New Management Protocols for Texas Landowners to Support Native Pollinators

Interest in the conservation and perpetuation of native bees and other native insect pollinators has grown rapidly over the last few years. Several native insects that visit flowers, including some bumble bee species and the monarch butterfly, have experienced dramatic population declines and are in need of conservation action. In addition, significant challenges to managed European honey bee health has sparked interest in native insects as alternative pollinators for agricultural production.

As more than 95% of Texas lands are privately owned, effective native insect pollinator conservation will require private landowner engagement and involvement. Landowners can play a significant role in conserving and maintaining populations of native ins
ect pollinators by applying management practices that benefit these species. However, large-scale conservation is often cost-prohibitive without financial incentive. One such incentive, available to landowners who currently manage land qualified under the 1-D-1 Agricultural Tax Valuation, is Agricultural Tax Appraisal Based on Wildlife Management Use.
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The Nongame and Rare Species Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has developed management guidelines for native insect pollinators landowners can use to develop wildlife management plan’s for their properties. These guidelines outline potential actions from prescribed burning, native plant re-seeding, installation of native pollinator plots, to creating nest sites; practices that could be applied to small or large acreages.

This new publication, Management Recommendations for Native Insect Pollinators in Texas, is now available online.

Landowners who apply these practices to their lands will be supporting populations of native pollinators that aid in maintaining healthy plant communities on their properties as well as those lands that surround them, which benefits a range of other wildlife. In addition, landowners will be conserving and perpetuating native pollinators that can provide pollination service to surrounding agricultural producers, potentially reducing the need for leased honey bee hives to pollinate some crops.

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Native solitary bee. Courtesy of Jessica Womack.

Why Pollinators and Pollination Matters
Pollination is one of the most vital processes sustaining natural ecosystems and agricultural production.  The majority of flowering plants that comprise Texas’ diverse ecosystems rely upon animals, mainly insects, to transport pollen among flowers to facilitate pollination and ensure the production of viable seed. Viable seed is critical for the perpetuation of plant species across the landscape. As with native flowering plants, many plants in agricultural production are reliant upon insects for pollination to set fruit and produce seed. The annual value of insect-pollinated crops to the U.S. economy is estimated at over $15 billion (The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects).

Although the non-native European honeybee tends to garner the most public attention, there are actually several hundred bee species that are native to Texas.  These include bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bee, leafcutter bees, longhorned bees, and many others. These native bee species were here long before the honeybee and are critical to the state’s diverse native plant communities as well as agricultural production.

Why Bees are Efficient and Effective Pollinators
Of all the insects that visit flowers in Texas, from beetles, butterflies, moths, and wasps, bees tend to be the most efficient and effective pollinators.  Two traits make bees preeminent pollinators.  First, they purposefully collect pollen to feed their offspring.  The act of foraging for this protein-rich food source results in the transfer of pollen from flower to flower.  During a single day, a female bee may visit several hundred flowers, depositing pollen all along the way.  Second, bees tend to be specific about the flowers they visit.  During a foraging trip, a female bee may only visit the flowers of a particular plant species.  The benefit of such foraging preferences is that the plants’ pollen is not deposited on the flowers of a different plant species and wasted.

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Leafcutter bee carrying a load of pollen. Courtesy of Eric Isley.

Native bee pollination is critical to the maintenance of Texas’ diverse ecosystems.
Many of the berries, nuts, and seeds consumed by birds, mammals, and other insects are the result of bee pollination of native woody and herbaceous plants.  Along with their substantial ecological contributions, native bees have proven to be more efficient and effective pollinators of several agricultural crops than honey bees.  Several crops, including blueberries, grapes, olives, peanuts, pumpkins, squash strawberries, and tomatoes are more effectively pollinated by native bees than the non-native honey bee. The added benefit to farmers from native bees is that their services are essentially free if adequate natural to semi-natural habitat is maintained around farm fields to support healthy populations of these pollinators.  The pollination service provided to U.S. agriculture by native bees has been estimated in excess of $3 billion annually.

