by Chad Manlove
Wetlands along the Gulf Coast comprise one of North America's most important wintering areas for waterfowl. The Ducks Unlimited International Conservation Plan identifies this region as one of five highest priority areas for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. The region has suffered extensive loss of feeding and resting habitat for waterfowl, and these losses have been exacerbated by declines in rice production on the coastal prairies. The rice prairies are well known among waterfowlers for large concentrations of lesser snow and white-fronted geese, as well as pintails.
Once tallgrass coastal prairie, the area has been almost entirely converted to agriculture, dominated in recent times by rice production. Waterfowl have adapted well to this land-use change and readily feed on waste rice in harvested, flooded fields. But a number of factors including higher production costs and changes in federal farm programs have caused a fairly rapid decline (nearly 60 percent in some areas) in land dedicated to rice farming. Generally, rice land has been converted to agricultural crops that have less value to waterfowl or has been abandoned completely and invaded by nonnative Chinese tallow trees and other woody vegetation.
To address the increasing loss of waterfowl habitat, DU helped initiate the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (TPWP). This private lands program was formed in 1991 with goals that support the habitat objectives of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The TPWP is a cooperative effort between DU, private landowners, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This partnership was established to help private cooperators restore, enhance, and protect shallow-water wetlands throughout a 28-county focus area along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Since its inception, the TPWP has restored approximately 35,000 acres of wetland habitat in cooperation with more than 450 private landowners. Landowners receive technical and financial assistance in return for signing a minimum 10-year wetland development agreement to manage their conservation project for the benefit of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wetland-dependent species. DU biologists and engineers offer technical assistance to landowners by writing management plans, conducting topographic surveys, designing wetland units, and acting as construction managers. Cost-share assistance to landowners includes funds for levee construction and installation of water-control structures.
Once a project is approved, the landowner works with a contractor to complete wetland improvements. In most instances, landowners contribute about 35 percent of the total project cost and agree to provide a guaranteed source of water (pumped from wells or purchased from local river authorities) to flood wetland units to appropriate water depths throughout the winter.
A typical project consists of a minimum of five acres of surface water and must remain flooded for at least four months between September 1 and April 30, thus providing maximum benefits for migrating and wintering waterfowl. Many waterfowl species including pintails, mallards, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, American wigeon, redheads, lesser scaup, lesser snow geese, and white-fronted geese regularly use these wetland projects. Mottled ducks are year-round residents of the Texas Gulf Coast and use permanent and semipermanent wetland projects for nesting and brood rearing during spring and summer. In addition to waterfowl, private-lands projects benefit other migratory species including shorebirds and colonial wading birds.
Currently, land enrolled in the TPWP provides for a variety of waterfowl needs. Landowners manage wetland projects as flooded rice fields (35 percent), native moist-soil wetlands (35 percent), and emergent marshes (30 percent). In the beginning, most cooperators enrolling in the program were rice farmers. But as rice agriculture has declined in Texas, landowners have shifted to restoring and managing natural moist-soil wetlands.
"Over the past three years, the amount of new acreage of seasonally flooded rice habitat enrolled in the program has declined to less than 5 percent of the total," states Eric Lindstrom, DU biologist for the TPWP.
Even in areas where there is a strong rice base, Lindstrom encourages landowners to manage for native vegetation for several reasons. Moist-soil plants contain specific proteins and amino acids not found in agricultural grains. The seeds also last longer than corn or soybeans when flooded, providing birds with a dependable food source throughout winter. And flooded natural vegetation supports a diverse invertebrate community that waterfowl use to build up protein reserves. Finally, as many of the previously farmed areas revert to natural wetlands, there is an abundant seed source available that yields productive moist-soil habitat.
Today, prime waterfowl foraging and resting habitat established through the TPWP is beginning to offset the state's serious coastal wetland losses. Private landowners are central to the success of the TPWP because they control more than 97 percent of the land in Texas and understand the importance of restoring wildlife habitat on their lands. Many landowners who complete a wetland project recognize its multiple benefits for wildlife and sign up for additional projects. These landowners have spread the word about partnering with DU among their neighbors, and today demand for wetland restoration by landowners exceeds the funding resources available to Ducks Unlimited and its conservation partners in Texas.
For more information on the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project, contact DU Biologist Eric Lindstrom at 832-595-0663 or firstname.lastname@example.org.