Our Prairie People: Julie Mattox

Published by Aspen Huebner on

From Dairy Farm to Wildlife Haven:
Julie Mattox’s Prairie Restoration Journey

Join us as we explore the remarkable journey of Julie Mattox, whose passion for prairie ecosystems, particularly the tall grass prairie, has led to transformative work in conservation. Through innovative approaches and community engagement, Julie has become a beacon of inspiration in prairie conservation. From reintroducing grazing cattle to managing invasive species, her dedication has yielded remarkable results, with native grasses flourishing and wildlife returning to the land

Can you share with us the journey that led you to become passionate about prairie ecosystems, particularly the tall grass prairie?

For over thirty years, I was fortunate to work outdoors all over the US and experience the many different ecosystems this country has to offer. My survey company was hired to participate on many projects on State and Federal lands. This required collaboration with biologists and botanists for environmental assessments to evaluate the potential impacts of proposed actions on the environment by energy companies. I became enamored while working with those professionals on the mixed grass prairies of the west. The diversity of the wildlife was astounding to me. The prairie was always in the back of my mind as the place I wanted to live and experience. In those years that I was working, I never saw a tallgrass prairie because there was less than one percent and I only learned about it when I began researching the restoration process.

What inspired you to embark on the restoration project of your old dairy farmland, and how did you become involved with the Pastures for Upland Birds Program?

About three years after I moved to East Texas in 1996, a dairy operation reopened that surrounded my property of 1.2 acres on three sides. The pasture at that time was mostly Bermuda grass with remnants of native grasses and forbs. Not long after the opening of the dairy the wildlife began to disappear from that beautiful 70-acre pasture. Notably, the grassland birds, insects, snakes and small mammals. The flies became unbearable. I went as far as to spray my property to rid the flies. Not only did I do nothing to deter the flies, but I am sure I killed the last of the beneficial insects on the property. Dilemma time! Move, or live with the conditions as it was, or buy out the dairy. After ten years of negotiations with the dairy farmer I bought out that dairy. For many years after the purchase I had the Bermuda grass pastures cut, baled, and sold the hay. There was that day I realized that I had a dead zone of no wildlife. I decided that it was time to restore the pasture back to a prairie, but I felt that I did not have the expertise to do it on my own. In my mind, I foolishly thought that if I planted natives that I would not need to do anything after that. I requested technical guidance from Texas Parks and Wildlife and entered into the PUB program in 2015.

Could you describe the process of restoring native grasses and wildlife on your property? What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

The process of restoring the grasses and forbs through the TP&WD PUB program was unequaled. I received technical guidance from the TPWD biologist on exactly how to proceed. In June of 2015, with my tractor and a borrowed sprayer, the herbicide was applied to the Bermuda pastures. The pastures remained idle until January 2016 when the native grasses and forbs were planted. TPWD even supplied the no-till drill. Then it was a wait and see what grows. The very first season the wildlife began to return. The old dairy had a large component of cool season plants that was not anticipated. There are areas that have excellent results and some not so good. Slowly, with reseeding and experimenting with other techniques, the restoration is moving along.

There were several people in the community that were displeased with the restoration when we first began. To many, the property was weedy, unsightly and potential fire hazard. Some community members expressed concern that the property diminished the overall appearance of the city and it was highly suggested that I mow it down. After sharing information about the restoration process and what we were trying to achieve the community came onboard and has been supportive ever since.

What motivated you to start the Northeast Texas Prairie Community Classroom, and what impact has it had on the community and students involved?

The old milk shed was eventually restored to a space that we soon realized would be a wonderful place for workshops and as a teaching facility. The local home school community became involved and before long the Northeast Texas Prairie Community Classroom emerged. We offer small groups with a wide variety of fun, hands-on, learning opportunities, such as Science (Backyard Habitats), Outdoor Exploration and Discovery in the prairie ecology, Nature Journaling, Math Lab, Spanish / ASL, Art, Poetry, Reading Theatre, Book to Film Club, Cultural festivities. Kids lead as they lean in to their passions with curiousity and collaboration and experience nature and all of its diversity. Kelli Ebel from the Ebel Grasslands leads the classroom with her expertise and dedication.
Several workshops are hosted throughout the year culminating in Prairie Day at the end of September. This annual event brings together many agencies and groups that share the same core values that would otherwise not partner and learn from each other. These include the Texas Grazing Lands Coalition, Ebel Grasslands Ranch, Texas Parks & Wildlife, US Fish & Wildlife Services, Natural Resource Conservation Services, Native Prairies Association of Texas, Master Gardeners, Texas Master Naturalists, Audubon Society, Bamert Seed Company and The Blackland Raptor Center. Other groups included are Texas A&M AgriLife, Purple Martin Conservation Association, Riders Up, Bizzy Bee Academy, Yantis City Council, Yantis Volunteer Fire Department, local banks and business, and many volunteers that contributed their time support.
The event this year will be on September 28th . We also offer workshops that provide information and teachings on the restoration process, grazing management, plant and bird identification and creating pocket prairies.

