What are some of the major challenges to conservation and biodiversity in Texas? Top issues include habitat loss and fragmentation, limited water for environmental flows, invasive species and climate change.
Changing Demands on Land Resources
Human population growth and resulting land fragmentation, or the division of single ownership properties into two or more parcels, have had profound effects on the Texas landscape. Changing land use and fragmentation alters natural habitats, which can threaten the viability of those habitats and sustainability of wildlife populations. Such changes will increase pressures on natural resources throughout the state, especially near growing metropolitan areas.
Non-native plant and animal species that are introduced either by design or by accident can cause unintended harmful consequences. Non-native species may become invasive, spreading rapidly, displacing native species and threatening community relationships that are necessary to sustain the aquatic environment. Some examples of undesirable or noxious non-native invasive species include salt cedar, Chinese tallow, Chinaberry, Privet, K-R bluestem (also known as Mediterranean bluestem), Japanese honeysuckle, and giant reed. Chinese tallow has invaded woodlands and coastal prairies; left unchecked, the invasion changes these diverse habitats into practical monocultures, reducing diversity and habitat integrity for native plants and animals. Introduced grass species can create monocultures devoid of quality wildlife forage and of limited useful habitat for young ground nesting birds and burrowing small mammals. For some ground dwelling birds like quail, dense turf-type grasses create a barrier to movement; in that way, their habitat is functionally fragmented. Through improved range management techniques, they can be significantly reduced or controlled to benefit water quality and quantity as well as wildlife habitat. Imported red fire ants in eastern Texas have had profound, if not fully understood, adverse impacts on many wildlife species. Eighteen non-native fish species have been documented in Texas as well as a number of snail and bi-valve species. Some have had an extremely negative impact on native fish communities. Further, great effort and financial resources have been expended to control invasive aquatic plants such as water hyacinth, hydrilla and giant salvinia, which have negatively affected native freshwater communities.
Overgrazing and Fire Suppression
Improper grazing and fire suppression have contributed to a drastic alteration of the native landscape. Improper grazing results in soil erosion, decreased diversity in forage and cover for nesting as well as other needs of wildlife. In addition, fire suppression has caused native grasslands, savannahs and open woodlands to become overgrown with thickets of woody species.
Reduced Water Quality
Point source and nonpoint source pollution threaten native fish and wildlife species that rely on clean water. Water that will not support fish and wildlife will not support human needs either. In the next decade, pollutant concentrations in rivers and streams may increase to a point where they have a detrimental effect on aquatic life including low oxygen, harmful algal growth and fish kills.
Reduced Water Quantity
As the population grows and water demands increase, water flow in rivers and streams, or instream flow, may decrease. Decreased or altered water quantity will affect the ecosystems, habitats and wildlife that depend on the natural flow regime of the stream or river. For example, groundwater withdrawals, reservoir operations and water diversions make rivers, streams and springs and the fish and wildlife resource they support exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of drought. All bays and estuaries have great commercial, recreational and conservation benefits. The greatest long-term threat to the health and productivity of bays is diminished freshwater inflows.
Limited Understanding of Complex Natural Systems
Research is a critical component of natural resource conservation. Without reliable knowledge and rigorous scientific inquiry, scientists cannot make informed conservation decisions. For instance, some principles of wildlife ecology, such as the early research of edge effects on wildlife, have since been found to inadequately describe natural systems. The decision making process at TPWD must remain grounded in the best science available to assure that policy development, regulatory action and resource management are accurate and effective.
- Over the past century, average temperatures in Texas and other southern states have risen much less than elsewhere in North America, from a 0°F rise in East Texas to up to 2°F in Far West Texas. But, researchers believe this anomaly is temporary, and in coming decades Texas temperatures could rise by 3 to 7°F in summer, with increases in the July heat index of 10 to 25°F.
- Precipitation projections through 2100 for Texas are highly uncertain. Some models show increased precipitation over parts of the state, but other models project more arid conditions like those we are experiencing presently. It is likely that future precipitation patterns will differ either seasonally or geographically from historical patterns.
