Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Conservation Committee

May 26, 2004

Commission Hearing Room
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, TX 78744

BE IT REMEMBERED, that heretofore on the 26th day of May, 2004, there came on to be heard matters under the regulatory authority of the Parks and Wildlife Commission of Texas, in the Commission Hearing Room of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex, to wit:

APPEARANCES:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT:

Robert L. Cook, Executive Director, and other personnel of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

P R O C E E D I N G S

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That brings us to the Conservation Committee. Chairman Montgomery was unable to be here today, so I'll chair that committee. The first order of business is approval of the committee minutes, which have already been distributed. Is there a motion for approval?

COMMISSIONER HOLT: So moved.

COMMISSIONER BROWN: Second.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Motion by Commissioner Holt. Second by Commissioner Brown. All in favor, please say aye

(Chorus of ayes.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Any opposed?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Hearing none, the motion carries. Committee item number one for the Conservation Committee is Chairman's charges. Mr. Cook?

MR. COOK: Mr. Chairman, thank you. Just a couple of items right quickly. Just to inform you about some of the things that we have got going on, out in El Paso, we have been working hand in hand with TxDOT highway department.

We currently, through their generosity, occupy a building that they restored, put in top notch shape a few years ago, as our regional office and headquarters. They have been very generous to let us occupy and utilize that building and we have the opportunity and with some encouragement from elected officials to now be given that building in trade for something of value.

And we have found that something of value to be a few acres of land out on the highway, where there is going to be a highway intersection, and where they are going to need some land in order to construct that highway from our state park. So what will be a very favorable trade for us, and get a clear title of ownership of that piece of property and give us some security in that site.

It serves us very well. My guess would be just the transaction taking place, it will probably be back to you somewhere around the November meeting, something like that. It could be January, with the official actions that need to be taken.

Also to address our charge to continue implementation of the seagrass conservation plan, and to promote recreational fishing opportunities, assist in resolving user conflicts and continued multi-agency efforts to conserve this valuable fisheries habitat through improvement of water quality, prevention or mitigation of loss, and restoration where possible.

Our staff has proposed to reform the seagrass conservation task force this summer to assess the status of voluntary and mandatory prop-up zones and the mitigation effort regarding prop scarring in those designated scientific areas. A briefing will be prepared for you, for presentation at the August Commission meeting to recommend revisions of that plan as this seagrass conservation task force sees necessary.

So you will be hearing some additional detail, recommendations on that program, I believe, at our August Commission meeting. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thank you, Bob. Committee item number two, land and water cleanup date. Scott Boruff.

MR. BORUFF: Mr. Chairman, Commissioners, Mr. Cook, my name is Scott Boruff, the Deputy Executive Director for Operations. I am going to give you a brief briefing today on land and water conservation plan and where we are heading with that. As you know, this is a standing briefing at each of the Commission meetings.

There is not a whole lot of new information to report, so I don't have any slides for you today. I would like to reiterate what Mr. Cook said earlier. The activity in the recent months has been to continue the process of looking at the plan.

Trying to figure out what we might do to make it a little more robust, but in particular, we have been working pretty closely with Mary and Julie Horsley, who were up here earlier, so I am not going to talk a whole lot about that, but that has been our focus in the last month or so, to make sure that the natural agenda, which you have the draft copy of in front of you, is both consistent with and supportive of the land and water conservation plan.

We have completed the ten regional focus group meetings, formal focus group meetings with our own staff. We have conducted a couple of dozen non-formal or informal focus groups, if you want to call them smaller groups around the state. And we have also completed one meeting with our constituent leadership, leaders from groups that support us out there, around the state of Texas.

We planned one other such meeting later this summer. The plan is still to come back to the Commission in November with a recommended updates to the language of the land and water plan. This has been a very healthy process for us, and Mr. Cook articulated earlier, there were many plans out there.

This effort has kind of consolidated that confusion within the agency about what plan means what. So we look forward to continuing the process. And I would be glad to answer any questions, if you have specifics.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That was a smart qualifier you had there. With this group, you should ask for specific questions.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: That was the question I had. How the natural agenda draft is being tied to this?

MR. BORUFF: Absolutely.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Explain the relationship between the two, because the land and water plan is what our long term guiding goal B

MR. BORUFF: In order to clarify, because there was confusion early on. The natural agenda, and I think Julie articulated it very well earlier, is a document which is required by the state, and by the state's oversight agencies, including the Legislative Budget Board for example, when they have specific components in there that they require us to address.

