Where the Wild Ducks Abound
Wetland partners combine efforts in 30-year project to benefit waterfowl.
“I just wanted a good place to duck hunt, but what this has become for me is my field of dreams,” rice farmer and duck hunter Marion Woolie says as he surveys the beauty of his Colorado County property. “You know the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, the ducks come every fall.”
Woolie is one of more than 550 landowners who have participated in the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project over the past three decades. He was interviewed in a 2019 video when the project was selected as a Conservation Wrangler by the nonprofit group Texan by Nature.
“Waterfowl and rice go together so I figured I better learn this stuff pretty quick,” Woolie says about joining the project and the work that ensued. “If I had just stayed the course, there wouldn’t be any rice farming here. Now we harvest about 5.5 to 6 million pounds of rice a year, and at the same time we’re producing the best waterfowl habitat we can.”
Answering the drought
In 1988-89, North America observed its worst drought since Tom Joad and his family moved west to California from Oklahoma in The Grapes of Wrath. The Canadian prairies suffered their worst drought in recorded history.
Not only did the Dust Bowl-worthy drought impact a large portion of America’s breadbasket and the families earning a living off this land, millions of migratory birds were also affected as they returned to their breeding grounds from overwintering in the southern United States and Mexico.
Scientists began understanding that good habitat conditions on the wintering grounds improved the success of birds on the breeding grounds. Simply put, birds arriving in better condition (i.e., more fat) had a better chance of breeding success than birds in poorer body condition (i.e., less fat). Makes sense.
The Texas Gulf Coast has been a historic staging and wintering location for waterfowl, shorebirds and many other waterbirds — it’s critical to the birds of the Central Flyway. As most birders are aware, our coast remains one of the hemisphere’s most important bottlenecks for migratory birds —
both for waterfowl wintering in Texas and for the millions of birds traveling south for the winter and back north
For a long time, these birds depended on the state’s expansive rice agricultural region as surrogates for wetlands.
“The birds fell in heaps — ducks and geese, cranes and swans, shorebirds of all sizes,” the late Steve Lightfoot wrote in this magazine about the state of waterfowl hunting along the coast in the early 20th century. Those conditions have changed dramatically.
In the early 1990s, the area supported nearly 340,000 acres of rice, but that figure had declined since the early 1980s, when approximately 500,000 acres were planted. (From 1997 to 2017, Texas lost nearly 70 percent of its rice farms; only about 270 remain. During the three decades of the prairie wetlands project, Texas’ rice-growing acreage decreased from 340,000 to 195,000 acres.)
No longer was there enough rice growing to adequately support waterfowl. Texas needed dedicated wetlands along the coast (besides existing ones on wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges) to be flooded for significant parts of the wintering period. These tracts would provide high-quality nutrients and resting areas for the multitude of wetland-dependent wildlife wintering on and migrating through this critical landscape.
Luckily, the right people were in the right location at the right time. David Lobpries, a Wharton-based regional waterfowl specialist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), and David Curtis, a Victoria-based biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), began discussing the potential of a habitat program to develop high-quality wetlands on private lands across the Texas coast.
At the time, this region wintered more than a million snow geese, more than 100,000 white-fronted geese, tens of thousands of small Canada geese and 1.25 million ducks.
Kicking it off
Starting in 1991 (under the guidance of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture), TPWD, USFWS, Ducks Unlimited and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered to create the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (TPWP). The agencies work with private landowners to restore, enhance and create shallow-water wetlands through 28 counties along the Texas coast.
“It took a while to get the program off the ground,” Lobpries says. “There was a lot of coffee shop talk and neighbors looking over the fence. Once they saw some success, they wanted a Texas Prairie Wetlands Project, too.”
The first TPWP project was located west of Garwood.
“When it was completed, a ceremony was held,” Lobpries says. “From there, it took off!”
After 30 years, the TPWP has dedicated, full-time biologists — Ducks Unlimited's Taylor Abshier and Chad Stinson from USFWS — to coordinate this critically important wetland work. TPWP provides cost-share assistance to private landowners for levee construction, the purchase and installation of water control structures and other infrastructure developments. Landowners also pay for a portion of the wetland restoration on their lands — they are committed stewards.
How does the program work?
Biologists develop detailed management plans to optimize habitat quality and maximize the overall wildlife benefits. These plans instruct landowners on how to properly manage emergent wetlands, moist soil impoundments, flooded agricultural fields and other wetland habitats on their property to benefit waterfowl and other migratory birds. In addition to providing biological expertise, the partners also provide professional surveying, engineering and construction management services to help ensure quality control and long-term structural integrity of these projects.
Each participating landowner makes a commitment to the TPWP initiative for a 10- to 25-year period. The multitude of partners in this initiative ensures its success. By collaborating through TPWP, each partner’s individual goals are met faster than if each entity worked alone.
The participating landowners agree to seasonally flood these landscapes for a minimum of four months between September and the end of April.
Wetland habitat is critical for these birds as they return to the breeding grounds between February and April.
In addition, these sites can be managed and flooded through late summer to provide nesting and brood-rearing habitat for mottled ducks, fulvus and black-bellied whistling ducks and other wetland-dependent wildlife.
With hundreds of landowners involved and nearly 90,000 acres enrolled, this flagship program shows no sign of slowing down. Funding comes from TPWD (through the sale of Migratory Game Bird Stamps), North American Wetland Conservation Act, the Dr. Edward D. and Sally M. Futch Charitable Foundation, the Trull Foundation, USFWS Partners Program, Ducks Unlimited, NRCS and Conoco Phillips. Texans can be assured that a flight of pintails or a western sandpiper will be able to stop to feed and gain valuable resources on our coast for their trip to the breeding grounds.
“Partnering with Ducks Unlimited, USFWS and NRCS has helped us achieve more than any one group could have done independently,” says Jeff Raasch, partnership coordinator for TPWD. “Together, we help deliver the habitat objectives set forth by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, with the primary goal of providing habitat for wintering waterfowl that would improve survival rates and body conditions before spring migration.”
TPWP projects focus on harvested croplands, moist soil areas, emergent wetlands and other created wetlands to increase biodiversity for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species.
While a single tract is only a drop in the bucket of the wetlands needed, multiplying that tract by hundreds of landowners over 30 years can make a big impact. Duck hunters, waiting silently at dawn for a flyover, can best experience the benefits.
“If you measure the success of a hunt by your duck strap, you’re missing the whole point,” Woolie says. “Whether you fire a shot or not, it’s been a peaceful morning. All kinds of wildlife shows up — it’s just breathtaking. It’s spiritual to a lot of people, me included.”
It’s even more special when you know your actions are helping species survive and thrive, to be enjoyed by all, especially here in Texas.
“I’m the steward of this land,” Woolie says. “Hopefully I’ll leave it better than the way I found it.”
For information: www.ducks.org/tpwp.
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