that threaten other animals, as well as people and water supplies,” said Edward Avalos, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, noting in a news release that hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage and control costs each year.

In April, the USDA launched a $20 million hog-control program, a move some see as a long overdue.

“We’ve been singing about pigs from the choir loft for years. Congress finally caught on. They didn’t hear us, they heard the landowners,” said Mike Bodenchuk, state director for Texas Wildlife Services, a federal-state cooperative.

We’ve been exporting feral hogs domestically, so I guess this was the natural next step. I’m sure that somewhere Ted Cruz is muttering incoherently about “sealing the border”. Beyond that, the most interesting thing I learned from this story is that El Paso is the only one of Texas’ 254 counties to not have any hogs in it. I don’t know what your secret is, El Paso, but good luck maintaining that.

Look out for zebra mussels

Take proper care of your boat, y’all.

Zebra mussel

Fishing and boating enthusiasts take note: you’re probably going to need a little extra time as you head out on the lake this year. Rules to prevent the spread of the invasive zebra mussel will be going into effect statewide.

“All boats operating on public fresh water anywhere in Texas be drained before leaving or approaching a lake or river,” according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TWDB).

The mussels have spread rapidly since 2009, and now “the Highland Lakes are in the cross hairs, as are many of the public waters in Central Texas,” says Brian Van Zee, Parks and Wildlife Inland Fisheries Division regional director, in a statement.

The rules will go into effect July 1.

[…]

The rules originally applied to 17 North Texas counties. Now they’re being expanded along the I-35 corridor to try and beat the mussels before the spread further. “The Interstate Highway 35 corridor, which traverses the basins of the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe rivers, facilitates relatively easy movement of vessels by large numbers of boaters and anglers,” the commission writes, so it’s the route by which the mussels are most likely to spread.

The mussel is originally from Eurasia, and has traveled across Europe, “where it is considered to be a major environmental and industrial menace,” the department writes. It first showed up on our shores in the late 1980s, and within a decade “it had colonized in all five Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Tennessee, Hudson, and Ohio river basins.” The department says that once the invasives establish themselves, “they are impossible to eradicate with the technology available today.” And you can’t eat them, either.

See here for more. It’s likely a futile effort, but what else can you do? Preserving Texas’ natural resources is everyone’s job.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Radack finally gets to implement his feral hog plan

I can’t wait to see how well this works out.

Locally sourced pork finally may be on the menu for needy Houston-area families as Harris County Precinct 3 launches its most ambitious effort yet to eradicate feral hogs damaging parkland and neighborhoods around the Barker and Addicks reservoirs.

Within a month, precinct employees hope to begin trapping and transporting the wild pigs to a meat processing facility in Brookshire, where they will be butchered, frozen and distributed to area food banks.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a one-year, $217,600 contract with J&J Packing Co. that begins May 1. The court also OK’d the purchase of metal panels to complete four traps to be erected near the reservoirs in west Harris County.

The approvals were the final steps needed in Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack’s long-standing plan to eliminate, or at least sharply reduce, a prolific hog population in George Bush and Congressman Bill Archer parks, home to the two reservoirs.

“This is the beginning of (the) Harris County hog program in earnest,” Radack declared. “As meat prices go up, we’ll be giving it away.”

Commissioner Radack first floated this idea in 2009, and proposed allowing bow hunters in the parks to deal with the problem. The Army Corps of Engineers put the kibosh on the plan, however, on the grounds of public safety. I presume using traps instead of hunters addresses that issue.

For nearly a decade, off-duty county workers and hired contractors have trapped several hundred hogs a year in the area.

The current plan began to come together early last year when the precinct won a $630,000 federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant to bankroll a study assessing whether hog removal improves water quality, as well as pay for four metal traps and the slaughter and processing of 2,500 pigs.

“It’ll be an ongoing and continuing exercise until we get every pig in that area,” said Mike McMahan, Radack’s special activities coordinator.

The plan is to trap the varmints in four, 4-acre fenced structures – two in each park – where they can survive for up to several weeks, having grass, water and room to move around.

The larger traps will be more effective than smaller ones employees have been using, McMahan said, because the pigs do not realize they are in a trap and are less likely to panic and warn others.

“Pigs become very aware of those situations very quickly,” McMahan said. “Pigs are very smart animals.”

[…]

Brian Mesenbrink, a wildlife disease biologist with the Texas offices of Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture branch designated to address human-wildlife conflicts, said the agency is “not against any legal method when it comes to controlling feral hogs,” but said that the trap-and-process concept – “tried in small little operations here and there” – has proved short-lived in other places, mainly because of the cost.

“It’s actually very expensive,” he said, noting that “you don’t get to pick which ones go to market.”

He also warned of the “disease aspect” of such an operation, noting that feral hogs “carry quite a few” and even federal inspectors do not examine every piece of meat.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” he said. “It’s great publicity while it works, but the minute something goes wrong, the minute somebody gets sick, there’s going to be all hell to pay. No one thinks about that going into it. They just see the fuzzy and warm side of it.”

Radack dismissed the disease concern, noting that hunting and eating feral hog is far from uncommon. As for the financial viability of the program, he believes the precinct will be able to secure additional grant money to continue it.

Here’s the Texas Parks and Wildlife information page on feral hogs, which addresses the disease question among others. It’s a concern, but it’s not like there are no concerns about traditional mass-produced meat. I would warn against being optimistic that this plan will actually make a dent in the feral hog population. If it were this easy to keep them in check, there would be no such thing as porkchopping. Beyond that, I see no problems with this. As the story notes, it does connect a problem with a need – there’s already an agreement in place with the Houston Food Bank to receive the hog meat, for which they are grateful. I hope that costs can be managed and that either grant money or philanthropy can cover it as needed. Kudos to Commissioner Radack for having the vision to conceive of this, and for having the persistence to see it through. Texpatriate and Hair Balls have more.

