FAQ: Our Wildlife Management Project photo

What do you mean by wildlife?
We mean native wildlife (not introduced species) of all kinds, from invertebrates like insects and crayfish to the more obvious amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Don't you need more acreage to accomplish anything worthwhile?
No. A small acreage like ours can't sustain large-animal populations, but we can protect and support smaller ones. Our limiting factor is water, not space: there is no permanent source of water on the place.

What wildlife do you have?
See the bird and non-bird lists. These links change as we find and identify more species. Some of these (coyote, fox, bobcat, deer, turkey, great blue heron) are on our land only part of the time--they use other resources in the area as well.

So what do you do to "manage" these things?
We provide what they need in terms of food, water, and habitat--shelter for living and reproducing--and protect them from disturbance.

How do you do this?
It's simple in theory, and complicated in practice. We encourage the spread of native plants (which provide both food and shelter.) This includes removing grazing pressure, mowing timed to control invasive non-native species, hand-grubbing of invasive woody species in the grassland, and planting species which should be here but were extirpated earlier. We have built check-dams and gabions to control erosion and enable re-vegetation. This in turn has provided longer-lasting rainwater pools for wildlife. In addition, we've built "rain-barn" structures with storage tanks to store rainwater for a wildlife "guzzlers" that provides the only permanent water out on the land. Nearer the house, we have a complex water garden, also rainwater supplied, in which amphibians are breeding successfully. Seasonally, and year-round in dry years, we supply supplemental food to both migrating and breeding bird populations.

What habitat types do you have?
We have three basic habitat types: grassland, brush/dry woods, and riparian woods. Grassland has the most acreage, and we are doing prairie restoration on that. The brush--a mix of cactus and scrub--is on a raised rocky knoll. The riparian woods are along the seasonal creek and its tributary. The map shows where each is on the property. We're lucky to have this much variety in such a small acreage.

What's prairie restoration?
Prairie restoration is an attempt to re-create a native grassland--in our case a mix of tallgrass and midgrass prairie. Restoration ecology is a discipline in its own right, and recognizes that the original ecology can't be recreated in one human lifetime--but a functional semblance can. By replacing non-native pasture grasses and forbs with native grasses in the original flora and native forbs, the restored prairie can once again sustain prairie wildlife.

What good is brush?
Brush is a habitat type, and as such home to species which prefer it to others. The open structure, separated but dense cover, and often abundant food supplies make it desirable for many bird species as well as deer. Most of our winter-resident migrant birds stay in the brush; only a few species prefer the riparian woods.

What are the special challenges of wildlife management on a small property?
Small properties are more affected by management of neighboring properties than large ones are. For instance, roads and paved areas bordering a property will shed rainwater (usually very dirty water) onto the land. If there are a thousand acres to absorb this, it will be a minor problem, but the additional runoff on a small piece of land may require intense intervention to prevent damaging erosion. The same is true of chemical pollution in runoff (from farm chemicals, for instance.) Invasion of non-native plants proceeds from the margins, and again has more effect on small properties, especially those bordered by roads, yards, and farmland.

Rapid development in an area affects all adjoining properties, forcing wildlife onto smaller and smaller areas. Moreover, small properties tend to have more neighbors, and each of those neighbors can create havoc. Someone setting off fireworks in their backyard can start a grass or brush fire; someone dumping chemicals over the fence can poison plants or animals. Intentional mischief as well as accidental damage is not uncommon, from poachers sneaking in to hunt to people dumping a litter of unwanted kittens or arsonists setting fires.

Small properties cannot sustain the full ecological community of large ones, which means that humans must function as the missing parts. For instance, on very large properties, natural predators (mountain lions, wolves) can keep a deer herd in balance with its resources. Small properties can't sustain the prey population to keep a large predator (not to mention what the neighbors would say) and the large animals that these predators feed on quickly increase to the limit of the food supply. The manager must then regulate the population size to the habitat resources. Here in central Texas, white-tail deer readily outgrow the resources as their habitat is destroyed. Hunting is the usual management tool, but hunting on a small property requires great care in order not to risk injury or damage to neighboring properties, people, and livestock. Lesser population excesses (cottontail rabbits, raccoons, fox squirrels) are usually leveled out fairly quickly by the smaller predators still in the area or by disease.

