TPWD’s Top 10 Conservation News Stories of 2009

Steve Lightfoot, 512-389-4701,

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Editors Note: In this issue of TPWD News, we forsake our usual format and provide a summary of the top news stories of 2009. Details about these topics can be found in the department’s online news archive. Please note that TPWD will not be distributing weekly news during the coming holidays. News distribution will resume during the first full week of January, 2010. Happy Holidays!

1. Drought

The seven-year drought of the 1950s may be the longest on record for Texas, but the dry heat of 2009 garnered notoriety as arguably the most intense. Fueled by a combination of record-setting heat waves and record-low rainfall during spring and summer, the impacts from drought to the state’s natural and cultural resources make it the top news story of the year for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In central and south Texas, the regions hit hardest, nearly 80 counties were considered to be in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought condition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in April designated 70 of those counties as primary disaster areas due to drought, associated wildfires and above-normal temperatures.

As aquifer and reservoir water levels shrank under a blistering sun, concerns from biologists grew. Stresses on wildlife populations, specifically wild turkey and deer, negatively affected health and reproduction. Low dissolved oxygen levels created by stratified water columns caused fish die-offs and salinity levels in bays and estuaries rose dramatically. Salty bays and other poor habitat conditions caused by drought may have contributed to a bad year for the world’s only wild flock of endangered whooping cranes. Flock numbers declined in 2009 for the first time since 2001.

State park sites with air conditioned cabins and water-based activities provided some relief from the heat, but the Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimated losses to land-based outdoor recreation opportunities, such as hiking and hunting, in excess of $100 million.

The good news is that the drought finally broke in the fall, thanks to the El Nino weather pattern, and habitat conditions in Texas are recovering.

2. Invasive Species

As if naturally-driven impacts to the Texas landscape weren’t enough, threats from non-native invasive species compound problems like drought and pose a larger threat over the long-term. Several invasive species took on new urgency in 2009.

Arguably the most problematic aquatic vegetation in Texas, giant salvinia has been present in Texas over 10 years and is confirmed in 11 reservoirs across the state, but its spread in 2009 signaled a heightened challenge. The fate of Caddo Lake is, at best, uncertain due to the expansion of giant salvinia.

Another invasive, zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), was confirmed to have spread from Lake Texoma into the head waters of Lake Lavon in August, and experts fear the exotic species could eventually spread throughout the Red River and Trinity River watersheds.

Since 2006 there have been five documented cases of zebra mussels being found on boats at Lake Texoma that were trailered in from other states. All five boats were quarantined and cleaned of all mussels prior to being allowed to launch into Lake Texoma. However, April 3 of this year marked the first time that an adult zebra mussel was documented as living in Texas waters. Since that time, additional live specimens have been reported in Lake Texoma and are now believed to be well established.

Not all exotic species gained notoriety in 2009 for their negative impacts on the resource. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission approved this year new rules allowing the culture and sale of water spinach by permit in Texas This preventive step was designed to protect native ecosystems that so far have not been damaged by the restricted exotic plant, a locally popular food item in certain types of cuisine.

Only individuals who grow water spinach will be required to obtain an exotic species permit. Those who purchase water spinach for a commercial purpose will be required to maintain invoices and sales receipts, but the requirements don’t apply to people who purchase water spinach for personal consumption.

3. Ike Recovery

Less than a year after Hurricane Ike’s massive storm surge leveled Galveston Island and sent a destructive wave across southeast Texas, recovery efforts illustrate both the cost and complexity of repairs and restoration and the resilience and value of the state’s cultural and natural resources.

Galveston Island State Park, whose beachside facilities were obliterated during the storm, reopened to campers thanks to support from the Friends of Galveston Island State Park, and hard-hit San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site made great strides in repairs.

Galveston Bay’s fertile oyster grounds, which were scoured by the storm, are in the recovery process and massive debris cleanup efforts at sites lake the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area are helping restore critical wetland habitat along the upper coast.

4. Texas Outdoor Family

The Texas Outdoor Family program reached new heights this year in bringing hundreds of families into the world of nature and the outdoors at Texas state parks . As the program expanded across Texas in 2009, the innovative weekend, how-to workshops reached about 2,000 kids and adults this year, up from 500 people when the program began in state parks in 2008.

The program appears not only to be removing barriers to enjoying camping and the great outdoors, but also to be reaching into urban communities to attract a diverse clientele. So far, roughly two-thirds of the TOF participants have been non-Anglo.

