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Getting a GRIP on Grassland Declines in Texas

Date: 02/23/16

In states like Texas, where 98% of the land is privately held, it can be tricky for a Landscape Conservation Cooperative to assist with biological planning and conservation design.  The trick for the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC, when it comes to grassland and prairie conservation, has been finding the right partners -- partners like the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the Oaks & Prairies Joint Venture, and the Gulf Coast Joint Venture.  


Joint Ventures and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives


Both the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture (OPJV) and the Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV), much like the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCP LCC), are regional, self-directed partnerships of government and non-governmental organizations working across administrative boundaries to deliver landscape-level planning and science-based conservation.  Bird conservation Joint Ventures have a 30-year history of effective science-based conservation, and for that reason they served as a model for the establishment of the LCCs.  While both JVs and LCCs integrate planning and science for the conservation of all habitats, JVs are guided primarily by the needs of birds, whereas LCCs are guided, theoretically, by the needs of all species.  (Most LCCs have begun by choosing focal species across a range of taxa).  In addition, OPJV partners also have programs for direct delivery of conservation practices on the landscape.


The Grassland Restoration Incentive Program aids private landowners “get a GRIP on grassland conservation”


A prime example of linking on-the-ground habitat management with national bird population goals is the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program, or GRIP.  Both the OPJV and GCJV regions include vast areas of grassland habitat, vital for grassland birds, nesting waterfowl, and other species.  Jon Hayes, who manages the GRIP program for the OPJV and the GCJV, describes the program as “training wheels or a catalyst for helping people to adopt conservation practices and eventually conduct them on their own.  GRIP provides incentives payments in a region of Texas where there are few large land holdings, but a lot of people who are new to the land with no experience of prescribed fire.”  


GRIP supplies up to 75% cost-share to landowners who are interested in practices such as prescribed burns, prescribed grazing, brush management, or range planting to benefit birds and other species.  The landowner provides the remaining cost either through matching payments or “sweat equity” in the form of labor.  This program was also designed to complement other major programs aimed at private landowners and operated by key partners, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife).  GRIP also benefits small landowners who do not qualify for other assistance because they are not agricultural producers, an increasingly common situation in Texas where many landowners have purchased their property primarily for recreation.  


Gulf Coast Prairie LCC lends a hand


The GCP LCC first began working with the OPJV in late 2012 by providing support in the form of experts at the USGS Advanced Applications Lab in Louisiana to develop a Grassland Management Inventory Tool (GMIT).  The GMIT now functions as a spatial inventory of all the OPJV’s GRIP projects, and multiple users can populate the system with key information, such as vegetation type or management action.  That same year, the LCC also funded development of the Mottled Duck Decision Support Tool in collaboration with the GCJV.  This tool helps to target grassland sites for protection or restoration that are high priority as nesting habitat for this declining waterfowl species.


Next, at approximately the same time that the OPJV was establishing the GRIP program, the GCP LCC initiated discussions and development of its Grassland Decision Support Tool (DST) project.  By mid-2013 this concept had started to take shape, designed to synthesize various datasets and demonstrate where the best locations for grassland restoration might be.  Hayes said, “We have not yet used the DST to guide our GRIP projects, but we plan to.  The DST could be very useful to refine where we are working to get the biggest bang for our conservation buck.”  Currently, GRIP is delivered in 19 focal counties in Texas, using priority zones identified by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, bird monitoring data, and GCJV guidance from the Mottled Duck DST. 


“When the Grassland DST was first completed, a test run validated our earlier conservation decisions, but the data is not yet there to go deeper,” said Hayes.  “Ultimately, our vision is to have most grassland projects stored in GMIT -- by not only the JV but also other agency partners and organizations working to restore grasslands -- and have this information incorporated into the DST.  Ideally, the tool would allow us to apply a finer filter for prioritizing our work, by adding data layers on infrastructure, vegetation types, exotic species, development, and other threats.”


What birds and butterflies have in common


The GRIP program operates on a 2-year funding cycle, and the fall of 2015 marked the beginning of their second cycle.  Whereas the program was originally funded primarily by TPWD funds supplied by hunters who buy upland gamebird stamps, the bulk of the funding in the current cycle has come from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using funds dedicated to Monarch butterfly conservation.


Hayes explained that the needs of many native pollinators overlap with those of grassland birds.  “Monarchs as well as grassland birds are threatened by loss of habitat from woody encroachment (mainly juniper in northern Texas).  But it’s not loss of grass that hurts Monarchs, but loss of flowering plants throughout the year.  Our range planting seed mixes include flowering plants that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall to provide nectaring sources throughout the growing season.”


The importance of local partners


“I’d like to point out the really important role played by Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. (TPWD) in implementing GRIP,” said Hayes.  “When we began this program, we needed people who could work with landowners to make projects happen.  We involved TPWD biologists assigned to the counties so they could serve as GRIP project managers, and they have brought in some awesome projects.  GRIP now serves as another tool in their conservation toolbox.”  Hayes stressed, however, that natural resource professionals from any OPJV partner organization are eligible to be GRIP project managers. 


With 80 projects encompassing 45,000 acres completed and over $1 million dollars invested, GRIP is a very successful program.  To achieve long-term landscape-scale results under a Strategic Habitat Conservation framework, the OPJV is implementing an intensive, long-term bird monitoring effort in its target counties to help focus the projects and gage bird response.  


GRIP also seeks to ensure lasting results.  GRIP requirements include a minimum 5-year commitment to maintain habitat conditions achieved by each project.  “This program is all about the people,” stressed Hayes.  “We anticipate that TPWD project managers will have a continuing relationship with participating landowners because they live and work in their communities.  Plus, once people have made positive changes on their land, they don’t want to go backward.  The theory is they will continue their good work.”