In the News

The American Prairie Conference occurs every other year. It hasn’t been held in Texas for 30 years!Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase

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HNPAT Program Meeting Wednesday from 6:30pm – 8:30pm “Inspiring Through Education at Lawther Deer Park Prairie”(NPAT photo: a couple walking Lawther…

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2019 TLC CONFERENCE • Conservation Related Policy Issues • Conservation Easements & Private Land Conservation • Opportunities to…

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Prairie Facts

Update on Prairie Seekers Field Training Program 3-11-17

The Prairie Seekers is a new prairie assessment & mapping program developed by the Fort Worth and Houston chapters of the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT).

NPAT created data assessment forms and mapping methods, recognized by TPWD as ‘standards’ for identifying flora and fauna during surveys.  Each calendar year Prairie Seekers training events are held throughout Texas; each event is limited to 30 participants.

Update on event held Saturday, March 11, 2017 at Chisholm Trail Prairie and Richardson Slough Prairie in the Fort Worth area, hosts were:
Fort Worth Chapter of NPAT,
Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge,
Texas Chapter - Society for Ecological Restoration, and
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Trained Prairie Seekers volunteers conducted surveys on March 11, 2017, identifying prairie plants, soils, and ‘reading the land’.  That data collected will be contributed to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Texas Natural Diversity Database, TXNDD, and used to identify future prairie conservation opportunities across the state. The Mission of the Texas Natural Diversity Database is to manage and disseminate scientific information on rare species, native plant communities, and animal aggregations for defensible, effective conservation action. The TXNDD and the expertise of its staff facilitate conservation planning, natural resources management, and the design and implementation of ecologically sound development projects.

Here are a few photos (taken by Kate Morgan and Jeff Quayle) showing some of the plant life ‘seekers’ observed over the weekend. 

Save Texas Tallgrass Prairie

Link to our Resources Page

Why Protect and Restore Prairie?

by Jason Spangler

“I can sit on the porch before my door and see miles of the most beautiful prairie interwoven with groves of timber, surpassing, in my mind, the beauties of the sea. Think of seeing a tract of land on a slight incline covered with flowers and rich meadow grass for 12 to 20 miles” - John Brooke, an early settler in the tallgrass prairies of Texas, 1849

The imperiled tallgrass prairies of Texas need our help now: out of the original 20 million acres of beautiful Texas tallgrass prairie, less than 1% now remains due to suburban sprawl, plowing for row-crop agriculture, and improper overgrazing during the last 150 years.

Protection of existing tallgrass prairie remnants, restoration of tallgrass prairie, education and advocacy for tallgrass prairie conservation and restoration, and prairie landowner outreach and assistance are vital to water quality and the native plant communities, grassland birds, and other wildlife within the tallgrass prairie regions of Texas.

The reasons to find and conserve Texas tallgrass prairie are numerous, and include:

Protecting water quality and quantity: Native grasslands protect the watersheds in which they occur, increase water infiltration and water yield, increase water supply by reducing erosion and reservoir sedimentation, and increase water quality due to the lack of fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide use.

Conserving Texas cultural and natural heritage and Texas history: Owing in large part to the tallgrass prairie’s rich soils, more than 99 percent of this ecosystem early Texans experienced has been destroyed or fundamentally altered, making the tallgrass prairie the most-endangered large ecosystem in North America [TNC]. Losses, which continue today, are estimated to be even greater in Texas’ tallgrass prairie regions: the Blackland Prairies, Gulf Prairies and Marshes, and the Grand Prairie subregion of the Cross Timbers and Prairies.

According to the authors of the Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas, “the current generation may be the last with the opportunity to preserve even small remnants of the once extensive natural ecosystems” and “unless action is taken by those living today, the opportunity to provide future generations with the chance to experience natural areas” in these areas will be lost.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) states that remaining habitats in these ecoregions are threatened by rapid population growth and accompanying conversion to urban and pasture, fragmentation and decreasing land parcel size. The Gulf Prairies and Marshes and Blackland Prairies regions are the highest priority regions in the State Land and Water Conservation Plan and the State Wildlife Action Plan.

