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Saving the Snowbell

Rancher leads efforts to restore the endangered bell-shaped flower.

By Melissa Gaskill

When the Texas snowbell (Styrax platanifolius texanus) went on the endangered species list in 1984, biologists counted only 39 plants in seven scattered populations, all but two on private land. Twenty years later, combined survey efforts by TPWD, The Nature Conservancy of Texas and private landowners have brought the number of wild plants to over 500. Now an additional 600 of these small understory trees with signature white, bell-shaped flowers have been reintroduced in about 20 sites, thanks almost entirely to one man.

While transforming his Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve outside Johnson City from rocky scrub into acres of knee-deep grass and newly flowing springs, J. David Bamberger fell in love with the snowbell and decided it should be saved. Since some Texas ranchers are inclined to view the Endangered Species Act as a backhanded way to introduce government control on their land, he had to personally convince some owners to allow collection of snowbell seeds. After successfully propagating those seeds, Bamberger talked those owners into letting him return plants to their property. He spent hours of his own time and thousands of his own dollars, aided by volunteers and grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife Landowner Incentive Program.

TPWD botanist Jackie Poole has worked with the snowbell for decades and blames its endangered status on feral goats, locally over-abundant white-tailed deer and a thriving introduced exotic population, all of which apparently find the plant tasty. So Bamberger surrounds each new plant with a sturdy corral. Fencing materials and plants must be carried long distances over the remote and difficult terrain of the Nueces and Devils River watersheds, the snowbell's historic range. In 2003, the first year propagated trees were planted, survival rate was an impressive 71 percent; by 2006 it was 88 percent.

When the project's original goal of 500 plants was met one year ahead of schedule, in December 2006, Bamberger set a goal of 150 more plants by the end of 2007, says Steven Fulton, biologist for the ranch preserve. However, a draft snowbell recovery plan Poole wrote for the USFWS calls for 10 locations containing five or more populations, at least one numbering 1,000 plants – a bare minimum of 10,000 snowbells, based on the plant's life history and the threats to its survival. In that context, 650 trees are a drop in the bucket, Bamberger readily admits. But the project is establishing protected centers where the plants can grow, and landowners are becoming increasingly recreation- and conservation-oriented, an environment that gives the plant a better chance.

The project also has shown that it's possible to have snowbells and still use land for income-producing endeavors. That's critical, Bamberger says, as private landowners may be the only hope for many endangered species.

"I don't think conservation and preservation will ever be done by the government," he says. "Government can lead, but private landowners have to do it. My idea is to use incentives rather than regulation and legislation. Say that if you'll develop X number of snowbells, there's a reward."

Bamberger is living proof that one person can make a difference, says Colleen Gardner, assistant executive director of the ranch. "The greatest threat to conservation, to any social change, is apathy. People say, 'I'm just one person and can't make a difference.' Now people can say, 'I can do something.'"

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