For additional information, please contact Michael Warriner, Nongame and Rare Species Program Leader at michael.warriner@tpwd.texas.gov.

Houston Toad Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) recently submitted an application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for an Enhancement of Survival Permit in association with a Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement (Agreement) for the federally endangered Houston toad (Anaxyrus houstonensis). The Agreement is still in draft form until it is reviewed by USFWS, posted to the Federal Register for a 60-day public commenting period, and all comments are addressed. The final draft will then be returned to TPWD officials for the final signature that will set the Agreement into action, opening a new door for landowners who wish to do good things to the land in Houston toad country.

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Houston toad calling. Photo by Paul Crump

Some of the very conservation measures provided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that are intended to protect critical habitat for a federally listed threatened or endangered species can be interpreted by some as disincentives for maintaining or creating quality habitat for that species. Some landowners are skeptical about managing their land in ways that might benefit a listed species for fear that they might attract that species to their property or increase the number of individuals of that species on their property.

As the number of individuals of a listed species increases on a given property, the risk for accidentally harming one or several becomes greater. In other words, implementing management practices that benefit wildlife in potential habitat for a listed species can result in an unintended increase in liability under the ESA for landowners. As a result, many landowners hesitate to improve habitat for a listed species (or for any species) out of fear of increased liability under the ESA.

To alleviate this issue, Safe Harbor Agreements (SHA) and Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP) were developed to protect cooperating landowners from increased liability under the ESA as they implement practices that benefit a listed species.  In short, when a landowner agrees to do good things to their land to create a net benefit for a listed species, a SHA protects that landowner from any increased liability under the ESA that might result during or after those actions are carried.  Safe Harbor Agreements provide landowners with assurances that they will not be held liable for incidental take (accidentally harming/killing an endangered species) in turn for agreeing to improve habitat for the listed species.

The Houston toad is in dire need of a program like this. An SHA can provide the necessary incentives to encourage and enable landowners to improve and protect habitat to bring it back from the brink of extinction and actively contribute to its recovery. A Houston toad SHA will enable landowners to work directly with TPWD to enroll in the program and receive ongoing technical assistance throughout the lifetime of their Cooperative Agreement.

An additional benefit for both landowners and the Houston toad is that a larger number of cooperators can enroll in a shorter amount of time, increasing the net benefit received by the species over that time-frame. A range-wide environmental assessment has been completed by USFWS, which greatly reduces the length of time it takes to complete the enrollment process when compared to an individual SHA between USFWS and a private landowner.

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Houston toads. Photo by Paul Crump

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will serve as the permit holder, will enroll landowners by developing a Cooperative Agreement with them after completing a baseline habitat assessment, and will issue Certificates of Inclusion to landowners who enroll.  A baseline habitat assessment documents the conditions of the land at the time of enrollment which helps measure the response of the Houston toad to the management activities.

A landowner can also return their property to its original baseline habitat conditions without penalty, if they should so desire, at the end of their Cooperative Agreement period.  The Certificate of Inclusion will be issued once the enrollment process is complete, providing the landowner with coverage for incidental take throughout the term of their Cooperative Agreement.  This Programmatic SHA is a completely voluntary agreement between the landowner, TPWD, and USFWS, and the landowner can terminate the Agreement at any time.  However, if a landowner chooses to terminate their Agreement early, they will no longer be provided with the associated assurances.

A SHA is a boon for landowners – they can improve wildlife habitat on their property without fear of increased liability under the ESA, actively contribute to the recovery of an endangered species, receive ongoing technical guidance for free, and can rank higher for cost-share assistance for habitat improvement practices as a bonus for managing land for an endangered species.  And through their efforts, they will improve habitat for many other wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, turkey, songbirds and other species that will also benefit from a well-managed habitat.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone!  Now who’s ready to sign up?

