By Dina Cappiello
BASTROP — They make an odd couple: Bob Long -- minister, rancher, political conservative -- and a warty-skinned toad with a distinct call of the wild.
Yet Long, the local GOP chairman for two decades, has emerged as an unlikely savior for the Houston toad, Bastrop County’s rarest resident and an endangered species that has disappeared from much of its native range in southeast and central Texas.
“I’m a gun-toting, redneck, Texas Republican preacher,” Long said. Before he knew about the toad, he said, “I couldn’t spell `environmentalist.”
“Now I am one.”
Working with Austin-based Environmental Defense, Long has volunteered to make his 550-acre ranch a “safe harbor” for the palm-sized amphibian, planting native grasses, reducing the size of his cattle herd and fencing off ponds where the endangered toad breeds.
That agreement, which still needs federal approval, would last 10 years and grant Long more control over his property in the future -- provided that the toad population there doesn’t decline from current levels. Otherwise, under the Endangered Species Act, Long couldn’t build a fence or cut down a tree without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I’m not opposed to the toad,” said Long, 59, whose family has raised cattle on the property since the early 1950s. “I’m opposed to the federal government.”
It’s a conservation stance that uniquely suits Texas, where clashes over endangered species and property rights are inevitable with more than 94 percent of the state in private hands. Of the 124,000 acres of potential habitat identified in Bastrop County, Bastrop State Park is the only public property with significant numbers of Houston toads.
“We got to deal with this in the real world,” said Virgil Eaves, a local real estate agent. “It would be real nice if we could set all our land aside, but that’s not going to work in the real world. We got people living out there. People own land out there.”
Added Bob Pine, field supervisor with Fish and Wildlife in Austin, “It’s a way for a landowner ... not to be penalized when they have produced a whole bunch more of these endangered species.”
Long’s plan is one of about a dozen so-called “safe harbor agreements” across Texas where private landowners are establishing habitats to save endangered wildlife, including such bird species as the black-capped vireo and aplomado falcon.
But Long has never seen a Houston toad, which is nocturnal and spends much of the day buried in sand.
“I’m the only one who hasn’t seen my species,” Long said.
Already, other property owners are following his lead. Environmental Defense is discussing agreements with two other landowners in the county. Long says people are lining up to build toad ponds.
“One of the most important things about Bob Long is he is a pioneer,” said Paige Najvar, a fish and wildlife biologist with the service in Austin.
Tom Dureka, founder of the Pines and Prairies Land Trust and a member of the Bastrop County Environmental Network, added, “It’s a very powerful symbol to large landowners because Bob is not only chairman of the Republican Party, he is also chairman of the Ministerial Alliance.”
Long’s father, Cecil B. Long, was known as “Mr. Bastrop.” Nowadays, a work group meets once or twice a month in a community room on Main Street named after Cecil Long, who was president of the local bank, to discuss the toad’s status and work on how to conserve its habitat.
But locals, including Bob Long’s son, at first were shocked when the longtime conservative started talking about conservation.
“I’ve talked to people about it and they say, ‘Bob is doing that?’ ” said Kariann Sokulsky, a consultant hired by Bastrop County to facilitate drafting a countywide plan that will offer landowners protection, while offsetting the impact on the species.
The Houston toad has been classified as endangered since 1970, largely because suburban sprawl has eaten away the Lost Pines, an ecosystem dominated by loblolly pines and deep, loose sands the toad needs to burrow in.
First discovered in Houston in the late 1940s, the toad has not been seen in the city since the 1960s. Researchers believe pocket populations still exist in nine counties west and north of Houston, with the largest known population in Bastrop County.
It was in Bastrop, in the mid-1990s, where concern over the toad boiled over, prompted by plans to expand the state park’s golf course and sprawl spreading eastward from Austin. The county was given an ultimatum by the federal government: Set aside 15,000 acres for the obscure amphibian or seek permission from the federal government for all actions taken on private property.
“It didn’t go over well,” Sokulsky said. “If you were driving down Highway 21, and accidentally drove over a Houston toad, you broke the law. If you stepped on a toad on Bob Long’s property, you just did something illegal.”
But as the county figures out how to live in harmony with the toad for the next 20 to 50 years, Long already has blazed his own trail to save it.
“At some point in all of this, I said, ‘Are we here to help the toad or argue?’ ” Long said.
He already has seen changes. This year, for the first time, Long heard male Houston toads calling to females on his property. The high-pitched mating call, which lasts 14 seconds on average, can be heard from February to June.
Researchers use the toads’ chorus to estimate population.
Mike Forstner, an expert on the species from Southwest Texas State University, said he heard 22 males at the pond Long has made off-limits to his cattle. At the most recent toad meeting, he announced that “in areas of the property not fenced off, we had no change from last year.”
Forstner said there could be as many as 5,000 toads in the county, although he suspects there are no more than 2,000. His studies have been limited by locals who don’t want the toad -- and the restrictions that come with it -- found on their property. As a result, he has only surveyed one-fifth of the county and only half of its ponds.
“Bastrop County -- good, bad or indifferent -- has the population of Houston toads that is left,” Forstner said. “And without some management, we will lose Bastrop.”