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?

First Comprehensive Survey of Monahans Sandhills Endemic Insects

Sand dune and researcher at Monahans Sandhills State Park. Courtesy Scott Longing.

The Mescalero-Monahans sand dune systems of southeastern New Mexico and western Texas are known for their unique biodiversity including whipscorpions, scorpions, and the dunes sagebrush lizard.  A new dwarf morning-glory species was described from the region just this year.  Further contributing to the biological diversity of this system are nine endemic insect species.  Five of these species (the beetles, Anomala suavis, Nicagus occultus, Prionus spinnipenis, and Trigonoscutoides texanus as well as a Jerusalem cricket, Stenopelmatus monahansensis) are currently known only from the Monahans sandhills of western Texas, with the remaining four species (the beetles, Epitragosoma arenaria, Polyphylla monahanensis, Polyphylla pottsorum, and Prionus arenarius) occurring in both the Monahans sandhills of Texas and Mescalero Sands of southeastern New Mexico.  All nine of the insects are herbivorous and plant communities of the sandhills likely constitute an important food source, especially for the insect’s larvae that spend most of their lives below the surface of the sand.

Monahans Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopalmatus monahansensis). Courtesy Scott Longing.

These sand-dune associated insects are all considered Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Texas Conservation Action Plan (TCAP).  Little to any formalized research has been conducted on these insect species since their original scientific descriptions.  In 2013, the Nongame and Rare Species Program at TPWD funded a proposal by Dr. Scott Longing of Texas Tech University to conduct the first comprehensive survey of these insects in Texas.  Funding for this project was made possible through TPWD’s State Wildlife Grant Program which is focused on supporting conservation aimed at preventing species decline and avoiding the need to list under the Endangered Species Act.

The goal of Dr. Longing’s ongoing study is to better define species distribution and habitat in Texas in order to establish baseline occurrences for the nine endemic insects; a previously unavailable data product.  Such data are critical to an accurate understanding of a species actual conservation status.  To learn more about this project, and to view more images, visit Dr. Longing’s Research Highlight: Invertebrates of Monahans Sandhill.