BY RUBEN CANTU AND GREG SIMONS
Just as there are creatures great and small, there are habitats great and small. Landowners, regardless of the size of their holdings, can make a difference for wildlife by improving the habitat.
Habitat, as everybody learns in elementary school life science, is a place that is natural for the life and growth of an organism. As part of that same lesson, we learn that good habitat includes food, water and shelter, which in wildlife management is called cover. There is fourth component that, unfortunately, often gets overlooked. It is space.
Every animal species has a space requirement, known as range. The term range, when used in biological sciences can get confusing, because range not only refers to the historic habitat where an entire species can be found, but to the amount of space that individual animals within the species will travel on a daily basis to meet their needs for food, water and cover. It differs from species to species. For instance, depending on location, a white-tailed deer may range over 800 acres, while a bobwhite quail can thrive in 320 acres or more, and a migratory butterfly can benefit from a one acre-plot along its flyway dedicated to its habitat. Generally, the larger the animal is, the larger the range it will require. (Migratory birds and butterflies are notable exceptions.) As a result, size can matter when it comes to wildlife management.
Although it is possible to improve wildlife habitat on small acreages, it is important for land managers to understand two truths to keep their expectations realistic and help them recognize the fruits of their labor. First, wildlife species, such as white-tailed deer, dove, quail and turkey, are mobile. Providing high-quality food, water and cover doesn’t mean that these species will move in and set up permanent residence. It is likely that managers will be providing a high-quality way station as part of the animal’s natural range and they may become frequent visitors. Build it, and if the animals are around, they will come, but they may not stay. Remember, though, just because the animals don’t live there all of the time, doesn’t make the habitat components less valuable to them.
(While we’re on the subject of animals on the move, none move farther than migratory species. Small acreages located along the flyways can make vital, life-saving rest and refueling stops for neotropical migratory birds if the habitat is enhanced to meet their needs. These birds that include songbirds, shorebirds, raptors and waterfowl make annual treks from their summer breeding and nesting ground, which can be as far north as Canada to wintering grounds which can be as far south as South America. The same holds true for monarch butterflies, whose numbers are declining sharply. Scientists theorize that one cause for plummeting population numbers is a decrease in stands of milkweed that are crucial food sources for the butterflies as well as Texas’ ongoing drought that has wreaked havoc on native wildflowers, goldenrod, and various species of sunflower that they depend on during migration.)
Second, if land managers choose to manage their habitat to benefit a specific species such as white-tailed deer, their management efforts will have a cascade effect, meaning that a wide variety of other species will benefit from increased plant diversity, improved water availability and well-managed cover. To maximize the benefits, especially on small acreage, it is a good idea to enlist the active support of neighbors, so habitat is collectively improved across a bigger area. This is the idea behind wildlife management associations and wildlife cooperatives, a tool that has been proven effective in East and Central Texas where land holdings tend to be smaller than in other parts of the state. (For more information on wildlife cooperatives, please see: http://www.tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/associations/)
When it comes to improving wildlife habitat, the process is the same regardless of the size of the property. It begins with landowners asking themselves: “What do I want this property to look like in the short- and the long-term?” The answer to this question will provide the guiding vision.
As a point of information, good wildlife habitat rarely looks like a park. The best habitat is a diverse mixture of grass, forbs and brush, creating a mosaic of different textures, heights, densities and even life cycles. Diverse plant life creates a year-round buffet for wildlife. Park-like rangelands generally are built on a foundation of introduced grasses and brush removal, creating a relative monoculture. Cattle can thrive in this environment, but it is less than ideal for wildlife.
Next, landowners need to set a goal or a series of goals, by answering the question: “What do I want to achieve on my property?” The answer will depend on the landowner and the property, but the answer tends to be much more specific than the vision. This is also when landowners determine what species they will focus their efforts on.
Common goals include: re-establishing diverse native plants, enhancing riparian areas or creating additional water sources and managing brush species. Successful land managers often refine their goals, by quantifying them and making them measurable. For example, a landowner interested in restoring native plants may state his goal as re-establishing a native plant cover containing 10 wildlife-friendly species on one-third of the property by 2017. This level of specificity creates a habitat management road map. With that said, the goals must be revisited and the landowner must be flexible because wildlife and habitat management are directly influence of Mother Nature, who offers no guarantees.
One of the benefits of working on small acreages is that landowners’ efforts are more concentrated, meaning that the results of their habitat management may become obvious more quickly. Their efforts are not diluted by scale. In addition, because the scale is limited, the cost for habitat improvement is often lower.
While a 1-d-1 wildlife valuation is not necessary to perform habitat work on small acreages, it may provide tax benefits as well as additional management flexibility. The area where the flexibility is most obvious and arguably most important is livestock grazing. (There is no minimum size for improving habitat, but some counties tax appraisal districts do have minimum sizes for qualifying for 1-d-1 valuations.)
Depending on the rules of the local tax appraisal district, landowners of small acreages may have to graze a specified number of cattle, sheep or goats year-round to maintain an ag valuation, regardless of the size of the property. In this situation, oftentimes land is overgrazed because the county’s minimum stocking rates exceed the land’s carrying capacity, especially in times of drought.
Under a 1-d-1 wildlife valuation, grazing is allowed, but not required. This means that landowners can use grazing if and when it helps them achieve their overall land management goals. It is a fine distinction, but one that can be very important when shaping the landscape to support wildlife.
The bottom line is this: Habitat is important to all types of wildlife. Landowners who have small acreages can make a big impact.
To learn more about maximizing your wildlife habitat on your property, whether it’s small or sprawling, contact Wildlife Consultants at (325) 655-0877 or see our website at www.TheWildlifeConsultants.com.