So it is a very high-level strategic document that is used by the state to approve our budget or to appropriate its money. So obviously, as we put together the land and water plan, and by the way, once again, we have decided to use the word "tactical plan," as opposed to "strategic plan," because the natural agenda has been defined by the state as our strategic plan, so in order to prevent confusion, we are calling the land and water plan our tactical plan.

And it really is the guiding philosophical document for how we are going to operate. It is really an operating plan, that the Chairman and Mr. Cook charged us with taking what is there but using that plan then to implement activities in the field. And that has been one of the really fulfilling pieces of the process.

And in fact, what we tend to hear most from our own staff, in terms of value in the exercise that we are going through now, is that we have been bringing together cross-divisional teams, out in the field. And these are the people that really do conservation day in and day out. And that cross-pollination across the divisions, when you go out and talk to the folks is probably one of the most important components of this. Those people being able to talk to each other and particularly as we have kind of reorganized the way we think about ecosystems in the state.

We have put together these new ten aquatic ecoregions and overlaid them over the existing terrestrial ecosystems. Those teams, I think, have been excited about the symbiosis that occurs when you bring them together. And so we plan to continue to do those kind of cross-divisional planning processes well into the future.

MR. COOK: You might note also, Commissioner, this plan, last week, Scott, we had outside constituents invited a large group of constituents to come in from all different backgrounds, whether it was private land or parks, or hunters or fishermen, or whatever it might be, and had our meeting here. And we'll have another one or more of those as we go along in this process, to be sure and get their input and involvement in the plans.

MR. BORUFF: We will be, over the next couple of months, just for your information, before the August meeting, part of the process we are in now is to try to assimilate all of the information that we have gathered through these focus group meetings and the meetings with our constituents. So there's a big volume of information. The good news is, that there was really nothing earth-shattering that came out of these meetings. This plan has been well conceived and thought through. There are going to be some recommendations to broaden some of the language and things like that. But in general, the plan has been well received and folks think that it really is something that the agency and our constituents can use into the future to direct our operations.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thank you, Scott. Any questions for Scott? Thanks very much.

Next briefing item is number 4, I'm sorry, archaeology and the San Jacinto battleground. Walt and Michael?

MR. DABNEY: Mr. Chairman, Commissioners, I'm Walt Dabney, State Park Director. And I will be introducing Michael Strutt, who is our Chief of Cultural Resources and a professional archaeologist by training and experience.

I might add that we are really building a fun and competent staff in State Parks. Michael has come to us from Tennessee. Dr. Hewitt, who was here before, has got an extensive background as director of interpretation. Among other things that you would know about, he set up and operated the Museum of Texan Cultures in San Antonio for a number of years. So we are really — it's an exciting time to be in State Parks for us.

The San Jacinto master plan and some of the Prop 8 funds are being directed to do a number of things down there. But one of the primary things that it is directing, that we have in the plan, is to restore to the extent possible the battlefield to 1836 conditions. Right now, if you go down there, it is very difficult to figure out what happened.

We have cobbled up that site with all kinds of monuments and man-made things and the idea is to, with a very good plan, is to try to aggregate those monuments and clean up the place. Restore the contours as well, and tell, do a very good job of interpreting the battle. What actually happened there. Where did it happen, and that sort of thing.

Well, to do that, there's a big hole in our information base. There's never been a comprehensive archaeological survey done on the site. So a lot of the things we think we know that happened on April 21, 1836, are probably conjecture or tales passed down. Some of it, we obviously do know, but without a definitive archaeological survey, you can't know that.

A great example of how we have changed history in the past, in this business, is the survey that was done at the Little Big Horn Battlefield. And that whole story, once you did the archaeological survey, changed significantly from what we thought had happened and was passed down by tale and myth to what actually did and was documented to have happened.

So with that, I would like to let Michael take you through some exciting stuff that is going on down there, and what we are going to finish doing down there that will give us a lot more information on the Battle of San Jacinto.

MR. STRUTT: Commissioners, I am Michael Strutt, the Director of Cultural Resources, as Mr. Dabney said. Over the last year, we have been doing archaeological research on the battleground and actually off state property. The purpose of this project, as Walt said, is to support this new master plan for the slated restoration of the landscape of that park, and also, in support of better interpretation and better knowledge of that battleground.

The objectives, the major objectives of this were to, as Walt said, there have been a number of impingements on that landscape, including the monument. We wanted to identify where the intact soil layers are that have remains of the battle, and how much has that landscape been contoured over the years. We want to identify the intense areas of where the engagement occurred.

