AUSTIN – They restore vital woods and waters, help bring back diverse wildlife ranging from rare species to popular game animals, share their knowledge with neighbors, and open their gates to youth groups and researchers. They are recipients of the 2017 Lone Star Land Steward Awards, bestowed each year by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.
On May 18 at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, award recipients representing six ecologically diverse regions of the state will be recognized. Also during the annual banquet, the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award, the highest honor awarded in the program, will also be presented by the Sand County Foundation.
Started in 1996 by the TPWD Private Lands Advisory Committee, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize the important role private landowners play in the future of Texas’ natural resources by honoring them for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation.
Because more than 94 percent of Texas lands are privately owned or operated, private landowners are the key to effective habitat management across the state. Since the program’s inception 21 years ago, over 200 landowners have been honored for conserving more than three million acres of fish and wildlife habitat.
“This year we will recognize properties around the state ranging in size from over 26,000 acres down to 50,” said Justin Dreibelbis, director of TPWD’s Private Lands and Public Hunting program. “These landowners and managers come from different backgrounds but what they all have in common is a love for the land and a desire to make it the best functioning system that it can be.
The clean air, water, food and fiber that come from these properties is important to all Texans and we are honored to be able to recognize this group of land stewards for their efforts.”
Following is a list of this year’s award recipients, with points describing their achievements.
Blackland Prairie – Brown Ranch, Fayette County
Mark Brown, owner
- When the Brown family acquired their ranch in 2000, the property had been heavily utilized for hay production, livestock grazing and row crop farming which left the habitat quality in poor condition and nearly 100% covered in exotic grasses.
- The Browns began restoring their piece of the vanishing Fayette Prairie back to a tall grass community for the benefit of grassland songbirds and pollinator species. Mr. Brown has utilized a number of innovative techniques to control exotic grasses.
- Mr. Brown has cooperated with a number of different partners to complete multiple GRIP and EQUIP grassland restoration projects.
- Brown is an active member of a number of conservation organizations and sits on the board of the East Navidad Wildlife Management Association and the South Central Texas Prescribed Burn Association.
- The family frequently hosts field days on the ranch to share what they have learned with their neighbors.
Edwards Plateau – Three Mile Creek Ranch, Gillespie County
Kim Bergman and Pam Mabry Bergman, owners
- When purchased in 1996, the 685 acre hill country property was covered in dense ashe juniper (cedar) trees. The Bergman’s began asking the advice from natural resource professionals and quickly developed a plan.
- The Bergmans selectively hand cut cedar on 500 acres and hand seeded the cleared areas with native grasses.
- The thick grasses that developed due to the juniper clearing have increased groundwater recharge, improved stream flow/water quality in the creek and improved soil health.
- They utilize all five of Aldo Leopold’s famous tools for habitat management and income production to restore the landscape.
- The Texas Youth Hunting Program has been utilized to help control white-tailed deer numbers, and wildlife management classes from Tarleton State University come to the ranch several times per year to learn wildlife, watershed and land management techniques.
- As a confirmation of their long term stewardship goals, the Bergmans donated a 685 acre conservation easement on the ranch to insure the land will remain natural and intact forever.
Cross Timbers & Prairies – Solana Ranch, Bell & Williamson Counties
Michaux Family, owners
- Property acquired in 1950 by Frank Michaux has been managed by the Michaux family for close to 67 years.
- Through the years, the ranch has selectively cleared ashe juniper and applied prescribed fire to restore productive grassland habitats and protect valuable springs and water resources.
- The Solana’s unique hunting operation provides fantastic dove hunting access for many local hunters, which in turn allows the family to derive sustainable income to manage other aspects of ranch operations.
- The familypartnered with The Nature Conservancy to place a conservation easement on 250 acres of important habitat to protect the Salado salamander.
- The ranch serves as a trap site for TPWD’s statewide turkey and dove banding studies.
- Through their innovative cattle and hunting operations they have found a way to hold a special piece of property together in the face of development pressure.
Pineywoods – Arcadia, Shelby County
Greg Grant, owner
- Greg Grant lives on his great-grandparent’s longtime farm in Arcadia, Texas where he continues to persistently restore parcels of native habitat for the benefit of wildlife and the education of his fellow landowners.
- From 1953–1993, Grant’s grandfather farmed, produced hay and raised beef cattle and horses on the place. When Greg took ownership, he began to reforest portions of the property and plant some parts in native prairie.
- Greg’s primary wildlife goal is to create habitat for native cavity-nesting birds, pine savanna birds and a number of pollinator species. His fire-maintained, snag-filled pine forest has attracted seven of the eight species of East Texas woodpeckers plus eastern bluebirds, pine warblers, brown-headed nuthatches and numerous other songbirds.
- Perhaps closest to his heart is a remnant population of prairie trillium that he discovered growing in his hardwood forest. This rare species was previously unknown in Texas and is now found in only two other locations in East Texas.
