Texas Conservation Corps Takes Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge ( or: Yaupon, More Like no-pon!)

Day 1: Lean Mean Green Bean Machine (LMGBM) arrives at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, armed with chainsaws, backpack sprayers, loppers, brushcutters, and the drive to save the critically endangered Attwater Prairie Chicken. The habitat of these unique birds is also endangered. Once stretching from Louisiana to Texas, the coastal prairie habitat is now reduced to less than 1% of its original grandeur.

 

Day 2: Waking up before the sunrise, LMGBM prepares for their first full day of work on the prairie. After receiving some lore about the prairie chicken and the reserve itself, we venture out onto the prairie with brushcutters in hand to begin removing the native but invasive shrubby species that enable birds of prey to have an unnatural advantage against the prairie chicken.

 

Day 3: LMGBM brings out the big guns (chainsaws) to more efficiently combat the invasive yaupon and baccharis species. After an extremely productive chainsaw morning, we break for a well deserved lunch and get back to the daily grind of saving critically endangered species.

 

Day 4: Prairie chickens sited! On a foggy, ominous morning, our spirits were low but expectations of prairie chicken sightings were high. These majestic creatures are keen on practicing their mating dance, called “booming,” on days such as this because they are less easily spotted by predators. With orange air sacs inflated, ear feathers up, feet stomping, and mating calls echoing across the prairie, about ten males and females dramatically emerged from the fog to display their dance for us.

 

Day 5: After the prairie chicken siting, we have renewed enthusiasm and vigor for destroying yaupon. LMGBM also start showing signs of reverting to a more primitive state. We have forgotten the sounds of the city and hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. We have only one thing on our minds: saving the Attwater Prairie Chicken.

 

Day 6: LMGBM makes a brief return to civilization (and Mexican food). While fueling up on chips and salsa, tacos, and enchiladas, we hear rumors of the infamous Prairie Joe, a local enigma who lives off the unforgiving prairie. Many and more mysteries are solved.

 

Day 7: Our chainsaw and herbicide application skills have dramatically improved. This stuff is now second nature. We realize we were born to do this work.

 

Day 8: Compared to P-Day (Prairie arrival day), we are seeing the fruits of our labor across many acres of prairie. Where there was once yaupon dotting the horizon, there is now only fair and native grasses blowing gently in the breeze, providing an ideal home for the prairie chicken.

 

Day 9: Evidence of Prairie Joe found. Perhaps we are not alone.

 

Day 10: Last full day of work. We feast on a delicious potluck prepared by our gracious hosts at the reserve. With very full bellies, we return triumphantly to our last afternoon of destruction. Dedication blazes in the eyes of every LMGBM member as we work late to leave our final positive impact on the land. Yaupon is no match for the LMBGM.

 

Day 11: We return to TxCC (Snake Farm), victorious and closer than ever as a crew/family. We have conquered 370 acres of prairie, enabling the majestic Attwater Prairie Chicken to live and boom on in their restored natural habitat for years to come. You can put that on yo’ toast.

Ariana Lisefski, Field Crew Member

The Season Begins at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful expanse of land in Central Texas, home to several species of endangered birds. It features rolling hills of Ashe-juniper and oaks with shallow water lolling in rocky river beds that cut through the landscape. Our newly formed crew of seven was anxious to find out what our first project would be out in this densely forested wilderness. Upon meeting our project partner, Eric, however, we were to discover that our new project would not actually be on the National Wildlife Refuge, but rather on adjacent private land. Eric, an imposingly built “C” sawyer with a demeanor akin to Owen Wilson, explained that our first project would be “fire-wising” a new property. Outside of the refuge, the rolling hills continued with the addition of a speckling of spacious mansions popping up right out of the cedar. On one of these hills, right up the road from the housing complex graciously bestowed with the name “The Bluffs at the Hollows”, we pulled up in our duct-tape decorated van and trailer to begin our first project.

Fire-wising a property or tract of land is performed in order to prevent future fires from becoming the kind of raging hell beasts that burn hot and fast and scorch both homes and the environment. It often utilizes controlled burning to mimic the kind of fires that might naturally occur and prevent extreme damages from future fires started of natural causes or otherwise. Our task didn’t involve flame-throwers, but rather chainsaws as we set out to clear the undergrowth and limbs of Ashe-juniper and oak that fell below the six-foot mark. This was to prevent the fire from having a sort of ladder by which to engulf the entire tree and spread to other trees nearby. While at first it felt strange to many of us to be working for an individual person, the benefit of fire-wising this one property would not solely fall to this one man, but rather the entire community and surrounding lands. It would serve as an example to the neighborhood of a way to prevent all-encompassing wild fires from occurring, presented in a bird-friendly and aesthetically appealing package.

Our second day once again took us to a dense patch of trees, this time almost exclusively shin oak, and into the hands of a wildlife biologist and his black-capped vireo. The black-capped vireo, currently living it up in Mexico, is quite the prima donna for such a small, endangered bird. The shin oak in which it nests must be thick, but not too thick. It must include plenty of open areas within the woods, called open-oak shinneries. The shin oak woodlands must additionally be of a certain height and age. Our job that day, trading in one particular boss for another, would be to prepare señor black-cap’s house for his return from Mexico. More exactly, on that overcast Tuesday, we would be creating these open-oak shinneries that the black-capped vireo loves so much. These would-be quiet, peaceful havens for the little bird were anything but quiet in their creation. Our chainsaws thrummed steadily as we cut our way through shin-oak growing so thickly together that it was nearly impossible to clear out what was already cut. Instead, we tromped across the fallen timber in our pursuit to hack and slash down yet more in a circle that was to measure approximately 22 meters in diameter. The thought does cross the mind as one hacks through endlessly dense gnarled shin-oak that maybe a little more flexibility on the vireo’s part might have kept him off of the endangered species list in the first place. After an area had been chain-sawed into submission, we came in with a blue-tinted “poison” to cover the open wounds of our target trees before they had a chance to heal.

In a week that was anything but straightforward, we discovered that conservation work isn’t the pretty tree-hugging picture many might imagine it to be, rather it sometimes more accurately resembles an episode of Dexter. On this, our first hitch, we learned a lot about the idiosyncrasies of our chainsaws, about the natural world, and about each other.  I, for one, am excited to see what other challenges to previously formed thoughts the rest of the year will bring.

Laurie Cale, ERT Crew Member