Toyota has come on board as a sponsor of Texas Outdoor Family, helping provide funding for equipment to make the weekend workshops possible, and more sponsors are being sought who want to help introduce families to nature and the outdoors.

5. Hunting/Fishing Regulations

TPWD implemented sweeping changes in 2009 to the state’s white-tailed deer hunting regulations, as well as significant revisions to ensure a healthy future for flounder and alligator gar.

One of the biggest changes involves further expansion of the department’s successful antler restriction regulations into 52 additional counties where biologists have identified a need to provide greater protection of younger buck deer.

The department also reduced the bag limit on flounder in an attempt to reverse a long-term downward trend in the abundance of southern flounder. TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division data shows that the relative abundance of flounder has fallen by about 50 percent since the early 1980s.

TPW Commissioners also passed the state’s first measure aimed at protecting alligator gar, which can live up to 75 years and are the largest freshwater fishes in Texas. The commission changed harvest regulations from no length or daily bag limit to one fish per day.

6. Fee Increases

The TPW Commission approved in 2009 increases to hunting and fishing licenses, as well as boat titling and registration fees.
A bigger increase had been contemplated, but after considering the economic recession and other factors, most fees increased by five percent. Hunting license fees rose from $23 to $25, while the popular Super Combo all-inclusive license increased from $64 to $68. The biggest increase in license fees approved by the commission affects lifetime licenses. The resident lifetime fishing and hunting licenses increased to $1,000 and the lifetime combination license increased to $1,800. The decision marked the first license fee increase in five years.

7. Game Warden Training Center

Phase one of construction on a new Texas Game Warden Training Center was nearing completion in late 2009. TPWD officials and partners from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the Police Activities League and the Texas Game Warden Association broke ground April 9 on the planned $20 million training complex in Hamilton County.

For more than 30 years, game warden cadets trained in a converted warehouse on 6.2 acres in downtown Austin, along with a patchwork of borrowed facilities around the state.

The nonprofit Police Activities League donated the site for the new complex and the Texas Legislature authorized an initial infusion of $3.6 million from the sale of the Austin property to begin construction on 39,000 square feet of instructional, administrative and residential facilities. Along with the state’s initial investment, private donors have given about $6.4 million.

8. East Texas Fish Hatchery

TPWD made substantial progress in 2009 on construction of the new $27 million John D. Parker East Texas State Fish Hatchery, despite weather delays and infrastructure challenges. One year into the construction phase, work is about 30 percent complete. The project is currently about six months behind schedule due to the effects of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and problems with the massive drain pipes that carry water from the ponds. Late in the year, officials began mediation efforts to put construction of the new hatchery near Jasper back on track.

Although progress has been made since the project began a year ago, including construction of the 45 acres of production ponds and harvest kettles, a 34,000-square foot production building and an 8,200-square foot office building, officials say they are still working to find a solution to the drain pipe issue.

9. Big Bend Ranch Public Access

TPWD celebrated expanded recreational opportunities at Texas’ largest and wildest state park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, during 2009, including a free, daylong Fiesta for the public Nov. 14.

The recently acquired Fresno Ranch, a significant and strategic 7,000-acre addition to the park, paved the way for greater public access to remote parts of the park and features wild canyons, stunning vistas, historical roads, rich riparian habitat and Rio Grande frontage.

Thanks to the labors of park staff and friends during the past two years, today’s adventurers now have more opportunities to hike, bike and ride horses along many miles of newly accessible trails and jeep roads, and much greater access to more than 50 new campsites, many of them in the more rugged, remote and scenic areas of Big Bend Ranch’s backcountry.

10. Wildlife Expo Suspended

Suspension of the annual Texas Parks & Wildlife Expo in Austin for the first time since 1992 created opportunities in 2009 for organizers to plan expo-type events in major urban centers by partnering with selected stock shows, rodeos and other family-oriented cultural events to present the new Life’s Better Outside® Experience in 2010.

Events are planned for 2010 during the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Buc Days Celebration in Corpus Christi and AlleyFest in Longview.

Since 1992, TPWD and its partners have produced the free, annual Expo as a public service the first weekend of each October. During the event’s 17-year run, more than half a million visitors of all ages got to try activities like fishing, shooting, birding, photography, camping, climbing, mountain biking and more with gear and guidance provided free.

The new Life’s Better Outside® Experience will continue that tradition. Earlier in 2009, TPWD leaders announced the Austin-based Expo would be suspended for at least two years due to declines in sponsorship support related to the current recession. On the up side, the decision gave additional impetus to expand department outreach efforts beyond Central Texas.