Desert Evening at Big Bend, by Louis Vest
© Louis Vest (LandScope Texas Banner)

Conservation Overview

Texas is big and, geographically speaking, well positioned to contain a great diversity of plants, animals and ecological systems. To get from the sands of Padre Island abutting the Gulf of Mexico’s Laguna Madre (the largest hypersaline lagoon in the world), to sky island mountain ranges in West Texas that climb to over 8,000 feet, you’ll have to traverse five distinct ecoregions. Overall, Texas possesses all or portions of ten terrestrial ecoregions. The longleaf pine forests, so emblematic of the southeastern U.S., begin in East Texas and extend to Virginia. Grasslands, playa wetlands and vast horizons dominate the Southern Shortgrass Prairie of the Panhandle. The wooded crosstimbers in the northeast corner of the state link Texas to Oklahoma, while the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas stretches deep into Mexico and as far west as Arizona. To the south, the Gulf Coast plains give way to Tamaulipan thornscrub—harsh, brushy habitat spanning the Rio Grande.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

The natural heritage of Texas is very rich—the state ranks second only to California in terms of overall biological diversity. Texas ranks first in the number of bird species (620) and reptile species (149), and third in overall endemism. More than 4,500 vascular plant species have been documented in the state and 175 freshwater fish have been recorded from Texas rivers, streams, ciénegas and springs.

The Edwards Plateau, termed the “26th Hotspot” by E.O. Wilson, harbors the second-greatest level of plant and animal endemism in the state. The karst geology of the plateau contributes to species endemism and diversity, and contains some of the most significant bat caves in the world. For instance, the Bracken Bat Cave, just 20 miles north of San Antonio, is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the world. Approximately 40 million Mexican free-tailed bats live in the cave, making nightly emergences a true “aerial Serengeti,” in the words of Texas biologist John Karges. The Edwards Plateau is also home to a breeding population of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. While this warbler winters in southern Mexico and northern Central America, it breeds only in the Edwards Plateau.

More than 2,000 springs have been described in 183 Texas counties, and nearly 1,000 additional springs are estimated to exist in the remaining 71 Texas counties. Most of the highest-volume springs are found in the Edwards Plateau. San Marcos Springs harbors several rare and endemic species, such as the fountain darter, San Marcos gambusia and the San Marcos salamander. The Edwards Plateau is believed by archaeologists to be the longest continuously occupied region of North America, having been home to documented civilizations for more than 11,500 years.

  The Chihuahuan Desert region of Texas is a true ecological marvel. Known as the El Desplobado, “the land of no people,” it includes such natural areas as Big Bend National Park, Davis Mountains Preserve and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It is one of the three most biologically diverse deserts on Earth. More 3,000 species of plants have been documented here (including more than 400 cactus species), almost 30 percent of which are endemic species. Large mammals such as black bear, pronghorn antelope and mountain lion are relatively common to the region.

The grasslands found throughout the Southern High Plains, through the Rolling Plains and the Blackland Prairie belts of the Crosstimbers and Southern Tallgrass Ecoregion are emblematic of the Texas many people visualize from old western movies. Vast, endless horizons and big-sky landscapes afford far-ranging species from bison to grassland birds prime habitat and a rich diversity of forage—Texas leads the nation with nearly 600 species and subspecies of grasses. At one time Texas was home to an estimated 12 million bison, the heart of the entire Southern Plains bison herd. The largest known prairie dog town existed east of San Angelo and covered more than 25,000 square miles. These are not tall Texas tales, but documented historical accounts. However, presently grasslands in Texas are the most imperiled habitat type in the state. Only a fraction of the original extent of the Blackland Prairie exists. 

The Texas coastline runs for 367 miles from Mexico to Louisiana and is the destination for nine major river systems that feed freshwater into some of the most productive bays and estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico. Commercial fishing contributes nearly $120 million to the state economy each year, derived primarily from shrimp and oyster harvests. Oyster reefs and seagrass beds provide key habitat for many species of nearshore and breeding marine species. Padre Island (north and south) represents the longest barrier island in the world and the most undeveloped island in the Gulf of Mexico, with some dunes climbing more than 50 feet in height. Two of the countless unique species in this region include the white-tailed hawk, which nests on the coastal prairies of Texas, and a recovering population of aplomado falcons.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Texas has always been a land of dreams, hopes and possibilities. The majority of landowners take great pride in the natural heritage of their lands. That pride is often driven by a dedicated land ethic handed down from generation to generation. While social and economic changes are inevitable in Texas, the near-sacred charge of private-land stewardship does not waver. New land trusts are forming each year throughout the state, and organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense and the Texas Land Conservancy continue to work with private landowners to find conservation outcomes for critically important lands and waters. There is also great hope derived from recent bonds for securing natural areas in Austin and San Antonio. Almost $620 million has been secured to purchase vital conservation land in the Barton Creek watershed near Austin and critical land in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone west of San Antonio. In addition, the Texas legislature recently approved the use of $52 million to shore up the state park system. While federal land acquisition for wildlife refuges and national parks has seriously waned over the past ten years, recent acquisitions by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department give hope for a more comprehensive network of conservation lands throughout the state that will benefit wildlife and people.

Threats

Texas faces a long list of threats to its natural heritage. From habitat fragmentation at multiple scales to unceasing extraction of ground and surface waters, the challenges are daunting. The population of Texas is expected to reach 33 million people by 2030, a more than 40-percent increase from current levels. Many large, traditional ranches of 5,000 or more acres throughout the state have already begun to diminish in size due to partitioning and development by recreation real estate buyers. This phenomenon presents both challenges and opportunities for conservation. Partitioning and further fragmentation of the land makes it more difficult to develop landscape-scale conservation management practices. Smaller land parcels also reduce the ability to establish viable natural areas. On the other hand, since these landowners are primarily interested in the recreational attributes their land provides, they are largely free of the economic pressures of production agriculture.

Water is among the most pressing conservation issues in Texas. How much water we have, where it will come from in the future and how it will be parceled are key questions presently being considered. Most rivers are already over allocated. This means that if all water rights holders were to claim their shares of permitted rights, there would not be enough water to go around, let alone to keep rivers functioning as rivers and to support aquatic species and communities. The process, wisdom, vision and leadership that our legislature and community leaders bring to bear regarding water in Texas will determine much about the future of this state and its plant animal and human populations.

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