There are markers out there, but they were placed 50 years after the battle by older men who had participated, and as we all know, memory changes over time. We want to locate the Mexican breastworks where the main part of that engagement occurred. We want to locate and determine the extent of the Mexican encampment.

We pretty much know where the Texan encampment was. We want to locate Sherman's attack point, which was the left flank of the Texas army who came through the woods and attacked separately from the main body of the Texas Army.

We want to locate where the runaway portion of the battle is. As you probably know, the main part of the engagement only lasted approximately 18 minutes. And then from there, the Mexican army was tripping over itself to get away from the Texans. We want to locate where that runaway portion is.

And the main part of that is the Lynchburg Road, which was the main road to and from that area. There are tantalizing bits of evidence and aerial photographs that that road trace anyway still existed up until the 20th century. We want to illustrate for our interpretive purposes the material culture of both armies. We want to answer the historical questions of how, when, where, what and who.

And then we want to utilize the findings of all of this archaeology to improve the interpretation on the site. The method that we are using to do this is we are conducting a systematic soil coring, using machinery to find those intact soil layers across the park.

In doing so, what we have determined is that there has not been quite as much disturbance as we had initially anticipated, except around the monument itself and in the reflecting pool. Much of the reflecting pool was in excavating out, because it was already a swale. And that area was used by the Texans to hide their advance on the Mexican army.

We are conducting a systematic metal detector survey, locating both the camps and the combat areas. We are conducting historical and archaeological investigations, locating the Lynchburg Road trace, and then we will use that metal detector data to place full-scale excavations within the Mexican encampment to help us determine more about that encampment and the material culture, as I said.

The team that we have assembled includes Hicks and Company, which are our archaeological and historical consultants. More archaeological consultants. Houston Archaeological Society volunteers, who are mostly our volunteer metal detectorists. These are the folks who are working on the detector survey, which is happening entirely on Saturdays.

The Texas Historical Commission stewards, who are trained in archaeological techniques, although they are not professional archaeologists, and then TPWD staff included, especially myself in the fieldwork. From here, I'm just going to run through several pictures of the work that is going on.

This is one of the backhoe trenches, showing the archaeologist that we have hired more archaeological determining where those intact soil layers are. As you may know, there has been a good deal of subsidence on the site over the last several decades, because of groundwater pumping, and we are needing to know exactly where the 1836 soil horizons are.

This is the metal detector survey going on. This project operates under the Texas Antiquities Code permit from the Historical Commission, and part of the field protocol is that we are running, and that a part of our permit is that the metal detectorists will find an object, mark it and then trained archaeological stewards or a professional archaeologist will actually excavate the artifact, locate the type of soil that it is in, the depth, placement, and the kind of artifact.

We are doing the location of the artifacts with GPS and an electronic distance meter, which you see here. Rest assured this is not just metal detecting to locate good things in the ground. We are locating everything found exactly where it was on the ground. This is a map of the majority of the battle-related materials in the upper left hand corner is the direction of the monument.

We are just a few hundred yards off of the monument there. All of those blue dots are battle-related materials. Just to the bottom and left of that main concentration is where we worked this past Saturday and found another cluster of artifacts, including six musket balls in one few square-inch hole, which says to us that a Mexican soldier probably died there, or fell over there and his bullet pouch unloaded on the ground right there.

Some of the artifacts that we are finding that will help determine what we are seeing out there are impacted balls that tell us where the breastworks was located. This one obviously has hit something. We have found a few coins. This is an Abrial silver piece.

If you can see just before the one in 1834, is the letter Z. This coin was minted in Zacatecas, Mexico. It is the launching point that Santa Anna used to bring his army into Tejas in 1836. This is a large coin, it was probably dropped by an officer during the battle. This is a breastplate buckle from the permanent Guerrero battalion.

Artifacts like this will help us locate where individual Mexican divisions and units were placed on the battleground. This one was used by a foot soldier. That is the hole at the bottom of the buckle. That hole was used to clip a small whisk to clean their musket and the lock. An officer would not have had the hole to clean his weapon, because he would not have had the rifle.

This is the base of a canister shot. Notice the dimples in it. The canister was essentially a coffee can-sized round fired out of cannon that had anywhere between 20 and 30 iron shot in it, and these dimples are the impressions of the shot being pressed into the base of that piece of canister. From the size of it, we suspect that this is from one of the two Texas cannons known as the Twin Sisters.