So you want to see Bigfoot?

He’s coming to your town, Houston and San Antonio. Or at least, whatever the huckster Rick Dyer is trying to pass off as a Bigfoot carcass is coming to your town.

Steve Austin knows the truth

Dyer, 36, says he killed an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot in San Antonio in 2012 with a 30-06 rifle after he lured “the beast” near his tent with a set of Wal-Mart ribs he rubbed with a secret ingredient.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true,” said Dyer, who is coming back to the Alamo City and Houston in February to showcase his catch.

He tows the corpse behind a 40-foot coach in a trailer across the country to show folks just how real Bigfoot is.

“A lot of times they don’t believe it,” he said. “You can show someone something that is real, but they won’t, or can’t, believe it because they think it doesn’t exist.”

Dyer killed the mysterious creature in a wooded area near Texas 151 and Loop 1604, he said Sept. 6, 2012.

After getting “leads” from homeless locals, Dyer set up a tent in the woods and booby trapped trees around his tent with ribs he purchased from Wal-Mart, who in fact does have the best ribs for Bigfoot-huntin’, as well as the best return policy.

“I woke up to the sound of bones crushing,” Dyer said. “I knew it was a Bigfoot eating the ribs I hung, so I grabbed my cell phone and filmed it.”

Snopes helpfully reminds us that Dyer made a similar claim in 2008, and his “Bigfoot” turned out to be a rubber ape costume. But don’t worry, even though he won’t give any tissue samples for testing Dyer assures us that some university he can’t name because of “nondisclosure” is doing some testing for him, so we can totally trust him this time.

OK, we all know this guy is a carny barker, and he’s doing this to scam a few bucks off of the gullible. I’m sure he’ll succeed at that. What’s more, I’m feeling strongly tempted to see his “carcass” for myself, so I can get a good laugh out of it. I’ll probably hate myself afterward, but I’m still feeling the pull. Someone please talk me out of this.

To their credit, Texas wildlife officials have the right idea here.

“We don’t acknowledge that one exists, but if you wanted to shoot and kill a Bigfoot in the state of Texas you would just need a hunting license,” Major Larry Young, game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife, joked Tuesday.

Young said that although it’s legal, he doesn’t exactly think it is moral.

“It’s kind of like shooting a person,” he said.

“We can’t prohibit anyone from hunting fictional characters, including Sasquatch, Chupacabra and other urban myths,” said Steve Lightfoot with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

And just in case this story isn’t weird enough for you:

The folks at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals don’t think that Bigfoot is real, but do feel strongly about those that would shoot something exotic for sport.

“The bottom line is, when someone sees a rare, exotic animal their first instinct shouldn’t be to shoot and kill it,” said PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt. “Just because you see something pretty, that doesn’t mean it should be mounted on your wall.”

If anything the hunting and killing of a fictional animal teaches a lesson about hunting culture in general. According to Rajt, the popularity of hunting for sport is in decline, and has been since the late 1970s.

“Wildlife watching is gaining popularity over hunting,” she said.

“As an organization we do oppose hunting of any kind. It’s cruel and unnecessary and can damage populations and ecosystems,” Rajt said.

Yeah, we wouldn’t want to have to put Bigfoot on the endangered species list, right? I got nothing.

The feral hogs of Kingwood

They’re everywhere.

Kingwood communities that are battling feral hogs could be in it for the long haul, experts say.

The huge, fearless cousins of domestic pigs have been roaming through the affluent northern suburb for at least a month, said Keith Crenshaw, urban biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

He’s talked on the phone with residents looking for solutions and has driven by their homes, seeing rooted-up lawns left by the foraging creatures.

Texas has the highest concentration of wild feral hogs in the United States, and in Kingwood, the community with the worst problem is Royal Shores, the area closest to Lake Houston, Crenshaw said.

Feral hogs are highly adaptable and suburban survival isn’t too hard for them, he said.

“If you put a sprinkler system in your front yard and run it regularly, you are creating a hog habitat,” Crenshaw said. “They want to eat grubs and bugs and all the stuff right below the soil surface.”

Hogs on the hunt know what’s there because they can smell it, he said.

“They will root it up and eat everything,” he said. “They have now demolished what a lot of people spend good money on to have a nice-looking yard.”

Boy, if that’s not a good argument for xeriscaping, I don’t know what is.

Trapping the hogs in a box or corral is the most straightforward way to address the problem, Crenshaw said.

It’s up to home owners, or groups, to hire a trapper and then figure out what to do with the hog after it’s caught, he said.

It can’t simply be released on someone else’s land or public land because it could have a disease that can be transmitted to domestic pigs, he said.

The only meat packer in the area that’s certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to process feral hogs is in Porter.

“You have to take it to them live and they have to run tests to make sure it doesn’t have wildlife diseases,” he said. “If they take it, they’re agreeing to have an animal on site for a month.”

That’s the Steve Radack solution to the problem. Not a bad idea, if the logistics can be worked out. As for me, I’m just glad I live in one of the few parts of the state these beasts haven’t taken over. Surrounding yourself with highways seems to be the only effective deterrent against them.

Educating people about invasive species

Worth a shot.

Zebra mussel

Every two months, Christopher Churchill, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, scuba dives in Ray Roberts Lake, northwest of Dallas, to monitor the growth rates of zebra mussels, which have wreaked havoc on several Texas lakes and rivers.

