Borderlands Research Institute hosts Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference for first time in 6 years

Trans Pecos Wildlife Conference attendees visited local ranches last week to view and discuss successful riparian and grassland restoration efforts. Photo courtesy Borderlands Research Institute.

ALPINE — Landowners, natural resource professionals, wildlife enthusiasts and more met last week for the Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference at Sul Ross State University, co-hosted by the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI), Texas Wildlife Association and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). 

The conference, which occurs irregularly and last took place in 2016, was originally founded over 20 years ago with the goal of educating private landowners and the general public on the need for natural resource management for the Big Bend region. This year’s programming included a full day of presentations followed by a day of field trips to ranches in the Marfa and Fort Davis areas for demonstrations of grassland and riparian restoration. 

Over 150 people — including West Texans as well as visitors from Mexico, Arizona and East Texas — attended the first, lecture-focused day, with fewer returning the following day for excursions onto local ranches. Topics covered were diverse, ranging from how to live with bears in West Texas — including best practices for securing trash — to antler progression in mule deer and pronghorn restoration updates to conservation of grassland bird species, and how to raise bird-friendly beef.

“Historically, most of the interest for our conference stems from game animals. We had some great presentations on nongame topics like bird diversity, raptor behaviors and ecotourism. The audience really enjoyed those presentations, which is an indicator of shifting interests that our audience has,” said Dr. Louis Harveson, founder and director of the BRI. 

The conference sought to make attendees aware of the multitude of cost-share opportunities offered by entities such as TPWD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for both small and large landowners looking to implement conservation-focused land and wildlife management strategies on their property. Ongoing environmental challenges faced by the region — such as rising populations of invasive aoudad and their role in spreading disease to bighorn sheep as well as Chronic Wasting Disease, drought and land fragmentation — were also touched on. Land fragmentation refers to the parceling out of relatively small acreages, a practice that is ultimately more threatening to species and habitat management than larger ranches, per organizers.

“We do our best to make sure the information we share includes the newest scientific information that is available, whether that is updates on the latest techniques to combat brush encroachment, modifying your management plan during drought, or recent updates on wildlife disease issues,” said Harveson. 

Madge Lindsay, vice president of the Trans-Pecos Bird Conservation group based in Fort Davis, a three-year-old organization, had a booth at the conference and was sharing pamphlets on the area’s bird species, such as the Montezuma Quail, with passersby. Trans-Pecos Bird Conservation hosts the biennial hummingbird festival in Fort Davis to celebrate the many species of hummingbirds in the Davis Mountains and recently announced the dates for next year’s festival — August 17-20, 2023. The organization also helps link up landowners who want to build bird habitats on their property with potential funding sources, said Lindsay. 

“We wanted to have an active bird conservation organization so we can get information not only to people coming here, but also to people that are on the ranch, who want to start a hummingbird garden, are going to improve their habitat or put in a nice water feature for birds. As it dries out, we’re gonna need more and more people doing that,” said Lindsay. 

Rachael Connally, who has been working as Presidio County’s Wildlife Biologist for TPWD for over two years, said the conference offered a valuable chance to share information across entities and further connect with local landowners. 

“I do think it’s nice to be able to all get together,” said Connally. “Not only just us as professionals, but also with landowners, and then just people in general, in the public, to come in and see what is going on.” 

Connally and her fellow county-specific wildlife biologists work with private landowners, helping them understand which wildlife species inhabit their property, what their habitats are and how to achieve their conservation goals — how to attract more pronghorn onto their ranch, for example. Through their Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), TPWD provides funding for landowners for certain habitat work, including riparian restoration and more. Connally, in addition to working closely with landowners, performs regular surveys of pronghorn, mule deer, quail, dove and Texas horned lizards.

She said right now, TPWD is primarily focused on helping conserve the Marfa grasslands and areas of riparian habitat along Alamito Creek. And while she works with a number of landowners in those areas, she is always open to establishing more relationships.

“If there’s particular parts of the county that are identified as good target areas where the department would like to do some kind of restoration, we may reach out to landowners and say, ‘Hey, you know, this really important part of Alamito Creek is on your property, and we’re kind of trying to do some restoration. Would you be interested in working with us?’” said Connally.

Connally said TPWD is always gathering data on wildlife sightings and asks Presidio County residents to report bear and mountain lion sightings to her via email [email protected] or by calling 432-244-8121. 

Practical how-to first day presentations on fencing and desert riparian restoration, which has the potential to increase groundwater recharge and preserve bird habitat, prepped audiences for what they would witness in person on the second day of the conference. Harveson said the opportunity to leave the conference room and get out onto local lands to see progress updates from ranchers who are on the ground working toward various conservation goals is a special part of the event. 

“It allows us to show prescriptions that work and even those that don’t work. Ultimately, we want a dialogue with the land owner/manager, so that we can all learn from one another,” said Harveson. “We rely on them for clean air and clean water and to provide food, cover and water for the wildlife we love, and they rely on us for information to manage those resources successfully.” 

Many striking statistics were shared at the conference, including how 2.2 million acres of land in Texas was converted away from agricultural use from 1997 to 2014, and 1.2 million acres converted in just the last five years. Harveson said as Texans have shifted away from rural life, the majority now living in urban areas, and with the state’s population increasing, land use is rapidly changing.

“This disconnection has serious implications on how Texans value the wild things and wild places of Texas. This demographic shift can also have serious implications on how Texans vote about natural resource issues,” said Harveson. “If Texans don’t value dark skies, scenic vistas, ranching heritage and wildlife habitat, then the beauty, splendor and quaintness of the Big Bend region, and all of rural Texas, is vulnerable.”