- In addition to restoring his great-grandparent’s 1890’s dogtrot style farmhouse, Grant also cooperated with the Stephen F. Austin State University Center of Regional Heritage Research as the pilot community for their Voices from Small Places project.
- Over the last 20 years, Greg has hosted hundreds of visitors for educational and recreational tours of the property. He is a shining example of what true land stewardship and rural family heritage looks like on an averaged sized east Texas tract of land.
South Texas – Harris Ranch, Uvalde and Kinney Counties
Mike Harris, owner
John Sewell, manager
- The Harris Ranch, which has approximately 6.5 miles of the West Nueces River flowing through its boundaries, had been severely overgrazed with resulting poor land and water quality when John Sewell took over management of the property. Cattle were immediately deferred while the ranch began to recover.
- Sewell worked with NRCS to fence off over 800 acres of riparian habitat along the river in order to allow the area to capture sediment, revegetate, slow down flood water and increase water quality. Recent flood events have proven this work to be extremely valuable, not only for the local wildlife, but also for landowners and water users downstream.
- The ranch has an active brush management program where juniper, mesquite and prickly pear are controlled.
- The ranch is an active participant in TPWD’s Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP) and maintains an active hunting component to ranch operations. Although deer hunting pays most of the bills, turkeys have responded very well to the habitat management on the ranch and have gone from nearly nonexistent populations at the time of Sewell’s arrival to robust and growing numbers today.
- John Sewell and the Harris Ranch maintain an open door policy to government and university staff for landowner workshops and research projects. They also provide opportunities for kids to learn about the outdoors and hunting through youth hunts with a number of organizations.
Trans-Pecos – El Carmen Land & Conservation Co., LLC, Brewster County
CEMEX USA and J. Austin Ranches, owners
Billy Pat and Bonnie McKinney, managers
- When CEMEX USA and J. Austin Ranches purchased the property in 2006 the land was suffering from severe erosion and overgrazing by domestic livestock and exotic species. However, they knew that because of the strategic location of the property it was crucial to the long term health of Trans-Pecos wildlife.
- A perpetual conservation easement was placed on 9,496 deeded acres adjacent to and south of Black Gap Wildlife Management Area along the Rio Grande.
- From inception the mission statement of ECLCC has been “To restore the lands and native wildlife of a lower desert ecosystem, and protect vital dispersal corridors for wildlife and birds on a local and transboundary level, with the long term goal of having the area serve as a demonstration and research property that can eventually be used as a model for lower Chihuahuan Desert Conservation.”
- The property serves as an important travel corridor for black bear and desert bighorn sheep.
- Sources of water were scarce when the property was acquired, but today a total of 37 permanent water sources are now available to wildlife on the ranch.
- The ranch has cooperated with government partners on a number of translocation projects where native wildlife species including mule deer, Gambel’s quail and Rio Grande Silvery Minnows were reintroduced on the ranch. One such project was the four year partnership with TPWD to relocate Gambel’s quail to their historic range. To date the birds have done very well dispersing along the Rio Grande corridor and showing good reproduction each year.
Rolling Plains – Wild Wings Ranch, Scurry County
Rod and Mary Hench, owners
- When Rod and Mary Hench acquired the Wild Wings Ranch it had been severely overgrazed and was covered with prickly pear, mesquite and red berry juniper.
- The Henches developed an innovative block management approach across the entire ranch where 25 percent of each acreage block is treated each year according to a color-coded grid. Nearly every acre of the ranch has been treated to control invasive plants and optimize wildlife habitat.
- They also protect valuable spring systems on the ranch with strategic mechanical brush control. They catch runoff water and prevent erosion by developing small spreader dams seeded with native grasses after construction.
- They provide for future turkey roost sites by controlling brush in riparian (creek) areas and planting cottonwood trees to improve riparian habitat. Artificial turkey roosts have also been constructed to provide winter roosting habitat.
- Stocker cattle are utilized during the dormant season to improve coverage and diversity of warm-season grasses and forbs, which are highly valuable for native wildlife.
- Rod and Mary regularly work with natural resource agencies to host landowner field days on the ranch. They also open their gates to universities for student field training and wildlife research.
The Lone Star Land Steward Awards program relies on partners and sponsors for its continued success. Toyota is the presenting sponsor for the 2017 awards, with major sponsors that include Silver Eagle Distributors, Apache Corporation, Colorado River Land Trust, the Lower Colorado River Authority Creekside Conservation Program, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Partners for Fish & Wildlife program. Other sponsors include 4K Land and Cattle Co., Advanced Ecology, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Capital Farm Credit, Ducks Unlimited, Earth Day Texas, East Foundation, Ann and Tom Kelsey, Land of America & LAND Magazines, Llano Springs Ranch, Ltd., National Wild Turkey Federation Texas State Chapter, Oncor Electric Delivery, Sarco Creek Ranch, Simms Creek Wildlife Association, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources & Texas Water Resources Institute, Texas Dove Hunters Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Land Trust Council, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Texas Wildlife Association, Trinity River Authority of Texas, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Wildlife Consultants, LLC.