“A year ago, it was hard to find just one zebra mussel,” Churchill said. “They’re everywhere now.”

Churchill’s assignment follows the 2009 discovery of the non-native zebra mussels in North Texas’ Lake Texoma. That year, the area lost 28 percent of its water supply when local water officials halted pumping water from the lake for fear of spreading the mussels through a pipeline that pumped water to a second reservoir, which is connected to a water treatment facility.

Officials embarked on a $300 million project to build infrastructure that would pump the water from the infested reservoir directly to the treatment facility, eliminating the possibility of infecting the second reservoir.

One way zebra mussels are introduced to new waterways is via boats that are not cleaned properly. Legislation passed this spring aims to increase awareness among Texas boaters about how to prevent the spread of the mussels and other invasive species.

To be certified to use their boats in Texas, individuals must take a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boating education course. The department certifies about 12,000 individuals a year. The new legislation adds test questions on preventing the spread of invasive species to existing courses.

“If we can educate boaters, fisherman and those out with water craft then they can be our real front line defense against the spread and introduction of invasive species into new water bodies,” said Ross Melinchuk, deputy executive director of natural resources for the department. In addition to the courses, officials hope signs along lakes and reminders painted on boat docks will help decrease the spread of invasive species through boats.

I think the legislation in question is HB1241, but I can’t swear to it. Eradicating invasive species like the zebra mussel, or just holding them in check, will mostly involve ways to kill them or prevent them from breeding effectively. How to do that is a very difficult question, since you don’t want to introduce new and potentially worse problems into the ecosystem. Steps like this are fairly small-bore, but they can’t hurt and they are necessary to help keep the problem from getting any worse than it already is. I wish the TPWD good luck with this effort.

The hogs keep winning

Same old story.

More than two decades into Texas’ ever escalating war against feral hogs, the wild swine continue gaining ground while Texas and the state’s native wildlife, plants and ecosystems lose it.

Despite taking millions of casualties – an estimated 750,000-plus feral hogs have been killed each of the past few years in Texas – the non-native pigs have continued their economically and environmentally destructive march across the state, with an estimated 2.6 million of them spread across at least 240 of Texas’ 254 counties.

“It’s just getting worse and worse; no matter what we’ve tried, the hogs just overwhelm us,” said Stuart Marcus, manger of the 25,000-acre Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. “They certainly are having a negative impact on native wildlife and habitat – directly and indirectly.”

Texas holds, by some estimates, as many as 10 times the number of feral hogs it did barely three decades ago.

[…]

A research project by Rice and Texas A&M universities conducted in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas used fenced and unfenced plots of land to gauge impacts of feral hogs. The plots used by hogs saw plant diversity reduced, fewer forbs, fewer large-seed (mast producing) trees, loss of leaf-litter ground cover resulting in a reduction in the abundance of invertebrates and small vertebrates, and changes in soil chemistry that changed plant communities.

The research also indicated plots disturbed by feral hogs grew twice as many Chinese tallow trees as the hog-free areas. Tallow trees are one of the most problematic non-native, invasive plants threatening Texas, as the tallows grow in dense monocultures, shade out native trees and grasses, are of almost no value to wildlife, and are almost impossible to control.

Stuart Marcus witnesses this on the Trinity River refuge.

“I call feral hogs ‘walking tallow trees,’ ” he said. “They are just as bad as tallow trees, and wherever they root up the ground, tallow trees seem to sprout by the hundreds.”

Feral hogs’ rooting behavior causes severe damage to environmentally sensitive and hugely important areas along waterways, particularly in central, south and western Texas where such waterways are limited.

“They definitely impact plant communities and really do serious damage to riparian areas, especially the western half of the state,” Frels said.

[…]

For the past three years, research at the Kerr wildlife area has focused on sodium nitrite, a toxicant that has been used to great effect against feral hogs in Australia.

Sodium nitrite kills by disrupting blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain. Pigs are highly susceptible to sodium nitrite because, unlike humans and other mammals, they lack the ability to produce an enzyme that reverses the effects. A feral hog ingesting a lethal dose of sodium nitrite quickly becomes lethargic, then unconscious. Death occurs within 90 minutes.

Research indicates the poisoned pigs pose little or no threat to scavengers or predators.

Developing bait/sodium nitrite mixtures that feral hogs will eat and that deliver a lethal dose of the substance and a “delivery system” – a feeder – that feral hogs can access but can’t be used by deer, raccoons and other non-target wildlife are the focus of research at the Kerr.

“It’s showing some promise,” Frels said of sodium nitrite’s potential as another tool to use against feral hogs. “But there’s still a long way to go before it could become an option.”

If it does, it could help turn the tide in the battle against feral hogs. In Australia, use of sodium nitrite has reduced feral hog populations in large areas by as much as 89 percent.

That would be a game-changer, and we could sure use it. I just hope the hogs don’t develop an immunity to it, at least not for a long time. Good luck getting it developed.

The parks that weren’t there

Very sad.

For 30 years, the state parks department has owned 1,700 acres of diverse wilderness about 45 minutes east of downtown Houston. It stretches from the highest hill on the Texas coastal plain down to a pristine, white sandy beach on the Trinity River.

Yet the public never has had access to this indigenous gem – Davis Hill State Park, named after Gen. James Davis, a Texas Revolutionary hero who once had a plantation home atop the 261-foot hill.

This park has sat idle without the state making a single plan for developing it since the land was acquired in 1983.

But it is not alone. It is the oldest of four state parks, covering nearly 48,000 acres, for which no money has been set aside for development. All remain closed to the public.

