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.

ht calling paul crump
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.

hts paul crump
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?

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.