Protecting declining grassland birds, native pollinators, and other wildlife by protecting and restoring their habitat: In addition to the native plant communities of the tallgrass prairies, conservation of tallgrass prairie is needed as habitat for wildlife such as grassland birds and native pollinators. Grassland birds are experiencing the greatest declines of all bird groups, and to save the grassland birds we need to protect and restore their habitat: prairie.

Many tall grass prairie birds have declined drastically due to land conversion and fragmentation. The Blackland Prairies region is important stopover habitat for migrant songbirds and wintering raptors. In the Gulf Prairies and Marshes, Attwater’s prairie chicken, whooping crane, aplomado falcon, white-tailed hawk, Gulf Coast hog-nosed and eastern spotted skunks are all in need of attention, as are many of bird species that depend on this important migratory stopover area.

Partners in Flight says that “all [native prairie] areas remaining should be incorporated into some type of preserve system to preserve this vital habitat” and “community based restoration projects would serve to both educate the public and preserve the resource.”

High priority species of grassland birds in these tallgrass prairie regions include Sprague’s Pipit and Le Conte’s Sparrow. Additional species with declines or high threats include Swainson’s Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, and Bell’s Vireo. Population censuses between 1966 and 2003 have shown large decreases in grassland bird population: Eastern Meadowlark declined 66%, Northern Bobwhite declined 67.6%, Field Sparrow declined 68.8%, Short-eared Owl declined 69%, Loggerhead Shrike declined 77.1%, Grasshopper Sparrow declined 77.1%, and the Houston subspecies of Henslow’s Sparrow became extinct.

The State Wildlife Action Plan lists 15 - 25 high priority grassland bird species, in addition to other high priority wildlife, in each of these prairie ecoregions of Texas.

Game wildlife species that depend on native prairies and grasslands as habitat will also benefit from prairie conservation. These species include Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), Scaled quail (Callipepla squamata), Rio Grande turkeys (Meleagris gallapavo), Eastern Wild Turkey (Meliagris gallopavo sylvestris), and Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura).

Other prairie wildlife that will benefit from this program includes the threatened Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) and small mammals such as the Gulf Coast hog-nosed and eastern spotted skunks. Parkhill Prairie Crayfish (Procambarus steigmani), an endangered prairie species recently discovered, will also benefit.

To save the grassland birds and other prairie wildlife, we need to protect existing and restore additional grassland bird and other wildlife habitat: the tallgrass prairie.

Protecting beautiful native Texas prairie plants and critically imperiled native plant communities: The main plant communities of Texas’ tallgrass prairies are highly threatened. These native plant communities include native plants such as Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Eastern Gamagrass, Brown-seed Paspulum, and Yellow Indiangrass, and are ranked with a Global Conservation Status of G1 - Critically Imperiled to G2 - Imperiled, the most threatened conservation rankings. These conservation rankings mean the native plant communities are at high to very high risk of extinction due to few populations, steep declines, or other factors [NatureServe]. TPWD also states that all four major native prairie plant communities are rare (critically imperiled or imperiled). The Texas Organization for Endangered Species (TOES) ranks most tallgrass prairie natural communities as Type I (Endangered) or Type II (Threatened).

In addition, the highly diverse set of native plants (including beautiful native prairie flowers) that once dominated the Texas tallgrass prairies in these native plant communities are now rare. The perennial prairie flowers that once covered the tallgrass prairies of Texas with swaths of incredible color are disappearing, leaving our state poorer in both beauty and natural diversity. Native prairie remnants have been measured to include hundreds of species of native plants.

Reducing global warming via carbon sequestration and increasing energy independence via prairie biofuels: Recent studies have found diverse native prairie plantings sequester large amounts of carbon (4.4 megagrams per hectare per year for the first 10 years, followed by 3.3 megagrams per hectare per year thereafter) while also being the highest energy and lowest input cellulosic biofuel source [Tilman, Hill, and Lehman. Science Vol 314. Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass] and being far better for the environment than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel; attributes that could ultimately lead to financial incentives for landowners in the effort to mitigate climate change while also benefiting conservation of native wildlife and plant communities. Protecting local Texas ecotypes of native prairie plant seed sources are needed to create these diverse native prairie plantings.