Records show Texas lawmakers have not put any money into Texas Parks and Wildlife’s budget for developing new parks for a decade. The park budget now under consideration for 2013-14 requests nothing for development of forgotten properties such as Davis Hill.

“It feels remiss for us to be letting potential parkland sit dormant because there’s no funding,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “But park administrators have been beaten back from the trough for so long that this year they didn’t even ask.”

Evelyn Merz, the Sierra Club’s statewide conservation chairwoman, said, “It’s a shame that we have all this parkland that nobody is able to appreciate.”

[…]

State officials estimate it would cost $200,000 to develop a master plan for Davis Hill, plus another $12 million to complete the infrastructure.

Merz, with the Sierra Club, said park administrators have not focused on park development but rather on obtaining enough money to keep the doors open to already operating parks. Preliminary budget proposals explored by lawmakers could force possible closure of as many as nine of them.

Just as a reminder, the TPWD’s budget is a teeny tiny fraction of the state’s revenue. The $200K to develop a master plan for Davis Hill doesn’t even amount to rounding error. The issue goes back a lot farther than the time period in which Republicans have been in control of the Lege, though of course back in 1983 people like Rick Perry were still Democrats. This is what starving the beast looks like.

No, we shouldn’t be closing any state parks

We shouldn’t be closing them in bad times, and we definitely shouldn’t be closing them in good times.

“We need to turn up the volume and let people know that our state parks are threatened,” said Ian Davis, director of the Keep Texas Parks Open campaign. “We’re in a time of budget surplus, and it seems backwards to be closing parks.”

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has predicted a 12.4 percent or $11.2 billion increase in general revenue funds for the 2014-15 biennium.

But the initial proposed park budget being considered by the Texas House and Senate now is $4.1 million short of the bare minimum necessary to keep the state’s 91 parks open, park officials say. The Legislative Budget Board, which develops budget and policy recommendations for the Legislature, last week estimated such a cut could close as many as nine parks but did not identify any particular ones.

Despite the potentially dire outlook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith remains optimistic: “This is only a beginning point of a long budget process that will take place over the next couple of months.”

After a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 6, the committee’s chairman, Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, asked parks and wildlife for a more detailed accounting of its needs.

“I’m not personally interested in seeing any state parks closed. But there’s some confusion on what we need to do to help,” he stated.

Beside being short on operation expenses, the proposed budget includes nothing for capital improvements for aging facilities.

While costs for everything from gas to weather-related damage have soared, the proposed 2014-15 park budget of $140.7 million is some $19 million less than what was appropriated for the department in the 2008-2009 biennium, records show.

Just to bring a little math here, $140.7 million is 0.14% of the total revenue estimate of $101.4 billion for this biennium. Restoring the TPWD budget to $159.7 million would be 0.16% of the total. In other words, it’s basically rounding error. Especially after all of the weather-related trauma some parks have suffered through, the better question to ask is how much do they need to get back to where they ought to be. One way to fix this problem, as Ian Davis wrote in an op-ed, is to stop the diversion of funds that were intended to be dedicated to parks into general revenue, which is one of the many accounting tricks used to make the budget look “balanced” in 2011. State Rep. Lyle Larson has filed HB 105 to end that diversion and fully fund Texas’ parks. If you care about this, that’s something you should support. Give a Like to Keep Texas Parks Open for more.

Here come the tax cut proposals

When the sunny revenue forecast came in, we immediately got one crappy tax cut idea, to eliminate the margins tax at a cost of $4.5 billion. The Texas Association of Business didn’t care for the idea, at least at first, but are now warming up to it, because this is what they do.

For Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, it’s a simple formula: Keep taxes low and the Texas economic engine keeps on chugging. Hammond says making permanent the business tax exemption for companies that bring in less than $1 million in gross receipts would fuel the economy, as would allowing those making more than that to exempt their first $1 million.

“Currently if you do $900,000 in receipts, you pay no tax,” Hammond said. “If you have $1.1 million in receipts you pay tax on the entire amount.”

With a million-dollar exemption, the latter company would pay taxes on just $100,000.

Hammond also wants to lower the franchise tax rate by a quarter of a percent. And lest consumers feel left out, the proposal includes a sales tax exemption for college textbooks.

[…]

Hammond’s proposals would cost the state more than $4 billion, money he says should be off limits to lawmakers, because spending it would put the state over a constitutional cap on state budget growth.

“Unless there’s a vote of two-thirds of both bodies to bust the constitutional cap, that money will either be sitting in the treasury forever maybe, or, as we believe, it should be returned to the taxpayers,” he said.

But Hammond’s numbers don’t exactly add up. The $4 billion would be off limits based on the current size of the 2012-13 budget. But lawmakers are expected to add about $7 billion to that budget in a supplemental appropriation early this spring. That would increase the cap for the new budget and erase that $4 billion overage.

Hammond calls his proposal a starting point and expects more tax cut ideas in coming weeks.

Well, the margins tax was born on fuzzy math, so it would be somehow poetic if its demise began with more fuzzy math. The Statesman has more:

Hammond said the rate cut proposed by TAB could be the the first step in phasing out the franchise tax.

Until the latest revenue forecasts, Hammond had said he doubted the state would have the revenue to phase out a franchise tax that has accounted for about 10 percent of all state tax revenue. But he said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs’ forecast for the next two years changed his mind.

“We needed to see how much money was available,” Hammond said. “There’s money to fund some or all of it.”

Dick Lavine with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income families, disagrees.

Lavine said state funding for education is $500 per student less than before the 2011 cuts. He also noted Texas’ needs for water and transportation infrastructure.