The Depths We Go… to Study Bats

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Bat Conservation International, TPWD Nongame and Rare Species Program, and Texas A&M University biologists and volunteers during bat surveys in the Texas Panhandle.

Texas bats are in danger. White-nose syndrome (WNS), a devastating fungal disease, is almost here. The disease is caused by a fungus that thrives in the cold environments where bats hibernate. Hibernating bats with WNS often display white fungus on their noses and other hairless parts of their bodies, including their wings.The fungus isn’t always visible to the naked eye, however, and usually is not seen on bats found flying or dead outside of their hibernacula or at their summer roosts.

White-nosed syndrome kills bats during hibernation by agitating their skin which causes them to wake up and preen. This expends their extremely limited energy reserves needed to sustain them for the entire winter and can eventually lead to starvation.

White-nosed syndrome was first discovered in New York in 2006 and has since spread westward towards Texas at a rate of about 200 miles a year. The disease is responsible for the deaths of nearly six million bats across North America. It is now just 170 miles from the Texas border in Arkansas and was just recently found in eastern Oklahoma. White-nosed syndrome does not affect humans.wns_map_20160216.jpg

Texas hosts 32 species of bats, more than any other U.S. state. Three species of Texas bats are known to be impacted by WNS and five others have been found with the fungus but exhibit no disease symptoms. The effects of WNS on the remaining 25 bat species in Texas are not known.

Many bats can live for 20 years or more and are very slow to reproduce. Stressors, such as introduced diseases like WNS, can result in significant population declines and push species towards regional extirpations or even extinction. The loss of bats due to WNS could have wide-ranging impacts to the ecosystem services provided by these night-flying, insectivorous mammals. From a human perspective, bats provide billions of dollars in pest control to agriculture annually through their insect feeding activities. Loss of bat populations would likely raise agricultural costs and increase pesticide applications.

Fortunately, the Mexican free-tailed bats, which roost in the millions in Bracken Bat Cave, Old Tunnel State Park, and the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, migrate instead of hibernate during the winter months. While this will likely shield them from the worst effects of the disease, Mexican free-tailed bats could still spread the fungus to more susceptible species across the western U.S.

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Biologist examines a bat in a Texas Panhandle cave.

The Nongame and Rare Species Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is partnering with Bat Conservation International and Texas A&M University to monitor bat populations and the spread of WNS. In early February 2016, biologists from both groups, along with some dedicated volunteers, met in the Texas Panhandle (Childress County) to test bats in several caves for WNS. Caves in this region of Texas are thought to contain environmental conditions (cold, humid) conducive to WNS infection.

Biologists searched caves for bats and when found, counted and swabbed individuals to test for WNS infection. The biologists are currently looking for additional caves in northern Texas to sample for the disease. This work is being supported by a grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Grants to States and the Pittman-Roberson Grants Programs. For more information about this disease visit White-nose Syndrome.org.

 

Texas’ Rarest Dragonflies Tied to Rare Natural Community, Pitcher-Plant Bogs

Eastern Texas is home to two of what could arguably be among the rarest dragonflies in North America. The Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita, is known from just nine Texas counties and three Louisiana parishes. Although it may be the most common dragonfly in areas where it occurs, it is rarely encountered because of its habit of flying and perching at tree-top level. The Texas emerald was petitioned for federal listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2011 and is pending a 12-month review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rarer still, the sarracenia spiketail, Cordulagaster sarracenia, was only just described in 2011 and is currently known from five Texas counties and a single Louisiana parish. Although the range for the two species closely overlaps, observations of the sarracenia spiketail are patchier, partly due to its’ short flight season (15 Mar – 29 Apr) and its strong association with pitcher plant bogs: a rare natural community threatened by woody encroachment resulting from decades of fire suppression.

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A pitcher plant bog. Photo by John Abbott.

For both species, substantial data gaps pose challenges to evaluating the conservation status for these species, let alone implementing proactive conservation measures. However, with funding provided by sales of the Wildlife Diversity Program’s Conservation License Plates, Dr. John Abbott, Director of Museum Research and Collections at the University of Alabama, has started to fill in those gaps.

