Big Thinking in Texas: How to Make the Endangered Species Act Work for All

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Deep in the heart of central Texas are many of the nation’s fastest growing cities and counties. This rapidly growing region is also considered a national biodiversity hotspot. It is home to numerous rare wildlife species found only in Texas, some of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (Figure 1). This unique natural heritage is associated with the Balcones Escarpment, a rugged landscape that houses one of the most productive artesian aquifers in the world, the Edwards Aquifer. The Balcones Escarpment is where the ocean once met the land and is now located where the Texas Hill Country meets the prairies of Central Texas. Interstate Highway 35 (I-35) follows the escarpment and passes through rapidly-growing cities including Austin and San Antonio. This region, as with most of Texas, is almost entirely privately owned, and a key issue has been to both protect wildlife and facilitate development.

Landscape-Level Conservation Planning
Texas is place of innovation, and a model for making the ESA work for people and species. Breaking new ground in 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued its first ESA permit for the landscape-level, regional Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in the nation: the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP). The BCCP has guided the strategic acquisition of habitat preserves in and around Austin for the benefit of 46 species through a collaborative partnership with the City of Austin, Travis County, and numerous other key partners.

Following the lead of the BCCP, landscape-level conservation plans in adjacent I-35 corridor cities and counties have taken root over the past 20 years. These plans, managed by local government, have proven to be an efficient way of administering the ESA, effectively applying the concepts of Strategic Habitat Conservation.

Figure 1.  Map inset shows (in red) the top 100 fastest growing cities in the U.S. in golden-cheeked warbler habitat breeding

Figure 1. Map inset shows (in red) the top 100 fastest growing cities in the U.S. in golden-cheeked warbler habitat breeding range.

Photo credit: USFWS

Community-Based Collaboration and Incentives – A Model for Success

 
Golden-cheeked warbler.
Golden-cheeked warbler. Photo credit:USFWS
These landscape-level plans provide solutions that are locally driven in partnership with the Service. Each of these plans has developed solutions to potential ESA conflicts through community incentives such as:

 

  • regulatory certainty;
  • permit streamlining;
  • species recovery;
  • water quality protection;
  • regional water supply security;
  • property tax benefits for participating landowners; and
  • open space preserves, which provide economic benefits to local communities through trails, recreation, and youth education.

In Travis and Williamson counties alone, almost 700 projects have taken advantage of these plans for a streamlined process that affords regulatory certainty, while providing a benefit to rare species covered by the plans. Additionally, these plans provide landscape-scale conservation benefits that far exceed the time-consuming, project-by-project permitting. Almost 100,000 acres of preserves and open space have been strategically protected through the BCCP and supporting conservation preserves established by the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and City of Austin watershed protection lands. These preserve lands protect the endangered golden cheeked-warbler and numerous rare cave-dwelling species, along with the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which benefits central Texas’s beloved Barton Springs, home of the endangered Barton Spring and Austin Blind salamanders. The BCCP’s preserve system also plays a critical role in educating future generations about conservation; over the past three years more than 14,000 young people attended 285 individual events hosted by the BCCP.

 

Houston toad.
Houston toad. Photo credit: USFWS

Bastrop County Habitat Conservation Plan has provided many of its participants the ability to utilize Texas’s property tax exemption law that allows landowners to realize property tax reductions when they enroll in a Service-permitted plan that benefits a federally protected species. The state tax law and HCP have served as a strong incentive for landowners to enroll in this HCP seeking the financial incentive associated with conservation actions that benefit the endangered Houston toad.

The Edwards Aquifer HCP is restoring Texas wild rice, a local, aquatic grass species limited to only a small segment of the San Marcos River. Its population has doubled since the HCP began in 2013. The HCP provides water security to the 2 million users of Edwards Aquifer, including the 7th largest city in the U.S., San Antonio, through the Edwards Aquifer water market. The market helps to maintain spring flow at Comal and San Marcos springs, the two largest springs in Texas (and the southwestern U.S.).

What’s Next on the Horizon for the State of Texas and Species Conservation?
One thing is certain, implementing the ESA in Texas requires thinking big and continually identifying new solutions that work for local communities, private landowners, and Texas’s natural heritage.

Leveraging past successes, the I-35 corridor is quickly becoming a conservation model for the monarch butterfly. Many major metropolitan cities along I-35 have voluntarily agreed to implement a variety of monarch conservation actions.

Emergent Texas Wild Rice at the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery.
Emergent Texas Wild Rice at the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery.
Photo credit: USFWS

The Service is also working proactively with its Texas partners to get ahead of potential species listings by using the Species Status Assessment (SSA) process. The SSA process provides an early proactive framework to obtain the best available science regarding a species’ future viability and to implement conservation tools for species in need. SSAs enable the Service and partners to collaborate on important scientific research and leverage strategic resources for high priority species conservation.

Texas is setting the stage for creative ways to approach conservation and it is our hope these conservation strategies will become the way of the future for successful ESA implementation across the nation and beyond.