This is three views of the same artifact. We suspect that this is either a helmet decoration, or a sword decoration off of one of the Mexican uniforms. The Mexican army at the time was one of the best-outfitted, most-disciplined, most-well-drilled armies in the entire world, and they were well outfitted with the decoration of the time.

This is a worm screw. It was used to retract lead balls that did not fire, if there was a misfire in the bottom of a gun. The size of this one tells us it is likely not from the Mexican Brown Bess. Mexico bought a lot of their arms from England, who would manufacture the best. This was probably a Texan piece.

As I said, this project operates under a permit. We have recently received notification that from the Houston Endowment that you were speaking of earlier, that the San Jacinto Battleground Association, our non-profit partner, has received a $50,000 grant to continue this work.

They are also looking at other grant possibilities to continue work both on and off the state property. The Lynchburg Road survey, we are looking for more funding to continue that. We have enough tantalizing evidence that tells us we need to look a little further.

As I said, this work is being done mostly by volunteers and to date, just since late January of this year, we have 785 volunteer hours, just on the breastworks survey. So, leveraging Parks dollars to volunteer hours has been very beneficial to this park. Are there any questions?

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: We could come out there any Saturday and watch?

COMMISSIONER HOLT: They'll put you to work.

MR. BORUFF: If you want to come out any Saturday. The next scheduled Saturday is June 5. We don't work every Saturday. As a matter of fact, there was discussion this last week that we may slow down for the summer. It's getting hot. Most of our stewards are older folks.

We tend to donate a lot of blood to a very healthy mosquito population. So we may cool it for the summer and begin work again in the fall. But there is at least one more Saturday scheduled.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That's exciting.

MR. DABNEY: Mr. Chairman, if you will remember back a couple of years, the discussion, those of you that were here, on metal detectors and letting them into parks to recreationally metal detect. This is absolutely one of the reasons that we were so adamantly against that occurring anywhere, whether it was certainly it wouldn't happen at the San Jacinto Battlefield, but any one of our sites has the potential of having things that absolutely will tell us a story that we do not know now.

So we would hope to keep that support in place and never open it. On the other hand, it's an example as we told you at that time, of where we will use the recreational metal detectors in a supervised way to help us, as we did at the Fannin Battlefield, or they did at the Little Big Horn Battlefield, under supervised archaeologists to help us find things that we wouldn't be able to otherwise.

Another issue that has come to light here, that is one that we dealt with in the National Parks System and certainly is coming home big time at San Jacinto is this idea of reenacting right on top of an actual battlefield. And what we are finding down there, is we are coming up with flints out of muzzle loaders that are they new or are they old?

Or are these pieces of rifles that break today and lay out there for five years and get all rusty and get trampled into the ground. It confuses the story, and it is one of the primary reasons why while it sounds like a neat thing and something we ought to be doing, if you are going to do it, you shouldn't do it right on top of the actual spot, because it can confuse the story.

And then after 70 years of pop tops and bottle caps and everything, a metal detector out there, that has swarms of mosquitos that's probably 15 out of 16 items that they flag is probably going to be a pop top or something like that, it can be very discouraging work on top of that.

MR. STRUTT: So, we are cleaning up the battlefield an awful lot.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: What do they do on the Civil War battlefields? Do they allow the re-enactments?

MR. DABNEY: You can't do it in any national park site, absolutely, for these reasons. You are going to disturb the thing. Now they will do it adjacent — Battle of Antietam, you know, they will re-enact it in somebody's cornfield next door, possibly.

But you don't fight Gettysburg again on the battlefield. It's just there's always that archaeological record there that you might want to go back and learn some more from, as our techniques and our science and our technology gets better.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: As a point of interest, how deep are you finding these actual artifacts?

MR. STRUTT: The majority of the artifacts are coming out of about six to eight inches in depth. But that Guerrero Battalion buckle that I showed was found at a foot. We have also found one entire Brown Bess ramrod and three-quarters of two others that came out.

We were really surprised that those were intact. They came out at a depth of about nine inches. And what that tells us is that one of the suspicions that has always been, that there wasn't anything out there left for us to find because there had been, especially immediately after the battle, they were cleaning up.

People came out souvenir hunting in the early 20th century. But these large items are still out there. We also found one whole bayonet. It's pretty encrusted. We can't determine exactly what side, whose it was yet. We will do conservation on it, and figure that out. And that was found at a depth of about eight to nine inches as well.

MR. COOK: How do you account for how many mountains in that area that is eroding down there? How do you account for that layering of soil?