Although the Legislature is expected to be even more conservative this year than in 2011, Lavine said he’s begun talking to GOP lawmakers and they aren’t in lock step for tax cuts.

“Not all of them are enthusiastic about tax cuts because they realize the state has higher priorities,” Lavine said.

Priorities, remember those? You know, like water and transportation and Medicaid and weaning the budget off of accounting tricks and paying off all those bills the Lege deferred from 2011. Those things. Oh, yeah, and public education, which the Lege won’t address this session beyond maybe funding enrollment growth but which Lt. Gov. Dewhurst wants to set some money aside in anticipation of a court ruling that more must be spent. This is why if you think in terms of what Texas actually needs, we’re falling well short of what we should be spending. Even without that, it’s hard to see where the room for a multi-billion dollar extravagance like this comes from. You can pay for the things Texas needs, or you can throw a bunch of money down the tax cut drain. You can’t do both.

And as a reminder, it’s not just the big ticket items that are clamoring for their fair share of the pie, it’s the smaller line items, too.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would close seven state parks during the 2014-2015 biennium under preliminary budget proposals from the House and Senate, and at least one group is ready to fight to keep them open.

In discussions before the legislative session began, the parks and wildlife department requested that the Legislative Budget Board allocate an additional $18.9 million from the sporting goods sales tax to keep all parks operational. The preliminary House and Senate budgets, released Tuesday, call for only an additional $6.9 million over the next biennium from that tax.

Ian Davis, the directof of Keep Texas Parks Open, said parks improve Texans’ quality of life and stimulate local economies, especially in smaller counties. His organization will hold town hall meetings around the state and organize Texans online to advocate for additional funds so the department can keep all its parks open.

“We are trying to mobilize people across the state so they understand that it could be their park that closes,” Davis said.

Here’s their Facebook page if the idea of not spending less than 0.1% of the revenue we have to keep Texas’ parks open offends you. We have a choice to make. We really ought to try to make a good one.

Save those seeds

What would have been worse than the drought and the wildfires in Central Texas that wiped out millions of trees? Not having the wherewithal to properly reforest afterward. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but it was a closer call than you’d have thought.

Loblolly pine trees

The Texas A&M Forest Service was making plans to dump more than a half-ton of loblolly pine seeds into a landfill when the most destructive wildfire in state history began its deadly march through the Lost Pines in Bastrop County last year.

Now the seeds will be used in a massive, multiyear effort to restore the fabled forest, the westernmost stand of loblolly pines in the United States. The fire burned so hot that it claimed not only 50 square miles of pines but also their seeds, making it impossible for the trees to return without help.

To restore the Lost Pines, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and state forest service intend to plant more than 4 million trees on public and private land during the next five years. The Arbor Day Foundation is trying to raise $4 million, or $1 per tree, for the recovery effort.

The first seedlings, which come from the same genetic stock as the tall pines that carpeted the area before the fire, will arrive Tuesday at Bastrop State Park, about 35 miles east of Austin. Planting is scheduled to begin Saturday.

“If you are going to be successful in restoring the forest, you need the right seed source,” said Tom Byram, a geneticist with the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Here’s some background from the A&M Forest Service. Apparently, Byram had a large supply of such seeds sitting in a warehouse freezer for five years, where they sat while the forest service tried to find buyers for them. Loblollies aren’t in great demand because they grow slowly, and Byram was beginning to feel guilty about them taking up space. Good thing he didn’t act too quickly on that. See here for more on the Arbor Day Foundation, and go here if you want to make a donation or volunteer your time to help.

One form of federal funding Texas has not rejected

Funding for bike trails is still welcome in the state.

As you may know, under the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21, bicycle and pedestrian projects now have more competition for less money than was available under previous transportation laws. The new bill also gives state officials more latitude in designating funds, and– most importantly– in deciding whether some funds are distributed to alternative transportation at all.

BikeTexas is happy to report that Texas did not opt out of Recreational Trails funding!

While rumors suggested that Texas would opt out of the program as allowed by the new transportation bill, and many national groups urged grassroots action, BikeTexas engaged in weeks of diplomatic communication with TxDOT, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Governor’s office. We received word a few days before the deadline that Texas is keeping the Recreational Trails money provided in the new federal transportation bill.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know how they did it, but I can think of a few other issues I’d like them to lobby for. Well done.

From the fish fraud files

My name’s Friday. I’m a fish fraud cop.

Eyebeam, by Sam Hurt

Game wardens inspecting the takes of the “Nice Tails” team at the annual Ladies Kingfish tournament last month knew something was up when they saw a trout with a mottled belly and a flounder whose appearance since the team’s last inspection was fishy at best.

The unlikely “catches” to them were another example of a sort of open secret: that cheaters were among the competitors for the thousands of dollars in prizes awarded during one of South Padre Island’s biggest events.

This time, the wardens were armed with a new law that allowed them to press the state’s first-ever felony charges of fraud in a saltwater fishing tournament. Seven people, including their fishing guide, now face up 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine if convicted.

While the state’s Parks and Wildlife code already had a statute regarding freshwater competitions, it was not until last year that the Legislature added saltwater tournaments, which have become huge tourist draws for cities along the Texas coast.

In some tournaments, the total value of prizes tops $100,000, and local and corporate sponsors are eager to make their brands part of the mix. Competitors also can win boats with trailers and pickups.

“There’s a lot of money in fishing tournaments that is wagered, and it’s an incentive for people to cheat,” said Tony Reisinger, a marine biologist with Texas Sea Grant who has lent his scientist’s eye to fishing tournaments.