Acting as local seed sources and models for prairie restoration and biofuel native prairie plantings: The location and protection of prairie remnants is also needed for restoration of land to return it to prairie so the amount of prairie habitat can be increased (both new restorations and restoring land around existing prairie remnants to increase the size of the remnant prairies). Local ecotype native plant seed sources are needed for successful prairie restorations, and local examples of prairies are needed to serve as models of the local plant communities as a target for restoration. Protection of prairie remnants is needed to meet this goal, and location of prairie remnants is the first important step.

Providing educational opportunities, open space, and nature exposure for all Texans (children and adults): The identification and protection of tallgrass prairie remnants will provide the public and schoolchildren examples of what the natural world should look like where they live in the tallgrass prairie. They will be able to learn about Texas’ tallgrass prairie heritage and learn about prairie plants, bison, grassland birds, and other prairie wildlife, in addition to learning about the history of humans and the prairie (Native Americans and European settlers). Prairie, with beautiful native prairie flowers and grasses, is high quality open space and efficiently provides both open space and conservation benefits simultaneously.

In summary, protection of existing tallgrass prairie remnants, restoration of tallgrass prairie, education and advocacy for tallgrass prairie conservation and restoration, and prairie landowner outreach and assistance are vital to water quality and the native plant communities, grassland birds, and other wildlife within the tallgrass prairie regions of Texas

What is a Prairie?

The prairie is a diverse ecosystem of mainly native grasses and flowering plants (forbs) with prairie wildlife, soil, geology, and fire playing very important roles.

Today the tallgrass prairies of Texas are very rare. Less than 1% of the original 20 million acres of Texas’ beautiful tallgrass prairie remains and losses are still occurring to plowing, improper overgrazing, and development.

Texas was once 3/4 prairie and savanna. The Tallgrass Coastal Prairies reached many miles inland from the Gulf, and the Tallgrass Prairie extended from southern Canada through Fort Worth-Dallas south to San Antonio including Texas’ Blackland Prairies and Grand Prairie.

The Hill Country of the Edwards Plateau was a mosaic of plant communities, with Mixed Grass Savanna/Prairie presumed to have been a large component. The Post Oak Savanna was native savanna, with a prairie understory and an open canopy of Post Oaks and other trees above.

The Rolling Plains and the High Plains of the Panhandle were Mixed Grass and Short Grass Prairie, and much of West Texas was Desert Grassland filled with grama grasses.

Our early Texas wealth, cattle, cotton, and grains, are still based on these now-degraded habitats. The soils they created now feed the world.

The east half of Travis County around Austin, TX, known as the Blackland Prairie, was once part of the southernmost extension of Tallgrass Prairie. This was habitat to the indigenous peoples and prairie-dependent species such as buffalo, antelope, badgers, prairie wolves, burrowing owls, and many others.

What we see today is a poor representation of what was. The American Prairies are endangered, yet the Endangered Species Act does not protect endangered habitats.

Join us and learn how to restore and manage native prairies. Here is our contact information.

What are the Ecoregions of Texas?

Texas Prairies

Texas is 860 miles north to south and 773 miles east to west and contains 267,339 square miles with a 624 mile coastline. Almost 100 peaks in the Trans-Pecos area are over one mile high. About 56 inches of rain fall in the eastern part of the state, around 30 inches in the central areas, and less than 8 inches in the Chihuahuan Desert in the extreme west. There are almost 5,000 species of vascular plants in our state (Correll and Johnston, 1979).

Texas has ten distinct vegetational areas. They are:

1. Pineywoods
2. Gulf Prairies and Marshes
3. Post Oak Savanna
4. Blackland Prairies
5. Cross Timbers and Prairies
6. South Texas Plains
7. Edwards Plateau
8. Rolling Plains
9. High Plains
10. Trans-Pecos

The information for the various Vegetation Areas of Texas is compiled mostly from Preserving Texas’ Natural Heritage, a report by the Natural Heritage Policy Research Project, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, Policy Research Project Report Number 31, 1978, and from Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Donovan Stewart Correll and Marshall Conring Johnston; published by The University of Texas at Dallas, Box 688,  Richardson, Texas 75080, 1979.