MR. STRUTT: The soil down there is generally very wet and these heavy items will sink. The balls, when they were fired, as their energy was spent, still had enough to impact into the ground, so the balls, we're finding a lot of them really deep. And then the heavier metal items, as the ground continues to get wet and it heaves, those things sink further and further.

One of the discussions that we continually have is, the kind of instruments that we are using out there, all the detectorists are bringing their own instruments and they have varied degrees of complexity in them. And it was one of the higher end instruments that found that Guerrero Battalion buckle. And are we missing other heavier items that are sitting greater than a foot deep?

I purchased one for our program that can detect up to about a foot. If it sinks deeper than that, we may be missing them, especially when the soil is wet, because the water is confusing the signal.

MR. DABNEY: Cannonball.

MR. STRUTT: The base, the cannon base, that was found B

MR. DABNEY: The visitor that found one.

MR. STRUTT: Oh, the visitor found one.

MR. DABNEY: This is a great story.

MR. STRUTT: A visitor found a cannonball, an iron ball on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, several weeks ago. It was sitting right on the surface, and apparently, it has been sitting there for a while, and just happened to appear after heavy rains. So there is still plenty of things out there.

MR. DABNEY: He didn't touch it. He came in and found somebody and brought our crew out there, and there is was. A valuable artifact, located presumably where it would have been.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: This is out at the battlefield?

MR. DABNEY: Out at the battlefield, one of the big problems is, over the last hundred years, we have had huge subsidence of that area. So some of the actual battlefield locations are now underwater. Literally underwater.

Another thing that has complicated it is that at least along the shore, dredge material has been applied to that, and some of the artifacts literally could be many feet under spoiled material before you would ever even get to the horizon that they are located in that was there naturally. So it's a challenge, but we are learning a lot.

MR. STRUTT: Right.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Great work.

Any other discussion by the Commission? Thank you, gentlemen.

MR. DABNEY: Thank you.

MR. STRUTT: Thank you.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Next briefing item, Texas prairie dog management plan.

John Herron. We're working you hard today, John.

MR. HERRON: When it rains, it pours. The John Herron memorial commission meeting. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Commission. My last briefing for the day. Thank you for your patience. Today, I will be briefing you on the Texas black-tailed prairie dog management plan.

Basically, the purpose of this briefing is to make you all aware of a partnership, a working group effort we have been involved in for a number of years that is finally producing product, and we wanted to give you all advance notice of this plan coming out for public comment very shortly. And I will introduce some of the members of that committee shortly, as well.

This all started back in 1998, when the Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species. An interesting petition. When you look at the species, there is no doubt about the fact that prairie dogs are much rarer than they once were, and the estimates right now that they occupy about 1 percent of their original historical range.

Now whether that justifies them being listed as a threatened species is an entirely different matter. Certainly, there is no difficulty — any of us could probably go out tomorrow and find prairie dogs. But it was a wake-up call to the fact that the argument could be made that these species were threatened, that they were becoming rarer and that they were going to continue to decline.

With that in mind, Texas, along with ten other states have got together and we realize we really need to take a regional approach to addressing this issue, and to address the conservation of species. So those eleven states did get together in 1999 and produced a draft report called the Conservation Assessment and Strategy, which was also followed up with an MOU that nine of the eleven states signed at the time, agreeing to work together cooperatively, so that we could show that the states are capable of addressing conservation of the species and show that there is not a need to list the species as a result.

At that same time in 1999, we formed the Texas black-tailed prairie dog working group. A diverse group of conservationists, landowner and agricultural interests, to try and get a cooperative approach to addressing this. The unique thing in Texas, which is old news to all of us, but was news to the people at the national level who asked for petition of the species, is that this is a private lands issue in Texas.

Much of the focus of this requested list was federal property in the Dakotas, where there are large, large colonies of prairie dogs remaining and the question at hand there was, was federal policy consistent with the conservation needs? Were they properly managing those federal lands for prairie dogs, in addition to grazing, there is tribal lands up in the Dakotas that also have prairie dogs.

And so that question was there. And I remember discussing this at the time with some of the people who did the petitioning, saying, well, I understand what you are saying, but give me something in Texas. Because all of our prairie dogs, virtually, are on private land, and what are we supposed to do here? And it was, I wish I could have a picture of the face, because it was just like they had no idea of what I was talking about at the time.

And so that is why it was important for us to form this working group, to address the private landowner concerns, and the private lands issues that are related to prairie dogs. In the year 2000, this petition progressed and the Fish and Wildlife Service did make a determination and did declare the prairie dog, the black-tailed prairie dog, a candidate species.