- Texas bay waters have warmed by an average of nearly 3°F over the past 25 years. This mostly reflects warmer winters, not warmer summers.
- Texas coastal sea level is rising. At a continued subsidence rate of four inches per century, Gulf coast sea levels could be 17 inches higher by 2100. This will mean more frequent and longer flooding of marshes that could convert to open water. Seagrass beds will appear and disappear with changing water depths, tidal flats will spread inland and bays and estuaries will expand. Coastal plains ecosystems may be threatened by saltwater intrusion.
- Texas Biodiversity and Risk
- Texas has a rich natural heritage, which raises the stakes for risks from climate change and other factors. For example, Texas ranks third in the nation for endemic vertebrate species, with 126 such species found nowhere else on the globe. However, Texas has a total of nearly 180 threatened or endangered animals and plants and an additional 58 vertebrates that are accorded high priority in the Texas Wildlife Action Plan. These species would be the most vulnerable to climate change and complicating factors such as habitat loss and fragmentation.
- Plant, Fish and Wildlife Impacts
- Climate is the key determining variable of species distributions.
- As the Earth warms, species tend to shift to northern latitudes and higher altitudes. Rising temperatures are lengthening growing seasons and changing migration patterns of birds and butterflies. More than 70 species of South Texas birds have ranged north and east, and some scientists believe this is due to climate change.
- Pests and diseases are increasing in range because warmer winters reduce die-off, and parasite development rates and infectivity increase with temperature. Woody shrubs invading prairie grasslands are favored by increases in concentrations of CO2, changes in soil moisture cycles, fire suppression, and soil disturbances.
- TPWD biologists have for decades been tracking the expanding northward range of white-winged dove, originally confined to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, now common in Central Texas.
- South Texas bird species are expanding northward, including the least grebe, great kiskadee, green jay and buff-bellied hummingbird, although their range expansions are likely due also to habitat change including fire suppression and resulting brush encroachment.
- Gray snapper have been ranging farther north since the 1990s; once found only in the lower Laguna Madre and off the extreme southern shore of Texas, they are now migrating all the way up to Sabine Lake near Port Arthur, and are routinely caught by anglers there. Snook, a large game fish that favors warmer water, have also been appearing more frequently in Texas waters.
- Plant community changes are occurring, possibly due to climate change and other factors, and these changes will in turn affect fish and wildlife and people. In Texas, as elsewhere across the U.S., the growing season is lengthening; plants are greening up sooner and dying back later. For example, cold-sensitive plant species such as the red mangrove are moving north up the Texas coast. Early maps showed no red mangrove north of the Rio Grande estuary, and today they are appearing as far north as the edge of Matagorda Bay.
- Water Resource Impacts
- Higher temperatures in lakes, wetlands, and rivers will likely result in lower dissolved oxygen, which could mean more fish kills. Rates of decay will accelerate, possibly leading indirectly to eutrophication and more frequent blooms of harmful algae such as golden alga and red tide.
- Changes in the seasonality of river flows, and in the amount and distribution of rainfall, could alter the magnitude, timing, and rate of river flow, which could adversely affect river, estuary, and riparian species adapted to specific flow regimes for spawning cues or other life needs.
What’s Being Done?
TPWD encourages private land stewardship, expanded research and monitoring of habitats and species, and exploring partnerships and strategies to mitigate impacts.
The Texas Wildlife Action Plan: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, with input from partners, stakeholders and the public, completed the Texas Wildlife Action Plan in September 2005. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the Plan in early 2006. State Wildlife Action Plans are being created by every state to prevent species from being federally “listed” as threatened or endangered, conserving wildlife and natural places and enhancing our quality of life. The agency and our partners have been implementing elements of the Plan and the Plan will be revised in 2010. Information gathered through action on the conservation priorities will be key to adapting and revising the plan to reflect current conservation needs.
As communities grow, state wildlife plans will help fulfill our responsibility to conserve wildlife and the places they live for future generations. The State Wildlife Plans are not only addressing unmet wildlife conservation needs, they are also leading to a new era of coordinated strategic planning to better identify problems and solutions on a regional and nationwide basis.