[…]

Violation of the law, a first-degree misdemeanor, becomes a third-degree felony when the tournament’s purse is more than $10,000.

I’ve blogged about the fish fraud law before. I don’t really have anything to add, I just like to stay on top of these things. Also, this was an excellent excuse to embed an Eyebeam comic, “Eyebeam” being my second-favorite surrealist strip to come out of the 80s; like the one ahead of it, both cartoonists got their start at the Daily Texan. So there you have it. Grits has more.

A dollar a tree

Replacing the trees lost in the Bastrop fires last summer is going to cost some money, but there’s now a foundation working on raising that money.

Flanked by containers bristling with pine tree seedlings, state and local officials on Tuesday announced a campaign to pay for an ambitious five-year plan to restore the Lost Pines after last year’s fires.

The Arbor Day Foundation has agreed to lead the fundraising effort and needs to raise about $4 million — or one dollar for every pine tree to be planted over the next five years.

The foundation said it has already received more than $600,000 in commitments from companies such as FedEx, Mary Kay and Nokia.

[…]

Nearly a year ago, the Labor Day fires burned more than 32,000 acres in Bastrop County and destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures, making it the most destructive fire in Texas history.

A hastily formed group of county, state and federal officials, dubbed the Lost Pines Recovery Team, immediately began working on a plan to restore the burned forest, but they hadn’t made much of a dent in raising the $17 million they had determined was needed for tree planting, erosion control, reseeding native grasses and clearing dead brush and other fuels.

The public-private partnership announced Tuesday puts the Arbor Day Foundation in charge of raising money, while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas A&M Forest Service will handle planning, volunteers, tree selection and planting. Texas A&M University has pledged to send students to help plant this winter, Chancellor John Sharp said.

Go here to learn more about the Arbor Day Foundation, and go here to make a donation or volunteer your time to this effort. I wish them the best of luck with this project. The Arbor Day Foundation blog has more.

More porkchopping, please

Apparently, shooting feral hogs from a helicopter isn’t as popular a pastime as you might think.

“Number one, the cost is kind of limiting,” said Steve Lightfoot, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, explaining that interest has “leveled out.”

A helicopter shooting trip can cost from $300 to $1,000 per hour, sometimes with a minimum number of hours required.

“It’s kind of expensive, so it’s not really a common thing to do,” said Jim Barnhill, a broker in the El Campo area who arranges helicopter feral hog hunts. “You’ve got to have a pretty thick pocketbook.”

[…]

Feral hogs are also learning to avoid the choppers, just as they might run from the sound of a four-wheeler used on land for traditional hunting, Lightfoot said.

“The hogs have gotten smart. They kind of recognized what those rotor sounds mean, and they’ve headed for heavy cover,” he said.

Also, Barnhill said, the hogs are nocturnal, limiting hunting by helicopter to only a couple of hours in the early morning.

Funnily enough, I don’t recall any of these points being made while the porkchopper bill was under consideration. The debate could largely be summed up as “Yeee-haw!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and every little bit helps when it comes to feral hogs, but clearly there’s more that will need to be done.

It’s what comes after the rain that’ll get you

All that rain we got was great and badly needed to finally kill off last year’s drought. But we know what comes next.

Culex skeeter, West Nile carrier

In the last three weeks, Harris County has confirmed three cases of this potentially deadly disease in humans. Meanwhile, officials are finding the virus in more and more birds, and infected mosquitoes are spreading quickly, despite preventive spraying. The number of Harris County ZIP codes where mosquitoes tested positive for West Nile skyrocketed from six in early June to 71 as of Tuesday.

While the number of cases of West Nile in humans is just average so far this year, Harris County’s mosquito control director Dr. Rudy Bueno is concerned by an unusual spike in bird deaths from the same virus. The birds had been strategically placed in storm sewers around the county.

“We’re finding more dead birds, in particular blue jays,” he said. “They’re the sentinels. Once they start to die, it’s a red flag. That means the virus activity is pretty high.”

Bird deaths recently were recorded in six Harris County ZIP codes: 77040, 77055, 77065, 77345, 77449 and 77493.

When this virus, which originated in the West Nile valley of Uganda, was introduced into this area about 10 years ago, it killed many birds that had not yet built up immunities. But since then, Bueno said, bird deaths have been declining.

“Yet this year, the numbers are increasing again,” Bueno said. West Nile initially infects birds, which then are bitten by mosquitoes that in turn infect humans.

You can go to http://hcphes.org/mc to see where mosquitoes with West Nile virus have been found. No matter how much the county sprays, remember that the varmints you see most likely came from your own back yard. Look around for any standing water and take whatever action you can to drain it. Every little bit helps.

There are also bigger concerns.

One resident recently encountered a 5-foot, 6-inch alligator in her garage, across from Woodland Park near White Oak Bayou.

Fred Ruiz, Harris County captain for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said the alligators have been spotted more frequently this year in residential neighborhoods because of the rain.

He said the Seabrook area – where a dog was killed by an alligator estimated at 12 feet in late June – has experienced a lot of gator activity.

“They end up in the craziest places,” Ruiz said.

“Especially when it rains, the bayou becomes like a highway for gators,” he said. “They will wander into garages, anywhere that is cool.”

Game wardens trapped the Heights gator last Wednesday and released it into its natural habitat.

One presumes that was someplace other than the Heights. Keep your eyes open, that’s all I’m saying.

Environmental drones

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! A drone!

One year into a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, [civil engineer Thom] Hardy and his crew of biologists, geographers and spatial analysts have used the drone to track bird habitat in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk on Texas rivers.

It has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River. The drone can track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control.