Some common interventions on large properties may not be possible or desirable on small ones: fire, for instance, is a common tool of grassland managers, but if a small property is surrounded by residences, getting a controlled burn permit may be difficult to impossible. (Depends on the size and shape of the property.) Hunting (as mentioned before) is limited by the size of the property and the necessity to keep shots within the boundaries.

Species Richness: Diversity as a Measure of Management Success

An increase in diversity of both plant life and animal life is one measure of improving ecological status for the habitats available on this land, because it suggests a richer environment, approaching that of a healthy, natural ecosystem. Managing for diversity rebuilds food webs and provides a more robust support for wildlife of all types. In order to manage for diversity, and track progress, a baseline study is necessary. In this case, due to time constraints, census and identification of all wildlife classes was not possible in the baseline period. Moreover, interventions began at almost the same time as observations (with removal of invasive Ashe juniper from the main grassland in fall 2000) and continued throughout 2001 (removal of grazing pressure, construction of first gabions to control erosion, seeding of buffalo grass in some areas, mowing). Thus, although not much progress showed in vegetation by January 2002, the baseline data are not pure or complete, in terms of being pre-intervention and including all wildlife classes. Still, within each group, it is possible to compare later species counts to earlier ones.

Floristic Quality is another measure, but difficult to apply here because "conservative" species vary from region to region, and most of the published data are for prairies far north of here (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, a few from Konza Prairie in Kansas. Many of the conservative and invasive species listed in The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook do not even grow this far south and no FQ has been published for central Texas grasslands. For that reason, increased diversity of native grasses and forbs forms the basis for management here.

In later years, observations and identification of additional classes of wildlife (such as Odonates) allowed more detailed tracking of progress. Unfamiliar species (and many familiar ones) are photographed as an aid to identification, and when necessary images are sent to experts for assistance. Besides the references listed in the Reference Shelf file, we consult BugGuide.net, Odonata Central, Herps of Texas, and other online sites. Plant species are added to the file Plantlist. Animal species are added to the file Zoolist-minus-birds (for nonbirds) or AviSys (bird-tracking software.) Periodically, totals from these lists are transferred here, to determine diversity of plant life, animal life, and total species on the property.

Identified as of January 2002, the result of observation from August 2000 through January 2002 (prior to purchase and first year of ownership.) Though intervention started in fall/winter of 2000/2001, this should be a reasonable baseline even though not all seen were identified. Most grasses, woody plants, vines, and forbs were identified as were most birds and mammals. Changes in species number, distribution, and abundance became obvious in 2003, and has continued for almost every class of living thing.

Grass: 21 species (several more not identified) including major native prairie components
Woody plants: 33 species (a few not identified)
Vines: 8 species (2 grapes not identified to species level)
Forbs: 62 species (many not identified)
Plant total: 91
Mammals: 13 species
Birds: 65 species
Snakes: 6 species seen, 4 identified
Animal total: 84

Total: 175 sp.

Current as of December 1, 2008

Nonvascular: 40
Grass: 50 species
Sedges & Rushes: 5 species
Woody plants (trees/shrubs): 58
Vines: 19 species
Cactus: 7 species
Forbs: 149 species
Plant total: 330 species

Mammals: 20 species
Birds: 154 species
Reptiles: 28 species
Amphibians: 7 species
Fish: 6 species
Invertebrates: 271
Animal total: 486

Total: 816

Increase in diversity shows in taxa present and counted at baseline: woody plants, vines, grasses, forbs, and--in the animal group, birds, mammals, and snakes. For those taxa, the increases are substantial under current management. Plant species diversity has increased in all habitat types, but most in the grassland areas