Piece by Piece
Landowners form neighborhood associations to help wildlife and improve habitat.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
—Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Every decade, Texas loses nearly a million acres of rural land. As the state continues to grow, welcoming roughly 1,000 new people each day, its cities and towns must expand. Farmers and ranchers sell their properties for subdivisions. Shopping centers, roads and parking lots gobble up what was once welcoming wildlife habitat.
Courtesy Joyce Moore | TPWD
“We’re losing habitats as they are divided up in property ownership change,” says Columbus-based biologist Mark Lange. “As each generation passes away, the property gets divided into smaller and smaller pieces. That’s not a trend that is unique to Colorado County.”
Lange and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department colleagues have taken steps to combat the threat to native species and habitats, working with landowners through cooperative wildlife management associations, or WMAs (not to be confused with TPWD-managed wildlife management areas).
These landowner-driven programs aren’t new. They trace back to 1955, when a group in the Three Corners region, where Bee, Goliad and Karnes counties connect, filed articles of formation embracing many practices still recommended today — focused on conservation, management and enhancement of wildlife habitat on private lands.
TPWD introduced an advisory-only Private Lands and Habitat Program in 1972. The following year, agency biologists helped landowners form the first modern-day WMA, the Peach Creek Wildlife Management Co-op, to improve the quality of its white-tailed deer population.
Today, more than 150 independent associations address deer management and other wildlife and conservation issues (co-ops and associations are interchangeable terms). Beyond its regulatory functions, TPWD offers support that includes data collection, research and education in eight wildlife districts.
“We have gained a good deal of experience from fine-tuning this process over decades,” Lange says. “There will come a day when the bigger land holdings in West Texas, the Panhandle and the Rolling Plains start falling subject to the same thing. What may seem like ‘oddball co-ops’ to those property owners now may just be the leading edge of future habitat management.”
Courtesy Joyce Moore | TPWD
Growing bigger deer
La Grange-based David Forrester has witnessed the co-op program’s evolution during his 20 years with TPWD. Most co-ops in his 31-county Oak Prairie District formed during the late 1990s, after the launch of the agency’s Managed Lands Deer Program.
Deer harvest is an important aspect of habitat management and conservation. A Managed Lands Deer permit allows participating landowners the most flexible deer bag limits and seasons possible.
Back in the ’90s, biologists were trying to figure out how to write deer management programs for 50- or 100-acre tracts of land.
“The idea evolved to pool these properties and develop an area management plan,” Forrester says.
Spotlight lines placed throughout the co-op area tally a density estimate. Landowner members collect herd composition data and a count of their properties’ does, bucks and fawns. After analyzing these figures, a biologist meets with the members to share harvest recommendations and tailor permit specifications.
It’s all dependent on landowners believing in the process and following the hunting plans, however.
“As wildlife biologists, people management is a main part of our job,” Forrester says of the crucial connection between the volunteers and the agency.
Courtesy Joyce Moore | TPWD
Six Oak Prairie District counties started a trial program during the 2002 hunting season to test proposed whitetail hunting restrictions that protect bucks until their antler spreads reach 13 inches.
“Prior to the antler restriction program, 80 percent of the annual harvest were 1½- to 2-year-old bucks,” Forrester says. “Landowners and hunters expressed concern that few bucks were reaching maturity. We developed the current plan to help get some age on the population.”
Three years later, TPWD shared the positive results of the test in statewide public meetings. White-tailed deer antler restrictions have now been put in place in 117 counties.
TPWD biologists such as Lange, who works with six Colorado County co-ops, use the groups’ fall and spring meetings not only to relay deer herd population information but also to share broader information and best-practice strategies.
Those management lessons can range beyond deer.
Courtesy Mark lange
Helping Houston toads
Tiny McDade is an unincorporated community in northern Bastrop County.
Alum Creek WMA president Roxanne Hernandez sits on the screened back patio of her home here, at the end of a crushed stone drive, past a sign that says Ranch El ZunZun. A healthy breeze stirs the surrounding loblolly pines and fills the air with the soothing sound of wind chimes. Hernandez bought 53 acres here in 2004. She and her husband, Elvis, are active in efforts to protect the Houston toad.
Scientists estimate that a few thousand Houston toads remain in the wild, mostly in Bastrop County. The endangered amphibians, about 2 to 3.5 inches long, require loose, deep sands with pine forest or mixed oak savanna.
Hernandez was the first administrator of the Bastrop County Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan. One of the plan’s requirements was the formation of a WMA focused on protecting Houston toad habitat. Hernandez became an Alum Creek founding member in 2008, helping write the initial bylaws, recruit officers and set up the first meeting. Its first president served successfully for 10 years. Hernandez, elected to succeed him, is in her second two-year term.
Alum Creek initiated a Neighbors Helping Neighbors program that fosters common-goal friendships.
