Regional Lone Star Land Stewards Persevere Through Drought, Down Economy

Steve Lightfoot, 512-389-4701,

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AUSTIN – The ability to manage land in difficult times, through extended dry periods and economic downturns, is the hallmark of a good land steward. This year’s recipients of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards are prime examples.

On May 22 at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, TPWD will recognize land stewards representing private ranches in various ecological regions, plus awards recognizing achievements of a wildlife management association, and leaders of the Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan and Recovery Team. Also, the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas will be presented to the 2012 statewide land steward, yet to be announced, by the Sand County Foundation.

The annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards 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 the Sand County Foundation, with current sponsors that include Gulf States Toyota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Capital Farm Credit, Texas Wildlife Association,  USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas Farm Bureau, Bamberger Ranch Preserve, Llano Springs Ranch, Ltd., and Gardner Appraisal Group..

Begun in 1996 by the TPWD Private Lands Advisory Committee, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program objectives are to recognize private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation on their lands, publicize the best examples of sound natural resource management practices, encourage youth education and participation in promoting responsible habitat management and improved ecosystem health, promote long-term conservation of unique natural and cultural resources, promote ecosystem awareness and acknowledge the best conservation practices in the state’s ecological regions, enhance relationships between private landowners and Texas natural resource agencies and illustrate the important role of private landowners in the future of Texas natural resources.

This year’s recipients characterize the unique cultural and natural heritage of Texas. Landowners restoring degraded habitats while conserving flora and fauna are a common thread. Following are summaries of stewardship highlights for each of the ecoregion and category recipients.

Cross Timbers and Prairies

Colonel Burns Ranch, Brown County; Toni and Paul Burns, owners/operators

Purchased by Dr. Paul Burns’ grandfather 138 years ago, the Colonel Burns Ranch mission is to restore native habitat and preserve family history. A true student of the land, Dr. Burns has spent years researching land management topics and seeking professional advice in implementing management decisions. Holistic decision-making is supported by meticulous records of habitat management practices, rainfall, and plant and animal response. Rest rotation grazing, selective brush removal, and reseeding have restored plant diversity and improved range condition. Habitat restoration has resulted in increased spring flow, and numerous watering facilities, including trough overflows, have been installed at new and existing well sites. The family has restored most historical sites on the ranch, including three homes, a barn and eight water troughs. The owners have hosted field tours and offer the ranch as an outdoor classroom for university students.  Bordering the Muse Wildlife Management Area, the ranch actively seeks cooperative efforts with TPWD to expand research and landowner outreach opportunities.

Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes

Wexford Ranches, Goliad, Victoria, Refugio Counties; Louise S. O’Connor, owner, Kai Buckert, manager

This 30,000-acre ranch complex has been managed by the O’Connor family for 136 years, with one constant goal: to enhance and maintain the land, wildlife and livestock for the benefit of future generations. Through adaptation and commitment over many years, the family has preserved one of last and largest remaining tracts of coastal prairie habitat in Texas. The family has achieved this by conservative stocking rates and rigorous brush management systems using chemical and mechanical treatments along with prescribed fire. The ranch has partnered with several agencies and organizations to restore and enhance habitat for the endangered Atwater’s prairie chicken. Inventors of the Wexford Corral Hog Trap, the ranch has hosted numerous field days on feral hog control, prescribed burning, brush management, and archery and firearm safety. Youth hunting opportunities are also provided.

Rolling Plains

Gibson Ranches LLC, Cottle and King Counties; Mike and Shonda Gibson, owners/operators

For 40 years, Mike and Shonda Gibson have focused on range restoration using conservative stocking, prescribed burning and brush management done in a way that leaves adequate cover and quality plants. The result is diverse habitats for bobwhite quail, turkey, and white-tailed deer, with breathtaking vistas of prairie and waterways where a commercial cattle operation exists in harmony with abundant and healthy wildlife. One of the surprising benefits of restoration has been the return of several flowing springs and the return of beavers, which are building small wetlands at no charge. The Gibsons host frequent photography workshops and educational outings for local schools. Visitors to the ranch observe outstanding land stewardship inspired by a lifetime of wildlife appreciation combined with a practical and innovative approach to beef production. Innovation also includes “patch burning,” which uses prescribed fire to move cattle away from favored areas to graze re-growth in underutilized portions of the pasture, mimicking the historical movements of bison.

Trans Pecos

Double H Ranch, El Paso County; Charles, Barbara, David and Anne Horak, owners/op.

With a philosophy that they are only temporary land stewards with a responsibility to leave the land better for future generations, the Horak family’s careful management has steadily improved range conditions for both livestock and wildlife. Working with NRCS, the ranch has transformed creosote/tarbush flats into productive grasslands through aerial application of herbicide. Miles of wildlife-friendly fence has been built and water lines and troughs placed for better water distribution. Mule deer are managed through annual census and harvest recommendations, with the ranch serving as a host for the Big Time Texas Hunts Grand Slam mule deer hunt. Watersheds have been improved and soil erosion minimized through use of diversions on ranch roads and good grazing management. The Horaks don’t just show up at every educational opportunity, they take the knowledge and use it on the ranch. They also share with others, hosting Boy Scouts, church and community groups, college classes, and TPWD biologists, taking every opportunity to educate and involve people in conservation.

Wildlife Management Association

Arroyo Veleno Wildlife Management COOP, Zapata County; David Dodier, David Volpe, Ernesto Uribe, and Jose Lopez families

Since 2001, the families of the Arroyo Veleño Wildlife Management COOP have been working together to manage habitat, conduct wildlife surveys, attain harvest recommendations, control exotic animals, provide hunting opportunity, and maintain a diversity of native wildlife. Practices such as rotational grazing, disking, native grass restoration, and feral hog control have helped to increase bobwhite and scaled quail abundance. Although deer and quail management are important, COOP members are just as dedicated to protection of nongame and rare species. Both the Lopez and Dodier families have signed long term agreements to voluntarily protect Johnston’s frankenia, a federally-listed endangered plant. They are also embracing technology, from Internet marketing to the use of remote cameras and night vision equipment to enhance wildlife census data. Leaders in their community, awards and service include the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Zapata SWCD.

Special Recognition

Roxanne Hernandez, Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan Administrator and Coordinator of the Lost Pines Recovery Team, Bastrop County

Affectionately known by Bastrop County residents as “the toad lady,” Roxanne Hernandez has earned the admiration and trust of local landowners and worked tirelessly on their behalf for wildlife habitat conservation and recovery of the endangered Houston toad. Hernandez has been instrumental in helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TPWD staff reache out to landowners willing to undertake habitat enhancements within the nine-county range of the Houston toad. Following the catastrophic wildfires of September 2011, Hernandez emerged as a leader for natural resource experts in the county. As manager of the Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan, she works with 138 landowners managing more than 5,800 acres of land enrolled in the voluntary Habitat Conservation Plan for Houston toad conservation. With 27 percent of enrolled lands impacted by the wildfire, her work continues as coordinator of the Lost Pines Recovery Team, a coalition of agencies providing guidance and resources for landowners.