The Georgetown salamander, whose only home is Williamson County, is not listed as an endangered species, at least not yet. But here is a little story about how Bastrop County dealt with their own endangered amphibian, Bufo houstonensis, the famous Houston toad. I was tipped off to these events by the newest Environmental Studies professor at Southwestern, Dr. Josh Long, who introduced me to his father Bob.
Bob Long has been described as a gun-toting, Republican preacher on a quest to save the endangered Houston toad. I can’t comment on his voting record, but he does have a pistol strapped to his right hip. We are heading out to see the toad habitat on his 550 acre cattle ranch near Bastrop, and the gun is in case we see a rattlesnake. Unlike Houston toads, rattlesnakes are not protected by the Endangered Species Act, so if we encounter an unlucky rattlesnake on this excursion Bob will definitely endanger it.
On the road to the ranch we see burned out forests everywhere, blackened tree skeletons poking up from wildflowers and green meadows that sprouted in the spring rains. At least, the lucky areas have new meadows and wildflowers. Some of last summer’s wildfires burned so hotly that the soil beneath the trees was sterilized, all the dormant seeds and roots destroyed. The Houston toad population, driven out of Houston years ago by urbanization, is now confined to a shrinking habitat centered in Bastrop County. The toad likes to burrow in the loose soil beneath pine and oak forests, so the fires may have dealt a fatal blow to the struggling species.
Bob was introduced to the Houston toad back in the late 1990s when the US Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting at the Bastrop Opera House to lay down the law to the local landowners. A man Bob described as “confrontational” announced that the federal government was dead serious about protecting the Houston toad through the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and if the local ranchers didn’t get on board with protective measures the Fish and Wildlife Service would rule that the continued existence of the toad was in jeopardy. A “jeopardy” ruling under the ESA has serious legal clout, allowing withdrawal of federal funds for local schools and roads if the community did not comply with conservation measures. Needless to say, this news did not go over very well with the ranchers. A lot of people were pretty riled up about this threat to private property rights.
In all his years tromping around on his ranch, Bob had never even seen a Houston toad, so why all this fuss over its possible extinction? Why should anybody care about the fate of this obscure little amphibian that was throwing a wrench into everybody’s business? A ruling of jeopardy would affect not just ranchers, but everybody involved with real estate. Developers would be seriously inconvenienced, as well as all the bankers and lawyers who did business with the developers.
Bob wasn’t too emotional over the fate of the Houston toad, but he did care about the wellbeing of Bastrop County and all his many friends in the area, and he realized early on that the toad problem was not going to disappear just because the Bastrop community didn’t want to deal with it. Rather than waiting for proclamations to come down from Washington, Bob wanted to have a seat at the table where decisions would be made about protecting the toad, so he helped organize a task force including Bastrop ranchers, developers, bankers, and lawyers, as well as representatives from Texas Parks and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Defense, The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service, Texas AgriLife Extension, and the Texas Department of Agriculture. He wanted to hear what the environmentalists had to say, and he was not intimidated by the federal government. “Hey, we pay their salaries. They work for us.”
For his efforts at mediation, he was called a sell-out and a crazy person by some of his neighbors who preferred to fight. But Bob Long is a relationship person. He felt certain that a spirit of cooperation would trump confrontation.
Like most committees, the Bastrop task force had a lot of tedious meetings without making any progress. But from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bob learned about Safe Harbor Agreements, a voluntary partnership in which private landowners aid in the recovery of an endangered species in exchange for assurances that no additional management activities will be required of them during the period of the agreement. Bob was impatient to get the task force off dead center, so he persuaded the USFWS to let him enter a Safe Harbor Agreement for a manageable ten years rather than the daunting “perpetuity”. If it wasn’t working out, at the end of ten years he could go back to business as usual.
The Safe Harbor Agreement meant that Bob had to keep his cattle out of a pond on his property during the toad’s breeding season, but Texas Parks and Wildlife paid for a fence and Environmental Defense helped install a watering trough for the cattle outside the fence. The Longs also had to pull some cedars, plant some native grasses, and control fire ants.
Controlled burns, which were prescribed by the agreement, turned out to be hugely beneficial last summer. The areas of the ranch that had already been cleared of excess underbrush by controlled burns escaped the massive destruction of the superheated wildfires.
Bob does not consider himself an environmentalist like his son, Dr. Josh. He prefers the term conservationist. The conservation measures required by the Safe Harbor Agreement have resulted in increased wildlife, including wood ducks and wild turkey, excellent for hunting. The toad pond has become a haven for birds. With the many birds come predators such as fox, bobcat, and even a mountain lion.
But Bob does not go looking for toads around his pond, so he wasn’t sure how they are doing these days. To find out I called Dr. Michael Forstner, biologist at Texas State and world expert on Houston toads. Dr. Forstner says Bastrop County is the Houston toad’s Alamo; it has nowhere else to run. The next 5 years will be critical to the toad’s survival, requiring not only habitat protection but also breeding programs and re-introduction into wetlands like the Long’s pond.
But does it matter if the Houston toad survives? Isn’t this a lot of trouble for a two inch creature that sings around a pond? Dr. Forstner explains that Houston toads are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Just as the death of a canary would signal the presence of deadly gases in the mine, the toads have been revealing for a decade the degradation of the Bastrop forests, a degradation confirmed by the wildfires. The citizens of Bastrop County chose to live there because of the natural character of the area. “They don’t want to live in Round Rock,” he says, referring apologetically to Williamson County’s rapid development. The Houston toad is a strong ally in the quest to keep Bastrop County’s ecosystem healthy and natural. If the forests do well, the creatures that depend on the forests will do well, including the people.
Bob Long, preacher and rancher, doesn’t know what will happen to the Houston toad in the future, but he cares about stewardship of the land and will keep on doing his part. “I will set the habitat so it can survive if God wants it to survive.”