“Although we’ve taken a year off because of COVID, pre-pandemic it was a subset of interested landowners who met once a month at rotating properties to help with any activity that involves habitat management,” she says. “Typically for us, that’s yaupon tree removal but can involve erosion work after fires or flooding, prescribed fires and tree planting.”
The WMA, geared toward nongame and general habitat issues, includes 150 properties ranging from five acres to 500.
Hill Country District leader Mike Miller, based in Kerrville, worked as a biologist for five Cross Timbers District associations before transferring to his present role.
The Hill Country District has very diverse groups participating, from multiple-generation landowners to those “reborn to the land, a generation or two removed from property ownership but who have some memory of it in their families’ history,” he says.
Fourteen biologists serve the district, some working with four or five associations. Having everyone in the same room, breaking bread together while learning, is the “glue” that keeps these groups together in the Hill Country, he says.
Harper-based Joyce Moore, a 38-year TPWD biologist, moved from South Texas to Gillespie County in 2004. Although her work area stretches over the western half of the Edwards Plateau, much of her time is spent compiling deer harvest recommendations for four WMAs (Cave Creek, Harper, Cherry Spring and Doss) in her home county. These groups, started by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, account for 310 landowners.
“Some land holdings in this area involve several thousand acres, others several hundred,” Moore says. “The landowners have joined forces to manage on a landscape scale to achieve a common goal.”
An annual youth hunter program every January plays a big role in the local game management strategy. Huntmasters serve as guides on member properties for the participants, ages 9 to 17.
Moore provides the educational programming for those much-anticipated “nontrophy” hunt weekends.
“We want the kids to understand that they play a vital role in assisting the owners manage their surplus deer population by removing animals that paid hunters won’t harvest. It’s a win-win,” Moore says, noting that Gillespie County averages four acres per deer, a very high density. “The landowners benefit from fewer mouths on the range. The youth hunters receive education, a hunting experience and meat for the freezer.”
Former small country schoolhouses serve as staging grounds for the youth hunters, who come from across Texas. A parent must accompany each of the 50 to 60 participants.
“Add the 70 to 80 volunteers needed, and there are tents and RVs everywhere,” she says. “That can translate into feeding 300 people.”
Courtesy Joyce Moore | TPWD
Protecting rare birds
Chalk Mountain, a small, unincorporated community about 12 miles southwest of Glen Rose, is home to Chalk Mountain WMA.
A hawk soars high above County Road 2011 on a partly cloudy day. Just past a historic cemetery (350 graves; one dates to 1874), a roadrunner darts across the empty two-way road. Signs on property fences off the road advertise private bird hunting opportunities, while others attest to WMA membership. Two dogs at the end of a private drive raise their heads to study an oncoming car. To the west, land spreads out for miles in a sweeping vista.
Russ Miller (who owns two properties, 460 and 85 acres) is seven years into his second stint as association president. His first lasted eight years. The WMA, established in 1999 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2004, counts about 75 members in Somervell, Hood, Erath, Bosque and Hamilton counties. Property size ranges from one acre to 15,000.
Wildlife evaluation, mostly involving deer, was its original focus.
“Our meetings are mostly a social potluck dinner, a chance to get together and know our neighbors,” Miller says. “We always have a speaker, with topics from property taxes to pig control to deer management.”
When issues arise, relationships and channels of communication are already established, making it easier for neighbors to work through problems.
In 2008, a Stephenville landowner sought a permit application to begin mining 250 acres of a hillside amid the nesting place for two endangered-list birds, the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. Local WMA members formed a separate nonprofit entity to successfully fight the gravel-mining bid.
Courtesy Russ Miller
Assisting the community
Acting Cross Timbers District leader Dean Marquardt, based in Granbury, has worked the area since 2005. Currently, the district’s 13 biologists (which include Marquardt) work with 10-plus WMAs, mostly in three counties — Comanche, Hamilton and Mills.
“WMAs are about people,” he says. “Getting everyone on same page is so important. Keeping folks connected and engaged — working across fence lines for a common goal — is a big deal.”
Most of the Cross Timbers associations involve properties ranging from 50 acres to 1,000. Like many other WMAs across the state, public outreach is a component of their associations, such as hosting activities to supply scholarships for local students. There’s much to keep them busy, no matter the month.
“This time of year, we’re doing wildlife tax evaluation consultations and helping with native grassland restoration,” Marquardt says.
Two Kinds of WMAs:
What’s the Difference?
Oak Prairie leader Forrester maintains that communication is the most important of all the efforts that go into the association framework.
“You can’t beat meeting eyeball-to-eyeball with landowners kicking the dirt on their property,” he says. “But that’s problematic when you have co-ops with 800 to 1,000 members. Biologists really can’t make a thousand site visits a year, but they can relay important information to lot of those people during these co-op meetings.”
Looking forward, wildlife leaders hope that more and more associations form to patch together flourishing wildlife habitat, one private parcel at a time.
How to Start Your Own WMA
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