How is a prairie different from common fields of grass?

Every acre of high quality prairie has 200 to 300 different kinds of wildflowers and grasses which are native to the American prairies. The pastures you see when you are driving down the highways generally have been grazed more or less continuously since settlement times. This ultimately removes all but the inedible plants.

Fields that have been plowed are replanted in one kind of grass and not the natives which were here in pre-settlement times with the native Americans. Instead, grasses which have been introduced from other parts of the world are planted. Johnson grass, for instance, is not a native grass, but is an invasive grass introduced from the Mediterranean region.

The Tallgrass Prairie is a proud part of our heritage. It is the original unchanged land that the ancestors of this community walked upon. It is the landscape of our pioneer heritage. And it is invaluable in the education of our children. How can we speak of the tallgrass prairie in the schools and have none to show the children? Please! Learn to recognize prairie remnants and save them.

Examine the land, and eliminate:

land that has obviously been plowed
has contours bulldozed into it
is a monoculture of plants
is a field of crops in rows

Study this picture. It’s easy to misidentify this as a “prairie”, especially in winter, but note the monoculture of form and appearance - this is solid Johnson grass.

Look for a field of grasses and wildflowers that seems to have a lot of different kinds of plants. In a good quality prairie, different kinds of grasses abut against each other in a mosaic of textures and subtle color changes as one population of prairie plants yields to another. Check out the Plants of Texas Rangelands virtual herbarium and look for little bluestem, a common indicator of prairie in many prairie types in Texas. Also, look for side-oats grama.

Unfortunately the vast majority of pastures are now planted in King Ranch Bluestem, an invasive Asian exotic grass, and other non-natives. So you’ll need to learn what some of those look like too. If in doubt, take samples of an entire plant to your nearest college or university, or you may send your samples to us along with a large self-addressed stamped envelope and we’ll label your specimens for you.

Prairie Quiz

A woman walking in the grasslands.

Reprinted from The Prairie Dog.

What is…

1. The only grass listed as endangered in Texas?

2. An exotic (non-native and invasive) grass which can kill livestock if eaten just after a freeze?

3. The official State Grass of Texas, found in every bioregion in the state?

4. A group of grasses named after a German botanist?

5. A rhizomatous, cool season grass with fluffy pink to purple seed heads, and in separate male and female plants?

6. An African grass introduced to the Americas through the bedding on the slave ships of pre-Civil War times?

7. One of the Big Four prairie grasses, grows in clones, called Turkey Foot grass by the pioneers?

8. The native lawn grass we used before St. Augustine was introduced?

9. A robust bunch grass growing in bottomlands, with seed heads composed of one seed stacked upon another?

10. The grass that thrived when the buffalo herds had eaten the taller grasses and moved on?


Prairie Quiz Answers

1. Texas wild rice (Zizania texana)

2. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)

3. Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipedula)

4. Muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia species)

5. Texas Bluegrass (Poa arachnifera)

6. Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon)

7. Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

8. Common Carpetgrass (Axonopus affinis)

9. Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum datyloides)

10. Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides)

Significant Public Grasslands in Texas

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conducts an ongoing program to document resources and inventory communities on department lands, including State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas.

Relative to other community types, grasslands are not well represented on TPWD lands. However, the department does control some significant and diverse tracts, and the Resource Management section of the Parks Division has actively restored and rehabilitated a number of diverse grassland communities.

1. Cedar Hill State Park, located near Dallas. Approximately 60 acres in four tracts are preserved as hay meadows. Primarily, the areas are big bluestem-Indiangrass communities with abundant forbs. Continuous stewardship involves burning, haying, and in the future perhaps controlled grazing. One 13-acre tract known as Penn Prairie is primarily big bluestem and is the best known.

2. Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Hemphill County. near Canadian. The WMA contains a 50 acre subirrigated meadow with switchgrass, prairie cordgrass,and eastern gamagrass. This tall grass prairie remnant is subject to grazing and mowing. The area could be a candidate for natural area designation (tall grass prairie remnant) with a slight change in management based on natural community stewardship.