“If you need an image and take the pilot out of it, this is cheaper and quieter” and safer, he said.

Once launched, via a kind of bungee cord, the battery-powered plane can reach 60 miles per hour, though it typically flies at half that speed.

The drone generally flies at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters and has a range of roughly 10 miles. In each trip, the cameras can take up to 700 overlapping images, which the researchers upload to computers and inspect using spatial analysis software. After a whoosh on launch, the plane has a soft whinny, and silhouetted against the sky, it looks like a miniature version of a stealth fighter plane.

[…]

The Texas State drone program is one of several state or local agencies authorized to fly unmanned craft in Texas, according to a list the Federal Aviation Authority released in April in response to a suit from the Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station headquartered in College Station, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department also have had authorization to operate drones, according to the list.

Seems like a pretty reasonable use of the technology, and as the story notes it’s a lot cheaper for researchers like these than hiring a Cessna to do the same work. But if you think this is a conspiracy theory waiting to happen, you’re not wrong.

In April, U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-chairmen of the congressional bipartisan privacy caucus, told the FAA acting administrator that they were concerned about “potential privacy implications” involving drones.

Austin-based conservative talk show host Alex Jones has taken those anxieties and amplified them. In a YouTube video taken at the Steiner Ranch and posted in late May, Jones and members of the Steiner family take turns firing weapons at remote-controlled helicopters meant to stand in for the drones. The video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

See the recent kerfuffle about non-existent “EPA drones” in Nebraska for the way this will eventually play out. I’d post a link to the Jones video but I fear for my sanity even looking for it.

See you later, alligator

In some parts of town, it’s more like See you sooner or later, alligator.

Hopefully there are none of these lurking about

This time of year, the proprietor of Janik Alligators in El Campo spends much of his time trying to keep that scenario from happening.

In the last week and a half in Fort Bend County, he says, 21 alligators were removed from the Sienna Plantation subdivision alone. State game wardens are being swamped by calls from residents across the region who have come across the wandering scaly reptiles.

The vast majority of those calls do not involve an alligator that is being a nuisance, says Amos Cooper, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist in charge of the department’s alligator program. More often than not they come from suburbanites who have bought a tract home in prime alligator habitat and have never seen one before.

And despite the fact that human-alligator interactions are increasing, such encounters rarely end badly – slightly more than a dozen times in the last 25 years – and no alligator-related deaths have ever been recorded in the state.

A nuisance alligator is defined as one that is killing livestock or pets, or has become a threat to human health or safety.

While one can sympathize with the rancher or pet owner over the loss of their animals, an alligator that takes them is simply doing what comes naturally. They become a threat to human health or safety when they interact with humans.

“If an alligator is in these subdivisions where they see people around the clock seven days a week, they become accustomed to people,” Janik says. “They’re not scared of people no more.”

On the one hand, I feel the smugness typical of urban core dwellers. On the other hand, I remind myself that I live half a mile from a bayou, so you never know. I guess the moral of the story is that just because you think your dog is barking at nothing doesn’t mean it really is barking at nothing. And given how cesspool-like the Chron story comments usually are, I feel compelled to give props to the person who said “When life hands you gators, make Gatorade” in response to this one. Well played, sir or madam.

Tough times for Texas parks

Between the drought and the budget cuts, Texas parks are hurting.

Image source: TPWD

Dry weather and depleted lakes and rivers from the prolonged drought mean fewer folks are visiting parks or buying hunting and fishing licenses, the head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department told a legislative committee Tuesday.

If the drought persists, the department may have to temporarily shut down two of the state’s eight fish hatcheries. And some parks could close if the agency’s budget doesn’t improve, Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith warned.

“State parks are in a particularly dire situation,” Smith told the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.

Revenue from park visits last year dropped $1.2 million from about $39 million the previous year, he said. The decline has continued during the first three months of the new budget year with $928,000 in lower revenue – or down 8.4 percent. Revenue from fishing licenses dropped about 30 percent, or $1.1 million and hunting license revenue declined 5 percent, or $976,000.

The TPWD gets a percentage of the revenues from the sale of sporting goods as well. As the story notes, State Rep. Lyle Larson (R, San Antonio) introduced a bill last session, which he says he will introduce again next year, that would direct all of that revenue to TPWD. That’s all fine and dandy, but as long as revenues dedicated to the TPWD can be hijacked for budget “balancing” purposes, the effect will be limited.

The state still lacks adequate funding to maintain state parks and has virtually no money to buy new park land. Texas ranks last in the country in both state park land and per-person funding for state parks.

“It’s distressing that we are at the bottom of the list. We ought to do better,” former Texas land commissioner and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bob Armstrong told the committee.

I’m a city boy. I don’t do outdoorsy stuff. What’s happening to the parks doesn’t affect me except to the extent that it reflects badly on all of us. I agree with former Commissioner Armstrong, we should do better than that. If you want to do something about that right now, the TPWD needs $4.6 million just to keep from having to close stuff down. Go make a donation online or when you renew your car’s registration. And don’t be like me: Go visit a park, they need all the visitors’ fees they can collect. At least the Lege lets them have that.

State not appropriating red light camera funds to trauma centers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not in Houston any more it's not

Sandy Greyson drove away from an Arlington meeting eight years ago, and 2 tons of irony wiped her off the road.

A red-light runner struck her passenger side, pushing the Dallas City Council member’s car into a field. Greyson suffered a broken wrist and a head wound that required 19 stitches.

She was taken to an emergency room similar to the 128 trauma centers in Texas that are supposed to benefit from the state law that allowed red-light cameras.