Basically, the terminology they use is it is warranted, but precluded. Which means, they said that, yes, we can justify listing the prairie dog as a threatened species; however, we are not going to, because we have higher priority needs. There is other species that merit conservation more than the prairie dog.

Now, this warranted but precluded category basically means that the Fish and Wildlife Service reviews this on an annual basis and our hope, as well as the states we are working with is that we can show in these subsequent years that we are making progress, that we can conserve the species to the extent that listing would not be required.

With that in mind, finally getting to today's briefing, we now have that working group. It has been working diligently for four years now, and they do have a draft plan that they are ready to put out for public comment and review. And I'll talk a little bit about that as well.

I mentioned the fact that there is a wide diversity, a wide variety of people participating. This is just a list of the many groups and organizations that have been a member of the working group. Everything from the Audubon Society, PanTex, the Wildlife Federation, Plains Cotton Growers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture, Department of Ag, a wide variety of folks, because affecting private lands, there is a variety of entities involved.

Briefly, I want to do take a minute and introduce. We do have some members of the working group that have come here today. First, in terms of staff, let me introduce those. We do have Derrick Holstock here. And Derrick is our full-time prairie dog coordinator. We did get a federal grant to help us do this working group effort, and Derrick has been shepherding that.

Heather Whitlaw is here as well, and Heather is now the wildlife diversity biologist for the Panhandle. She initially was hired into the prairie dog position and then since moved up. From the committee, we have Roger Haldenby is here, from the Plains Cotton Growers Association, and Jim Ray from PanTex is here as well.

And Mr. Haldenby was saying that if possible, that there was a few things he would like to say as well, just in support of this. Would you like to have, is that appropriate?

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Please. Sure.

MR. HERRON: Roger, would you like to come up?

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: That's an impressive list in your working group. Audubon Society, Cattle Raisers. You all ought to be able to do great things with all that.

MR. HALDENBY: My name is Roger Haldenby. I am Vice President of Operations for Plains Cotton Growers. We are a little organization that represents 4 million acres of cotton spread across the Panhandle of Texas from Midland to the Oklahoma line, from the New Mexico state line across to the edge of what we call the Caprock. And we do have a few prairie dogs up there, as well as cotton. I have been working with this working group since 1999, five years. I have been extremely impressed, Mr. Cook, with the staff that you have, that has worked with this group. It has been a very cooperative coalition of interested parties from as John said, environmental groups to agricultural groups and citizens groups, and it has been a pleasure working with all these folks.

We have had folks like Bob Sullivan and Paul Roberts, and John — Vickie Seibert, Heather Whitlow, Derrick Holstock, and I am going to miss somebody out there, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife folks have been the core of it. But is has, as I said, been a coalition, a cooperative effort.

There have been folks on the one side, their goal has been to list the prairie dog and call it an endangered species and have it totally protected. But on the counterside, the agricultural groups were intent on what John was referring to, it is a property rights issue. And our mission statement, when you do get a chance, to look at that management plan, is to conserve and manage the prairie dog while simultaneously protecting and preserving personal property rights.

And it's been an example so far, of the plan that we have got that is a very balanced plan that I think is going to achieve what it was aiming to do: not prevent listing, but preclude listing of the prairie dog as an endangered species. So I congratulate the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on their role in bringing together so many other people to achieve this.

MR. COOK: We appreciate your work.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thank you for your work.

MR. HERRON: And this is very still a critical issue. I just got a notice actually, this week, from our national coordinator to point out the fact that his understanding is that several of these conservation groups, national conservation groups, are going to make a run again this year, during the review, still renewing their request that the species be listed. The issue has not gone away.

It is very important that the states do deliver on these plans and do show that we are able to make progress. Again, the issue at hand, this just shows you what the historical range, two different versions of the historical range of the black-tailed prairie dog are. And as Roger was mentioning, I mean, it's clear, we are not going to go back.

We used to have millions of buffalo, well clearly, we are not going to go there. And we used to have millions of acres of prairie dog habitat. Basically, what this map shows within the range is the dark areas are those areas that have converted to agriculture. No one is proposing on changing that.

Fortunately, as you all know in Texas, we still have a lot of rangeland. We still have a lot of prairie dogs. We still have a lot of potential for restoring the species and securing it, with the voluntary cooperation of the landowners involved. And that is really what the plan is shooting for.

Roger did mention the mission of the working group, and this slide just puts that in writing. Develop and initiate a statewide plan that will conserve the black-tailed prairie dog while simultaneously protecting personal property rights. And this is just a quick outline of what is going to be in the plan.

