From the Pen of Carter Smith
Green jays in Cotulla. Black-bellied whistling ducks in Smiley. White-winged doves in Round Rock. Red mangrove near Port Aransas. Eurasian collared-doves in Electra. Zebra mussels in Lake Texoma. Giant salvinia in Caddo Lake.
Today, those observations wouldn’t warrant much more than a perfunctory glance or passing comment, much less space in this magazine. But the first time I saw those species in the aforementioned locales, you can be assured it was a big deal. At least it was to me and others like me, outdoor types who paid attention to the birds and the plants and the game and such — where they were supposed to be and, just as importantly, where they weren’t.
As you might imagine, some of those sightings were a whole lot more welcome than others. A cluster of white-winged doves flying over me as a kid on a farm just north of Round Rock fit that bill. So, too, did a magnificently colored green jay perched on a big willow limb hanging over a La Salle County stock tank. A big floating mat of giant salvinia swamping the surface of one of my favorite water bodies, Caddo Lake? Not so much.
If we have learned anything about nature over the years, it is that nature is by no means static. Changes across the landscape in habitat type, species occurrence and composition, population abundance and geographic distribution are inevitable, made even more so by the pressures of evolving land uses, habitat alterations, water usage, human population growth, incursion of invasive and exotic species, changing climates, predator/prey dynamics and a whole lot more.
To best understand how these changes affect the lands and waters we call home (as well as the fish and wildlife species that reside here), one needs a good benchmark, a beginning point in time, if you will. Selecting any particular time frame is admittedly fraught with subjectivity and sometimes subject to the befuddlement of a geologist or two, who tend to think in thousand- and million-year time spans, not mere decades or even centuries.
Geologic-centered perspectives aside, one of the best treatises on the matter came from David Schmidly in his book, Texas Natural History: A Century of Change. Schmidly, a highly regarded biologist and former president of Texas Tech University, set about documenting how Texas’ mammalian composition had changed over the course of the 20th century. His point of comparison was the extensive biological survey that a band of field biologists led by Vernon Bailey conducted across the state and published in 1905.
What Schmidly documented was fascinating. The changes over the course of a mere century were dramatic, particularly for large mammals like bison, wolves, jaguars, pronghorn and bears. But there were significant range contractions and expansions for small and mid-size native mammals as well. Armadillos and porcupines expanded their ranges considerably; black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs did not. Muskrats appeared to shift their range away from inland areas to the coast, while new species of bats made their way into Texas for the first time and sizable herds of exotic game became naturalized on ranches across the state.
In this issue, my colleagues Russell Roe and Cullen Hanks tackle the same subject of ecological change, addressing distributional changes in species from white-winged doves to Rio Grande chirping frogs. A major tenet of their thesis is that things change over time, providing both opportunities and challenges for biologists who must wrestle with such things, including what constitutes desirable change and what doesn’t. And to whom, and when does it matter.
From arresting the declines of lesser prairie-chickens and pronghorn antelope to recovering Guadalupe bass in Hill Country streams to fighting the spread of invasive species such as Chinese tallow, zebra mussels and hydrilla, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s fish and wildlife biologists have a formidable task keeping Texas wild. Their jobs are literally as big as Texas, working each and every day to ensure that we have healthy habitats across the state’s rangelands, forests, watersheds and water bodies. Be assured, they carry it out with great passion and purpose each and every day.
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.