Dr. Abbott is no stranger to dragonfly research. Having literally written the book on Texas dragonflies…twice, he formally described the adult sarracenia spiketail and the Texas emerald nymph. All dragonfly nymphs are aquatic, so identification of the aquatic habitat in which nymphs reside is absolutely critical for conservation of the species. Despite Dr. Abbott’s expertise, no Texas emerald nymph had ever been seen in the wild: the nymph was described from an individual raised in the laboratory from an egg.

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The nymph of the Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita. Photo by John Abbott.

Extensive surveys of streams and bogs in the vicinity of adults had repeatedly failed to produce nymphs. That changed, in the spring of 2015 when, using his knowledge of dragonfly biology, Abbott starting sampling more unusual habitats including crayfish burrows and sphagnum-covered stream banks fed by pitcher plant bogs. It was in this latter habitat, 1.5 feet inside deeply undercut stream banks, that two Texas emerald nymphs were finally located half a century after the adults were first described. This discovery sheds light on why the nymphs have been so elusive: they practically live underground in a restricted habitat. It also highlights that, like the sarracenia spiketail, long-term survival of the Texas emerald is closely tied to the persistence of pitcher plant bogs.

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Habitat of the Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita, nymph. Photo by John Abbott.

Although the relationship between the sarracenia spiketail and pitcher plan bogs is known, because of the sensitive nature of those habitats and the dragonfly’s apparent rarity, biologists have expressed concern over population sizes for the species. Indeed, of the six locations where the species has been documented, only two of those sites have yielded more than a single sarracenia spiketail. So, Dr. Abbott set out to estimate population sizes at those two sites using established mark-recapture methods. The results were less than encouraging.

To put those results into perspective, consider an earlier mark-recapture study of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly: the only federally endangered dragonfly in the coterminous U.S. That study resulted in 331 captured and marked individuals, 88 of which were later recaptured. That resulted in an estimated population size of 1023 individuals at a single site: not exactly a booming population. Now consider Dr. Abbott’s efforts. At two sites surveyed, a combined total of only 20 individuals were captured and marked, four of which were later recaptured. Those numbers are so low as to prevent a statistical estimation of population size. Granted, those two studies aren’t directly comparable: Hine’s emerald has a longer flight season than the sarracenia spiketail, and the spiketail mark-recapture effort was hindered by cloudy weather, which reduces dragonfly activity and detectability. Nevertheless, the numbers still tell a concerning story about the rarity of this species.

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Sarracenia spiketail, Cordulagaster sarracenia, marked for population estimate study. Photo by John Abbott.

For both the Texas emerald and the sarracenia spiketail, the findings of the Conservation License Plate-funded research presented here demonstrate the importance and sensitivity of pitcher-plant bogs for Texas’ rarest dragonflies. However, the story is not without hope. Management practices that restore and maintain pitcher-plant bogs are well-established. Exclusion of feral hogs, periodic burns to mimic historic fire regimes, and, in some instances, mechanical control of woody encroaching species can restore pitcher-plant bogs, which not only provide habitat for dragonflies, but for a host of other rare plant and animal species. These management practices and their results can be seen first-hand in healthy bogs at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County Texas.

Texas Kangaroo Rat: Getting Ahead of the Curve

Credit: painting by Elizabeth McClelland from Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)
Credit: painting by Elizabeth McClelland from Kays and Wilson’s Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)

Did you know that Texas has a kangaroo rat with its name-sake? Texas kangaroo rat is a fitting name as this is the largest of the five kangaroo rat species found in the state. The Texas kangaroo rat is the only species found in its historic range with a long, thick, white-tipped tail. Kangaroo rats are unusual for rats when it comes to their appearance (furry tail) and movement patterns. They hop on their back feet like kangaroos, and when males battle each other they jump at their opponents with their back feet using their back toes as weapons.

