Jun 04

Recovering Grassland

Posted: under Activities, Plantlife.
Tags: , , , ,  June 4th, 2009

If land managers had ten thousand years to play with the land, prairie restoration would be a lot easier, even if they had to start with an overgrazed, eroded, compacted, heavily-invaded, polluted mess.  But we don’t.   So some basic principles have been laid down–initially during research on northern prairies–that now govern most prairie restoration projects: physical removal of invasive woody plants by fire (cheap) or various mechanical clearing methods (more expensive) ,  grazing management to interrupt succession, physical disturbance of the soil (discing, for instance) to induce germination of dormant seeds.

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Jan 01

Work: winter mowing

Posted: under Activities, Equipment, Land.
Tags: ,  January 1st, 2009

The remnant pocket prairie in the creek woods that we call the “entrance meadow (it’s almost enclosed by woods and is the formal entrance to the thickest part of them)  was for the first six years the best seed bank we had of original native plants.  Little bluestem, Indiangrass, sideoats grama, Maximilian sunflower, pitcher sage, Illinois basketflower, brown-eyed Susan, gayfeather, and others are all found in this small area.  Now that we have established other seed-source areas, we’re not as dependent on it, but we still want to maintain it as a pocket prairie, not let it be overgrown with greenbriar, cedar elm, roughleaf dogwood.

So, every winter, I mow it, on the highest setting the small mower can give (the large mower won’t even get into it.)    Today was a good day for that, so today I got it done.   I don’t try to break down  all the tall stalks of the forbs (that takes repeated passes)  but do try to knock them about and cut the grass at about 4.5 inches.   “About” because it’s not absolutely level.  In the scheme of things, this counts as “habitat management.”

On the way back, I mowed one of the work trails (useful for censusing grassland birds, among other things.)

Other work today (some done by R-) included checking all the wildlife waterers and putting out feed for migrant birds.  That, of course, falls under “supplemental water” and “supplemental feeding.”

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Dec 28

The Annual Report

Posted: under Land.
Tags: , ,  December 28th, 2008

In Texas, if you have your land recorded with the county tax appraiser as “wildlife management,” which qualified for a lower tax rate on the property, you must have a written plan (based on the seven requirements of the enabling legislation) and submit an annual report on what you’ve actually done to comply with your plan.

Tax appraisers are out to get the most tax income for their county, so they look with great suspicion on agricultural land, and especially wildlife management land.   They have zero interest in wildlife,  and are under pressure from county government to provide the money the country wants for roads, bridges, EMS service, county law enforcement, etc.   So it’s imperative that the annual report adhere to the legal guidelines for wildlife management and convince them that yes, this is a real project, not a tax shelter.

A previous state comptroller decided that counties must require landowners to use the report form from Texas Parks & Wildlife–the one approved by the legislature and hence not negotiable.  This form really fits large properties managing for game animals better than small properties.   So I add supporting documentation that adapts the form to a small property.

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Dec 08

The 80 Acres

Posted: under Land.
Tags:  December 8th, 2008

For those new to our project (those who haven’t already read about it on my other blogs, where posts about the land are mixed in with other topics)  here’s a quick overview.

We live on the edge of a small town (literally on the edge–the city limits cuts through our house.)   For twenty-two years, the field north of our back garden was someone’s cow pasture, leased to various people, some better managers than others.  When it came up for sale, we were in a rare flush period, and bought it (well, we and the bank bought it…)  because we’d  always hoped it would stay undeveloped.  The original field had one corner occupied by a construction company (they have about 10 acres, I think) and a house and yard occupies another half acre.

When we bought it, the person then leasing it was not the best manager…he leased both it and an adjoining, larger place, but overstocked them.   Overgrazing had taken its toll; in places, the only vegetation left was what cattle wouldn’t eat, and the nubs were separated by several feet of bare dirt.  Dirt that eroded rapidly in every rain.

It’s basically a long skinny rectangle with the long axis roughly east-west, with a notch cut out of one corner of the highway frontage, where the construction company yards are.   About three-quarters of the way to the far end, a seasonal creek (dry all year this year) cuts across it, north to south.   About ten acres of riparian woods borders the creek and one tiny tributary.  Another nine to ten acres of brush tops a low rocky knoll along the north (higher) long side.   Originally, it was tall-grass prairie (historical data plus the evidence of old-prairie plants still remnant here and there) but the grass land had been used for cotton first, then corn, then grazing, with some terracing and the planting of “improved” non-native pasture grass and (by one of the earlier managers) winter oats for forage.   The original drainage of the main grassland was temporarily changed by a ditch (probably at the time of terracing) leading water from a highway culvert to the south fenceline; years  of neglect and trampling by cattle allowed a more natural alternate drainage to form again, but highway runoff dominates that end of the place, including copious runoff from the construction company–turbid with roadbase from their parking lots.

For wildlife management, the existence of varied habitats on one relatively small  piece of land is a great help.  Winter resident songbirds segregate by preferred habitat–some like the brush, some like the woods, and some like the grassland.   The same is true of the breeding bird population in the spring and summer.

Terrain is gentle–there’s only about 20 feet in elevation difference between the highest point and the lowest, and only where former owners gouged out gravel and “road base” from the rocky knoll is there a steep slope (obviously not natural.)   Soil varies from solid rock to deep black clay, with areas of brown clay, red gravel, and exposed subsoil (from erosion.)   The land is subject to flash floods on the creek (due in part to the rainfall patterns, but also to bad land management upstream that’s led to less permeable soil.)

In eight years, we’ve increased the species count to over 800 (animals and plants) and within taxa counted in the original survey, most have doubled.  Though most of the grassland is still dominated by the introduced non-native King Ranch Bluestem (KRB), it’s being invaded by native grasses including meadow dropseed, little bluestem, sideoats grama, white tridens, knotroot bristlegrass, Indiangrass.    We’ve also seen the reappearance and spread of original prairie forbs–plants no farmer/rancher in the meantime would have planted, such as Mirabilia alba, four different milkweeds, three different gentians,  and many others.  We’ve been able to reintroduce some of the original prairie dominants: big bluestem, switchgrass, eastern gama, seep muhly.

Long-term, the plan includes eliminating non-native plants and re-introducing natives missing from the present array.  Some re-introductions have been successful  and some not.  Yet.   We use rain-barns to supply water for wildlife and for plantings in the first season (when we collect enough extra water.)   Our wildlife management plan, written and carried out to conform to the laws in Texas, requires activity in seven categories (habitat management, provision of supplementary food, water, and shelter, predator control, erosion control, and census.)  In addition, the prairie restoration project focuses on maintaining existing “pockets” of original vegetation and increasing the extent of it.

Last year we hosted visits by a nearby Audubon Society group (a bird walk) and a few others interested in specifics, and next year will host a visit by the Texas Native Plant Society (and, no doubt, others.)

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