The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

That would be the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, along with such exotica as hunting and fishing license fee funds and the sale of specialty license plates. It’s the oldest trick in the budget-writer’s playbook, because dedicated revenues count as general revenues for budget “balancing” purposes. If you don’t have enough general revenue, just stop appropriating dedicated revenues until everything evens out. You can then declare yourself fiscally responsible, and the only people who get screwed are the ones who thought those revenues that were supposed to be dedicated to them. Everyone else just gets hoodwinked. People like Mr. Polunsky, who conveniently overlook the fact that there is in fact a Door #3 from which to choose to deal with this situation, help to ensure that it persists. The only truly remarkable thing about this story is that it gets written so long after the session. This was as true at the time the budget was printed and posted as it is today, but for whatever the reason it doesn’t make the news until later on. While I seriously doubt it would change the outcome, stories like this should be written before the budget gets passed. At least then no one could say they didn’t know what was about to happen.

It’s (almost) 2012, and Bigfoot still does not exist

Which will not stop stories about Bigfoot and the fools who keep looking for him from being written.

The Finding Bigfoot crew has not visited Texas yet, but something is out there deep in the Big Thicket, say members of Texas groups dedicated to hunting the beast.

Ken Gerhard of the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization has never seen one, but he thinks technology will help solve the mystery.

“I have been immersed in Sasquatch research for a number of years, and I can tell you in my mind a mountain of evidence supports the existence of these creatures,” Gerhard said. When hunting season ends, he will return to the woods to look for tracks, hair and habitations and to listen for vocalizations at night.

There have been sightings along the Trinity River corridor, and a cast of a suspected Bigfoot track was made in Sam Houston National Forest, said Gerhard, a San Antonio cryptozoologist who co-wrote Monsters of Texas (CFZ, $16.99) with Nick Redfern.

Texas is in the top 10 states for Bigfoot sightings, Gerhard said, outranked only by Washington, California, Oregon, Ohio and Florida.

“Eventually someone is going to come up with some evidence, although it is very frustrating that we have not found a body yet,” he said. “And it is a very good argument against Bigfoot’s existence.”

Exactly, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which discounts the idea of Bigfoot running around the woods. Someone would have found some verifiable piece of evidence by now, TPWD biologists contend.

“The theory is that with as much traffic as there is in East Texas that sooner or later a Bigfoot would not stop, look and listen and make the mistake of walking out into traffic and become the victim of a hit-and-run,” Cox said. Or a hunter would mistakenly shoot one.

I’ve written about Bigfoot several times. In that last link there’s a guy claiming there are as many as 7,000 of the beasties tramping about across the country, apparently in complete isolation from the human population. I’m going to save myself some typing and just quote myself from one of my earlier posts:

You don’t have to catch an actual Bigfoot to make me believe. Just find a body. Or a bone. Or hell, a DNA sample. All over North America, there’s evidence of animals that lived thousands and millions of years ago, and you expect me to believe we can’t find one Bigfoot skeleton? Please.

It’s interesting. With the relentless expansion of human development into the traditional habitat of various animals, we see story after story of unfortunate encounters between people and alligators, people and bears, people and mountain lions, all taking place in what was once the exclusive domain of those animals. Where are the stories of human encroachment on Bigfoot territory? Why has no one been forced to kill a Bigfoot to defend family, property, or self? Is their domain so wild and so remote that no exurban real estate speculator has ever set sight on it? Or is there perhaps a more prosaic explanation?

I said that five and a half years ago, and I don’t think I can say it any better today. I will note, however, that this story points out one more aspect of Bigfoot-hunting that I hadn’t previously considered:

[Vaughn M. Bryant, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University]’s specialty is paleo nutrition and the study of coprolites, or fossilized feces.

“Quite frankly, I have tried to get out of the Bigfoot-poop business because it is very time consuming and didn’t really lead anywhere productive,” Bryant said. At A&M he is studying excrement found in the Paisley Caves of Oregon that is 12,000 years or older.

If you can’t even find Bigfoot poop, what does that tell you?

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

[…]

Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Piranha!

You never know what you might find in Texas’ lakes.

When a pre-teen girl dunked a hook baited with a piece of hot dog into the 23-acre lake in Tom Bass Park on Aug. 27 and pulled out a flapping, snapping, hand-size fish, she unexpectedly uncovered evidence of a crime and underscored what fisheries managers and natural resource law enforcement see as an increasing threat to Texas waters.

The fish she caught from the popular Harris County park wedged at the intersection of Texas 288 and Beltway 8 was perch-shaped, but with a blunt head and a mouth rimmed with razor-sharp, pointed, wedge-shaped teeth. Adults with the girl knew they had a fish that needed investigation.

The fish ended up in the hands of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries staff who made an identification confirmed and verified by outside experts.

It was a piranha – specifically, a red-bellied piranha.

It was not a pacu, the mostly vegetarian relative and fellow South American native of the carnivorous piranha. Almost invariably, “piranhas” caught from waterways in the United States are misidentified pacu.

But not this fish. It was the real thing – Pygocentrus nattereri, a native of the Amazon basin and the stuff of legends built around piranhas’ aggressive carnivore behavior and a set of teeth that can easily and efficiently rip apart its victims.

The rest of the story recounts once again the problem with invasive species in Texas. There’s a lot of damage done to Texas’ ecosystem by ignorant and careless people who think that dumping a no-longer-wanted fish down the sewer or at the park. There are penalties for doing so, but good luck catching someone at it. For all the good that it will do for me to say this, if you own an exotic pet and need to dispose of it, please contact a pet store or the zoo or your local animal control department for help. Don’t just dump it somewhere.