3. Davis Mountains State Park near Ft. Davis. About 200 acres of montane grama grassland located at the transition zone with pinyon-juniper-oak woodland. Acquisition of a grazing lease has allowed community-based stewardship. This current wet year will greatly enhance production. Future stewardship is planned to include prescribed burning. The grassland also supports a good population of Montezuma Quail.

4. Brazos Bend State Park, Fort Bend County. 400 acres of fairly good Indiangrass-little bluestem tall grass coastal prairie is managed through periodic prescribed burning and mowing. It is the best example of coastal prairie on department lands, and is an important aspect of the park interpretive program. Future plans call for introduction of population of Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, common here about 40 years ago.

5. Matagorda Island State Park. An estimated 500-750 acres of barrier island strand/seacoast bluestem prairie are fenced to exclude grazing so that the tract can be managed as a natural community. Sometimes called salt meadow, this narrow grassland occurs in the high sandy ridges behind the dunes and above the marsh grasslands. Very little of this community type remains in Texas.

6. Monahans Sandhills State Park, Ward County near Monahans. The park features a very interesting tall grassland community within the Chihuahuan Desert. Tall grasses such, as giant sandreed, sand bluestem, Havard panicum and little bluestem exist together in mosaic with Havard oak on deep windblown sands. This community type is related to those found on deep sands elsewhere in the Trans-Pecos (e.g., The Nature Conservancy’s Gypsum Dunes Preserve) and eastward in deep sands throughout the Rolling Plains. However, few good undisturbed examples remain.

7. Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso County. Several thousand acres of desert grasslandsare present on the park’s eastern side. These are primarily composed of various species of grama grasses with a high percentage of stem and leaf succulents (desert plants). Together with similar desert grasslands on limestone and igneous rocks at Black Gap WMA, the department controls approximately 10-15,000 acres of good, true desert grasslands. These will be subject to more detailed examination and are likely candidates for designation as natural areas (i.e., excellent examples of natural communities) within existing TPWD holdings.

8. Kreische Brewery/Monument Hill State Park near La Grange. This site contains about 10 acres of tall grass prairie with big bluestem, Indiangrass and abundant forbs on a west-facing slope. This little known grassland is perhaps the most unusual on department lands. It occurs adjacent to post oak woodlands as well as communities akin to those as the Edwards Plateau. The unusual diversity of this site is significant.

The following are examples of grassland restoration projects underway on selected state parklands. All restoration projects have used native seed either collected from remnant areas, purchased where appropriate commercial sources could be found, or provided through cooperative agreement with the NRCS Plant Materials Center at Knox City, Texas. Each example describes community restoration efforts that began with former croplands.

Copper Breaks State Park. Hardeman County. This is a 120 acre project begun in 1974 and reseeded with initial mix of about 15 species. Today the area at the entrance to the park looks like a natural prairie. It is maintained by prescribed burning and is lightly grazed with the department longhorn herd.

Caprock Canyons State Park, Briscoe County, near Quitaque. This project was begun in 1980on former cotton land and adjacent to an approximately 250 acre area restored by the Soil Conservation Service’s Great Plains program in the 1960’s. Diverse seeding and subsequent management have created a 600 acre mixed grassland that one must cross to arrive at the park headquarters. In 1983, black-tailed prairie dogs were introduced. Today a small colony is well established. Several bison were added in 1985, and in the winter of 1987 10 pronghorn antelope were added by Wildlife Division personnel. Today this “natural” community is an important interpretive attraction at the park. Citizens can now experience, on a small scale, the countryside as it must have appeared before the land was modified by modern man.

TPWD Headquarters Complex in Austin. Approximately 20 acres of the TPWD headquarters grounds, former cotton land, have been restored to resemble the natural Blackland Prairie community that once occurred here. The project was begun in 1976. Today the site is dominated by Indiangrass, little bluestem, side-oats grama, and a variety of forbs and wildflowers. It is managed by mowing and occasional burning.