The Texas kangaroo rat (Dipodomys elator) is only known to occur in a relatively small region historically, where the Great Plains prairie meets the Rolling Plains. Its historic habitat is encompassed by a 15-county area in north-central Texas starting at the base of the panhandle and extending east along the Red River, including a small area of southern Oklahoma. The Texas kangaroo rat is considered to be the only mammal endemic to this region.

Credit: Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy — Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International — CABS, World Wildlife Fund — US, and Environment Canada — WILDSPACE.
Credit: Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy — Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International — CABS, World Wildlife Fund — US, and Environment Canada — WILDSPACE. Image provided by Smithsonian Institute.

Because so little is known about this species, and the data we do have indicates a decline in population, the Texas kangaroo rat is considered a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Texas Conservation Action Plan and is listed as a state threatened species by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Research surveys conducted in 2002 documented their occurrence in only five of 15 counties. When those five counties were surveyed again in 2011, none were found (note: that was a year of exceptional drought). In 2009, Wild Earth Guardians petitioned the species for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is in the process of conducting a 12-month review and will examine all available data (best available science) to determine whether the need to list this species as threatened or endangered is warranted.

In order to gain much-needed information about the current status, distribution and habitat needs, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is funding a research project with Texas State University that will begin this fall. The Texas Comptroller’s Office is also funding a research project that Texas Tech University is currently conducting which includes examining genetic health and population status. In addition to these two research projects, a researcher from Tarleton State University received Section 6 funds through TPWD last year to evaluate the genetic structure of this species from museum specimens that is currently ongoing.  The combined results of these three research projects will provide a better understanding of the current status, habitat needs and reasons for its decline, and will help identify management actions needed to protect and enhance populations of this unique Texas species. The data yielded from these three studies will provide the most current data to be included with historical research data as “best available science” for USFWS to consider, along with consideration of any and all conservation efforts in place to protect this species, before a final listing determination is made.

In September 2015, researchers from Texas State University met with TPWD Wildlife Division staff and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) agents who work directly with landowners in the counties within the Texas kangaroo rat’s current and historic range to discuss research needs. The goals of that meeting was to help prepare TPWD biologists and other natural resource professionals to inform landowners about funded-research efforts, explain what providing access to private lands for research would entail, explain the role landowners can play to help reduce the need for listing the species, and to explain what it could mean to the landowner if this species is listed in the future.

TPWD and NRCS staff meet with Texas State University researchers at Caprock Canyons State Park in September, 2015.
TPWD and NRCS staff meet with Texas State University researchers at Copper Breaks State Park in September, 2015.

Working with private landowners is the key to success in conservation and protecting this and many other rare species in Texas. Our best chance at reducing the need for federal protection of rare species is through developing partnerships with landowners willing to provide access to private property for field investigations and willing to voluntarily implement best management practices to benefit this species. The lesser prairie chicken and dune sage brush lizard are two examples of rare species in Texas that have realized the benefits of partnering with landowners through conservation agreements. Such partnerships and agreements successfully influenced USFWS listing decisions through the voluntary protections provided to those species occurring on private lands, and thus reduced the need for federal oversight. Let’s continue to work together proactively to protect the biodiversity of Texas that we value so greatly.

TPWD Receives White-nose Syndrome Grant Funding

Today Texas Parks and Wildlife received a federal grant for $21,618 to continue our research on bats and white-nose syndrome (WNS). U.S. Fish and Wildlife split nearly a million dollars across 35 states for similar research.

WNS has not been found in Texas, but it is knocking at our door. Since its discovery in New York state in 2006, it has moved toward Texas at an average speed of 200 miles a year. During it’s spread across the eastern states, an estimated 6 million bats have succumbed to the disease. TPWD will be focusing our efforts on early detection of WNS in susceptible areas.

White-nose syndrome is a serious issue and it is heartening to see such a large scale effort to combat it. Time to get to work!

See https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org for more info on WNS.