Overall, the goal is to, by the year 2011, have 293,000 acres of prairie dog habitat. The states have all agreed that our objective is to shoot to restore 1 percent of the historical habitat of the prairie dog. When this effort started, we thought Texas had 80,000 acres, and that this was going to be a very large undertaking.

The second bullet talks about inventory and monitoring. And using this federal grant, we have spent a great deal of time, using aerial surveys, aerial photos and ground truthing and finding where prairie dogs are. And we now have found that we have somewhere around 160,000 acres of occupied habitat. Twice as much as what we thought we had.

And we are only about 75 percent done with that survey, so far. I expect we are going to find more yet. So the point is, this goal of almost 300,000 acres, yes, it does represent a commitment to increase the acres of prairie dogs in Texas, but we think it is reasonable, we think it is achievable, and we are much closer to that than what we thought initially.

There is education outreach components to the plan. Educating landowners that prairie dogs are not necessarily the horrible things that many people think they are. That they are part of an ecosystem. They are part of the rangeland out there, and there is a way for ranches and farmlands to coexist with prairie dogs. Management options and goals is a big part of the plan.

Looking at what management options there are there. It is our desire that if we can hit this objective, this will give landowners still the freedom of controlling prairie dogs on their property when they see it necessary. They are not going to need federal permission. It won't be, it will be a dynamic system.

And we think we can keep this target acreage and still allow the landowners the freedom to control prairie dogs when they expand on their property or move onto an adjacent property. Laws and regulations is a part of this.

You know, there is a number of laws on the books concerning when prairie dogs must be poisoned. We have been working with the Department of Agriculture in regards to that, to try and get some of these things updated. Some of the way you can look at some of the laws, still, they almost address elimination of prairie dogs and certainly, that is no longer the desire. Nonetheless, control is still necessary in some situations.

There is a research component and then, of course, an implementation component to the plan as well. Basically, where we are at right now is this is a work group plan, not just a departmental plan.

It is really not a Commission action item per se. But we did want to make sure, since Parks and Wildlife has been involved in this, and since it is going to come out, I think, within a matter of days, for public comment, we wanted to make sure the Commission and staff were aware of this.

Because I know, when this does come out for comment, people are likely to call you all as commissioners. Some in favor of the plan, and some with concerns about the plan, wanting to know what we are doing. So we wanted to make sure that you were aware of this, and that we addressed any questions you have.

I also neglected to mention John Young, our mammalogist that has been involved in this too. So if there is anything that you would like to know, I think that any of us would be happy to handle any question you would have right now.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Is the plan coming out in a draft form, where? Just in Texas, or in all of those states that have been working with you?

MR. HERRON: This is the Texas plan we're talking about right now. Colorado, I think, already has their plan in place. Several states are a little further ahead of us, and certainly, we have been using those as models.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And it is important to remember that there people who do not want this to succeed, frankly.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Oh, no.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And it is not those that have a problem with the prairie dog. It's those who asked for the listing in the first place. And they do not describe — I thought you put it very well, that our strategy is precluding listing, rather than preventing it. And yet, these fights are usually very polarized and that is sort of what they are doing is that third option of actually focusing on the conservation.

And I commend you and good luck, because you are still going to end up in the courthouse, sooner or later. I am sure somebody will drag you there.

MR. HERRON: It will be. We have folks who don't think 1 percent is enough. It's also wrapped up in the black-footed ferret issue, where people want states to assure they are going to have large colonies.

Our viewpoint, just so you all know too, in terms of black-footed ferrets, is that Texas, one of our issues with the prairie dog colonies is that many of these colonies have plague, naturally occurring disease common in prairie dogs. And it makes it very difficult for us and we are not setting objectives to create large prairie dog colonies.

We don't think it is possible, given the prevalence of plague here. Which means Texas is very unlikely to ever have prairie dog colonies that would be able to support black-footed ferrets. If you go further north, I think it is further west, where the plague B

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Explain that relationship to those haven't heard about it.

MR. HERRON: I'm sorry. The black-footed ferret is the North American version of the ferret and the weasel family and it subsists almost exclusively on prairie dogs. That's its prey.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: And it's a candidate species also.

MR. HERRON: It's actually a listed species. It's a listed species, yes. And so one of the recovery plan is to restore this, and in order to restore black-tailed prairie dogs or black-footed ferrets, you need prairie dog colonies. And so, we sometimes get a little wrapped up here, and we have to make it clear to people that folks, we are working on prairie dog recovery, and conserving it.

