Date released: 05/06/03
BASTROP — For the better part of a century, the endangered Houston toad has been fighting a desperate battle for survival. Now, thanks to an agreement between Southwest Texas State University and Bastrop County, the amphibians have a new sanctuary from which to rebuild their numbers.
The SWT Department of Biology will manage 400 acres of land in the “Lost Pines” area recently acquired by Bastrop County from the Paul Welsh estate under a federal grant to help the recovery of the toad. Under the partnership, the county will rely upon the expertise of SWT biologists to properly manage, restore and enhance the Welsh property for the benefit of the toad and to better understand the Lost Pines ecosystem. The land will offer SWT researchers and students opportunities for hands-on outdoor learning, much like the University’s 3,500-acre Freeman Ranch located in western Hays County.
“It’s a big deal across the board,” said Michael Forstner, Ph.D, of the SWT biology department. “We stepped into the situation at a crucial time. The county wasn’t sure if it could continue with the program. Fortunately, we were able to step up to the plate.
“Researchers in the biology department at SWT have been actively involved with aspects of the broader Texas community, such as the Boy Scouts, since 2000 in an effort to manage Houston toads in this area most effectively,” he said. “In Bastrop County, the Houston toad is currently the focus of intensive research and study, but the area, the Lost Pines ecosystem, deserves attention itself. Understanding the ecosystem means understanding the toad as well.”
A female and male Houston Toad (bufo houstonensis)
Photo courtesy of Clif Ladd, Loomis Austin Inc.
The Welsh tract is located next to the 5,000-acre Griffith League Ranch, recently inherited by the Boy Scouts of America Capitol Area Council. The Boy Scouts will manage their Griffith League Ranch as a low-impact outdoor experience for boys and girls and will promote environmental learning and showcase conservation strategies for the toad and the Lost Pines. The two sites will complement each other and be far more effective than either site could be individually.
“This is a great example of one hand washing the other,” Forstner said. “I’ve been on the property, and it’s spectacular. It has long-term historical and cultural value. We couldn’t ask for anything more in a field station site.”
Bastrop County already relies upon SWT to help the county with its efforts to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act. The county has provided separate grants to the school to provide biological support for habitat conservation and management planning for the toad.
“The assistance of Southwest has helped all those impacted by the Houston toad issue move toward a common understanding and common vision on how to best comply with the federal law and help the toad,” said County Judge Ronnie McDonald.
The Houston toad was first listed as endangered in 1970, and is found in only nine Texas counties including Bastrop. The largest population occurs in the 124,000-acre “Lost Pines” area of Bastrop County known for the loblolly pine woodlands. Recent research by Forstner and his colleagues indicates large choruses of toads also occur in neighboring Lee County.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that the toad is close to jeopardy. Jeopardy would result in no new permits being issued for actions that have the potential to negatively impact the toad. As a result, Bastrop County initiated its Houston Toad Project in July 2000 to help find solutions for local landowners, ranchers, forest owners, and businesses to sensibly comply with the federal Endangered Species Act. A citizen’s workgroup is crafting a proposed take permit and supporting habitat conservation plan that will offset harm to the toad resulting from construction and other activities. A final plan and proposed permit will be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer.
“The best thing that we can do is present a case where this endangered species is not antagonistic to people living here,” explained Forstner. “We want to be able to preserve a way of life for people, but also for the toad.
“The key is to keep Bastrop Country looking the way it has traditionally looked,” he said. “We want to preserve for the people the environment that brought them to Bastrop County in the first place, and by doing so allow the toad to survive.”
The County’s proposed plan will complement the conservation efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Boy Scouts of America in their efforts to conserve the toad and the Lost Pines woodlands. TP&W operates the Bastrop and Buescher State Parks, totaling about 6,700 acres in the Lost Pines area. The Boy Scouts have supported extensive research on Griffith League Ranch with the assistance of Forstner, his students and colleagues, resulting in new insights and information about the toad.
“This is a win-win deal. Bastrop County will have access to the most current and scientifically accurate information for many years to come with very little cost to the local taxpayer,” said County Commissioner Clara Beckett. “SWT will have a terrific science education opportunity for its students. As a result, we may learn needed information about this species and how people and toads have and can co-exist.”
The county, with the assistance of Forstner, the National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense and Pines & Prairies Land Trust have just completed four projects to build or enhance toad ponds in low-density subdivisions and one ranching operation. Three of these have experienced immediate success.
“The opportunity presented by the Welsh tract is a pretty amazing situation. This is $520,000 worth of property we’re talking about, maybe more,” said Forstner. “This is a tremendous benefit for the Biology Department, and comes on the same day as the approval of our Ph.D. program. So I’ll take that as a good sign.”