77 Ranch Award Shows Water Connection From Landscape To Faucet

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BLOOMING GROVE, Texas — Folks in Fort Worth don’t know it, but the water coming out of their faucets is cleaner and cheaper because of ranchers like Gary and Sue Price. The Price’s model ranching operation shows how enlightened landowners can make a living in ways that benefit people and wildlife, agriculture and the environment.

On May 23 in Austin, the Price’s 77 Ranch south of Dallas will receive the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas from Sand County Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, part of the department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program. Every year, TPWD seeks to recognize private land stewards in 10 ecological regions across the state, as well as the Leopold Conservation Award steward of the year.

For the third year, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards benefit from association with Sand County Foundation, an international non-profit organization devoted to private landowner conservation. Each ecoregion award recipient and the wildlife management association recipient will receive $1,000 from the foundation, while the Prices as Leopold Conservation Award recipients will receive $10,000 and the Leopold crystal. The purpose is to recognize outstanding examples of voluntary stewardship.

“Our main goal is sustainability,” said Gary Price. “We’re trying to run a family operation. My son runs a ranch in West Texas, and I’d like him to have the option to come back here and run this place. It’s the old standard of leave it better than I found it.”

The 77 Ranch encompasses about 2,160 acres in Navarro County. Almost all of it, about 1,730 acres, is in native range or woodlands, with about 200 acres of cropland and about 90 acres of non-native grass pasture. About 40 acres of small ponds and lakes provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

“The thing that really stands out to me is this is a landowner who clearly sees the whole picture, who understands the ecological processes and management practices that help the land function optimally,” said Jay Whiteside, TPWD wildlife biologist in Barry, who nominated the 77 Ranch for the award. “His thoughts are first and foremost toward the land and making it the best it can be, from a production standpoint and from a biodiversity standpoint.”

When raindrops fall on the 77 Ranch, tall native grasses with deep fibrous roots catch and hold the water, slowly filtering and releasing it, recharging the underground water table and sending cleaner water with less silty erosion downstream to Richland-Chambers Reservoir. For this reason, Tarrant Regional Water District has for years been providing grants to ranchers like the Prices.

“The water district is convinced that what happens in the watershed very often drives not just the quantity of water in our reservoirs, but also water quality,” said Darrel Andrews, Tarrant Regional Water District assistant environmental director. “That in turn affects the water we sell to our customers in the western half of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It translates to reduced costs because the water is cheaper to treat, because the water going into the reservoir is cleaner.”

Andrews says that in the past decade, TRWD has provided grant funding to 195 property owners in the Richland Creek watershed engaged in 1,225 different management projects to improve water quality. On the 77 Ranch, this includes incentives to put up cross fencing to facilitate rotational cattle grazing, build water impoundments, and plant native grasses. The district’s Mill Creek Watershed Project is coordinated with USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants to ranchers. The Prices put their own time and money into the projects, for which they get some reimbursement.

“The key for me was when I realized about water cycles,” Price said. “You can never control how much water you get, but you can control how much you keep. When you see that and understand it, it’s going to completely overhaul your land management. What we used to call weeds can be very beneficial plants.”

The recent drought complicated everything. Price said it was the most severe they’d seen in 30 years—the ranch had stock tanks and lakes run dry that had never been dry. The past two years in particular brought extreme drought to the area, and the Prices came very close to selling all of their cattle last fall. Fortunately, rain finally began to fall this spring, filling up tanks and lakes.

“When you lose production, you lose income, and trying to balance financial needs with protecting natural resources can be quite a challenge,” Price said. “But we know that by protecting the resource, when we finally do get water, the country is going to respond better and we’re better off in the end. We’re not looking for any short-term gains; we’re in it for the long-term.”

The pride of the 77 Ranch is a remnant patch of Blackland Prairie in the north pasture, some of the last unbroken sod in the region, land that’s never been plowed. The Blackland Prairie ecological region, named for its rich black soil, extends from North Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, down into Central Texas. Today, only a tiny percentage of this habitat remains untouched. Biologists can tell the Prices’ north pasture contains some of this original native prairie because of the mix of plants there, including rattlesnake master, a 3-to-4 foot tall yucca-like plant, and ground plums, a low-growing forb or herbaceous flowering plant.

“To see those plants and grasses and their ability to produce a lot of animal forage and respond in all different drought situations, it’s really shown me what the potential of the land can be,” Price said. “Many people have said that’s how this land probably looked when the bison roamed through here. And that’s what we’re trying to simulate with rotational cattle grazing.”

The Prices have some pasture land inherited from previous owners covered with non-native coastal bermuda grass, a low-growing turf grass introduced as cattle forage. But in recent years they’ve gravitated toward tall native bunch grasses, planting or protecting classic prairie species like eastern gamma grass, sideoats grama and big and little bluestem. This benefits not only water resources but wildlife as well.

One beneficiary is the bobwhite quail, a popular game bird emerging as a poster child for native grassland restoration across Texas. Like many places in Texas, the 77 Ranch used to have a lot of quail here, and years ago hosted hunters from the Metroplex, but in recent years few wild quail have been seen. Across Texas, numbers and distribution of quail have declined in recent years, primarily due to loss of native grassland habitat. The Prices have helped enlist their neighbors to reverse that trend by forming the Western Navarro Bobwhite Quail Initiative of about 20,000 acres in western Navarro County.

“All of us are cattle producers, but we’re showing how it’s not either-or,” Price said. “Good native grasses and plants can provide high-nutrient, drought-tolerant cattle forage, and also provide good quail habitat.”

Price says the 77 Ranch got its name “from an old cowboy from San Saba, Lee Low.” The Prices bought their first 300 acres from Low in 1976. “It was his father’s brand back in the 1800s,” Price said. “His only son had died suddenly, and he wanted to sell me the place. That’s how we got started, and we’ve been able to add to that, and have almost bought a little bit of land every year.”

This year’s 12th annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. The program is designed to educate landowners and the public and to encourage participation in habitat conservation. TPWD’s primary partner in the awards is Sand County Foundation, with sponsors that include Texas Wildlife Association, Alcoa Rockdale Operations, The Nature Conservancy of Texas, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Farm Bureau and H. Yturria Land and Cattle Co.

The Leopold Conservation Award honors the legacy of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered the father of wildlife ecology. His collection of essays, “A Sand County Almanac,” remains one of the world’s best-selling natural history books. Leopold’s godson, Reed Coleman, formed Sand County Foundation in 1965 to protect the Leopold farm from encroaching lot development along the Wisconsin River.

“We are proud to, once again, participate in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program,” said Dr. Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation president. “Texas has a great tradition of private landowners who practice sustainable conservation. The Leopold Conservation Award is an opportunity for us to honor their work.”

More information, including how to nominate property owners for awards, is online. Nominations are accepted June 1 through Nov. 30 each year for the following year’s awards program.

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