Whether we can or cannot be part of the black-footed ferret recovery is a whole different matter. And trying to make sure that people don't link that, because it won't work in Texas. I will tell you that right now. I don't see us every getting large enough colonies to really be part of the black-footed ferret.

And if one's going to set that as the bar they want us to reach, we think it is an unrealistic bar. And that is where some of these conservation groups are coming from. That they want more. And, so yes, I think we will see some challenges, but I think the working group and the regional working group have come up with some very good objectives that should get us where we need to be.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: What about the ferret causes you to say that we are not going to reestablish that?

MR. HERRON: Well, as you see, with most predators, basically, in order to have a viable population of ferrets, you have got to have about a 5 to 10,000 acres prairie dog pound to support a breeding population of ferrets. Because you will basically have one ferret per ten or 20 prairie dogs.

So, while you may have thousands and thousands of prairie dogs, you are only supporting a few dozen ferrets. So they need those large. In Texas, I think we are likely to have many small colonies of prairie dogs, too far apart to really be able to support a predator like that.

But you get into the Dakotas, you get into Wyoming, you do have large existing ones, and Mexico, there are black-tailed prairie dogs in Mexico. And actually, the Service is working right now to try some reintroduction of ferrets into those habitats as well.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: And when you say you have a goal of 293,000 acres, what does that mean?

MR. HERRON: Acres of prairie dog town. We're talking occupied habitat.

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Is that in Texas?

MR. HERRON: In Texas.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: And does that mean that it is protected?

MR. HERRON: No, sir. No, all we are talking about is we want to be able to show that if you go out there and you do a survey, we can find 300,000 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat. We really have 100 times that in rangeland. So, the habitat is not lacking.

MR. COOK: The historic range in Texas, John, it's been a long time since I have read any of these kind of numbers, but it was in the vicinity of 50 million, 40 million acres?

MR. HERRON: Maybe even 70. I think it was up around that.

MR. COOK: So we've got a good basic area, but still, like John says, a lot of it is ranch land.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: When any of this is changed, will that improve as you find more wildlife goals on properties?

MR. HERRON: Oh yes, sir. In fact, I think the response we have had from landowners already has been very positive. You know, I think many of you heard for example, the City of Lubbock has been relocating prairie dogs off one of their properties. We have had many landowners approach us saying, you know my property used to have prairie dogs. Can I get some of those?

Not what you really expect to hear. Maybe not what their neighbors want to hear. But the interest is there. And I think there is a lot of people who, as they become more aware, through Department programs of the importance of wildlife.

MR. COOK: My career has changed almost from extermination to —

MR. HALDENBY: One of the challenges in land use that has occurred since 1985 has been the conservation reserve program. The initiation to grasslands, and up in our area, from Lubbock up to Amarillo, a vast area up there, there is large tracts that have gone back, core sections to CRP, and prairie dogs pop back in.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right. Well, hold this working group together, because my next project for you is the lesser prairie chicken.

MR. HERRON: He was just asking me about that earlier. There's an interest in that already out there, I think.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: But do not disband. We will succeed. You've got another job. Thank you. Any other questions for them?

MR. HERRON: Thank you.

MR. HALDENBY: Thank you.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thanks, gentlemen. Good work. With no further questions or discussion, without objection, I authorize staff to publish this item in the Texas Register for the required public comment period and next we will recess for executive session of the Conservation Committee.

I would like to announce that pursuant to the requirements of Chapter 551 of the Government Code, referred to as the Open Meetings Law, an executive session will be held at this time for the purpose of consideration of Sections 551.072 of the Texas Open Meetings Act, regarding real estate matters and general counsel's advice.

(Whereupon, the Committee recessed for executive session.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Do we have a quorum?

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: We do.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Reconvening the Conservation Committee at 2:29. And any other business to come before the Conservation Committee, Mr. Cook?

MR. COOK: No, sir.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Commissioners, we are adjourned.

(Whereupon, the meeting was adjourned.)

 

C E R T I F I C A T E

MEETING OF: Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission

Conservation Committee

LOCATION: Austin, Texas

DATE: May 26, 2004

I do hereby certify that the foregoing pages, numbers 1 through 41, inclusive, are the true, accurate, and complete transcript prepared from the verbal recording made by electronic recording by Penny Bynum before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

6/08/04
(Transcriber) (Date)
On the Record Reporting, Inc.
3307 Northland, Suite 315
Austin, Texas 78731


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