What have been some of the most rewarding moments for you throughout this restoration journey?

Bringing people together, sharing successes as well as ‘works in progress’, and gathering inspiration from my many mentors which I then impart that knowledge to others. Seeing the wildlife return, especially the grassland birds, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my journey. In addition, learning the ‘art of observation’ has brought more appreciation of the diversity and gratitude for the prairie restoration.

In the article “Thirteen Cows and a Community” you mentioned starting with just a few head of cattle and gradually expanding to thirteen cows. Could you elaborate on the role of cattle in native prairie restoration and how they have positively impacted the health of your grassland?

Historically, buffalo were a driving ecological force in North American grasslands. Their grazing patterns created successional vegetation, natural fire regimes as well as man induced fire, helped maintain the health and vigor of the grasslands and helped to provide habitat for insects, birds, and small mammals. The rotational grazed cattle now replace what the buffalo once did. A large component of the property was cool season grasses which did not allow the planted native grasses and forbs to emerge. After introducing the cattle and removing the cool season grasses, we saw an explosion of native grasses and forbs.

You mentioned the challenges of managing invasive species and conducting controlled burns. Could you share some of the strategies you’ve used to address these challenges effectively?

This is a never-ending challenge to remove the invasive woody species that can overtake the prairie. By using prescribed burning and limited and selected herbicide treatments we are able to keep the intrusive species in check.

Could you tell us more about the research project with the Purple Martin Conservation Association and your involvement in providing housing for purple martins on your property?

I began providing housing for the purple martins in 1997 because I was told that they eat mosquitoes. This, however, is a myth. Over the years the hobby developed into a passion, then an obsession, and now an obligation to sustain the species. If every purple martin landlord east of the Rockies took down their housing, the species would cease to exist. What a responsibility! Gaining knowledge and information from the Purple Martin Conservation Association, the colony on the property has now expanded to 92 available nest cavities. One third of the population of the purple martins has been lost over the last forty to fifty years as well as many other aerial insectivores and migratory species. In 2021 and 2022, the PMCA and other researchers banded, took measurements and blood samples to try to determine the reasons for the decline of the martin. This year the PMCA and Texas A&M will be conducting research at my colony and others by attaching mini GPS antennas on over 100 martins. These devices and the information that they provide will be collected from the birds when they return the following year from the Amazon rainforest. Little has been known, until the advance of technology where the martins spend their time during our North American winter. We know a lot about the purple martin in North America, but to understand the decline we need to know about their time in South America.

How do you maintain and monitor the purple martin houses?

This year (2024), the first martin arrived from South America on January 31st . Monitoring the nests begins about April 1st and lasts until the middle of July. I record data every four days on each nest cavity. The number of eggs laid, eggs that hatch and the number of nestlings that fledge is the information that is provided to the PMCA at the end of each season. Nest replacements are done when the nestlings are between 16 and 20 days old to help prevent nest mite infestations. When the season is over the nest cavities are cleaned out and stored until the next year.

Are there any other bird species you’re interested in supporting through habitat enhancement projects?

The grassland birds have always been my highest priority. Dickcissels and Eastern Meadowlarks now nest on the property since the restoration began. Bluebird boxes and Black Bellied Whistling Duck houses provide places for those birds to nest. Numerous brush piles throughout the property provide shelter for wintering, migrating, and resident birds. The Chimney Swift is another aerial insectivore that is in a steep decline due to habitat loss. Providing Chimney Swift towers is a great way to help the swift with a nesting area. In the near future I am planning on providing several towers.

Interview by Aspen Huebner
Photos by Sean Fitzgerald