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Changes in Mine Land Reclamation Guidelines Benefit Quail
AUSTIN, Texas — New alternatives for reclaiming mined lands in Texas means thousands of acres of new quail habitat could be realized each year, according to wildlife biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
A cooperative effort between TPWD and the Railroad Commission of Texas has paved the way for mined lands to be reclaimed into habitat that would support quail and other upland grassland bird species. Texas currently has 13 operating mines and 6 mines going through the reclamation process. There are about 55,000 acres of mine land reclaimed annually in Texas.
“We see this as an opportunity to meet some of the objectives of the Texas Quail Conservation Initiatives on reclaimed mine lands,” said Robert L. Cook, TPWD Executive Director. “We applaud the Railroad Commission for working with TPWD staff in getting changes to federal revegetation regulations in support of this conservation effort. This is being viewed by others in the conservation community as a model that offers great potential in other parts of the country.”
Quail are considered by wildlife officials to be a keystone indicator species of the health of grassland ecosystems. When their numbers fall, other species that inhabit those ecosystems follow in a domino effect. A diverse cooperative, working under the umbrella of the TQCI, is making landscape level conservation progress to help ensure the dominos won’t topple.
Throughout their range, bobwhite quail populations nationwide have declined from an estimated 59 million birds in 1980 to about 20 million in 1999.
Changes to the landscape during the last two decades — primarily urban growth, conversion of native grasslands to exotic grasses like coastal Bermuda and monoculture pine plantations — have robbed quail and other species of usable space, according to wildlife biologists.
During the past few years, TPWD has developed a proactive strategy to address quail declines in Texas. The agency’s approach has been one of partnership. Among the stakeholders involved include the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association (TMRA) and the Railroad Commission (RRC).
“Reclaimed mined lands can serve as repositories of locally adapted quail. These reclaimed areas can be used as focus areas for the TQCI. Adding additional acres of quail habitat near these focus areas will ensure quail persist in those locals,” said Steve DeMaso, upland game bird program leader for TPWD. “Mined lands in other states may also be able to use this model to create habitat.”
Clearing the way for creating quail habitat on reclaimed mine lands was no small task and required federal approval. As part of the regulatory process, TPWD reviews and approves mine permits and reclamation plans.
Kathy Boydston, program coordinator for the Wildlife Habitat Assessment Program, which reviews those permits, said that members of TMRA invited her and DeMaso to a meeting to discuss a potential regulation change that would allow the mining companies to have more habitat structure in reclaimed areas to support quail and other species.
Realizing that this would require a regulation change and require industry support, TPWD and other agencies met with representatives of TMRA. TPWD then approached the RRC on what the process would be to change regulations.
After consultation with RRC and TMRA, TPWD realized that our best approach was to require a sub-category for quail (and other grassland bird species) in the regulations. TPWD negotiated with TMRA and RRC on what would be acceptable limits. All partners agreed upon a range of 57–77 percent ground cover and that was approved by the OSM as a change to the Texas Mining Reclamation Standard.
The Railroad Commission must adhere to strict federal guidelines that require mined land to be returned exactly to its original pre-mine state. The Commission’s Surface Mining regulatory program required amendments to specify the inclusion of specific bird habitats, which required approval from the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM). Working through the regulatory process took about 18 months and final approval was granted in June.
“I am thrilled that the Commission was able to work with Parks and Wildlife to develop guidelines which will do more to encourage wildlife, particularly the bobwhite quail population,” said Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams. “The addition of this element allows the unique opportunity for Texas mining companies to create habitats for bird species. My gratitude goes to all of the agencies and individuals, especially Dr. Wallace Klussman of Fredericksburg, who worked so diligently to see this effort through.”
The new reclamation options will enable mining companies that own the reclaimed areas to increase wildlife habitat on their lands, and create additional benefits for private landowners who lease their lands for mining.
Because landowners typically require their lands be returned to a condition where they can realize an economic benefit, such as cattle grazing or timber operations, the new wildlife habitat option could provide a new revenue source from quail hunting, while allowing conversion of an agriculture tax exemption to a wildlife tax exemption.
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