A male western chicken turtle stretches his charismatically long neck. The Texas Comptroller’s office is funding research at the Environmental Institute of Houston (EIH) to search for the species across its range in Texas using traditional and novel survey techniques, such as eDNA sampling. Photo courtesy of Mandi Gordon/Environmental Institute of Houston.
Prior to the summer of 2019, river authorities in East Texas had little reason to be concerned about or involved with the federal listing of endangered species. The species listed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) either did not have a regulatory impact on their operations or compliance was handled by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
All of that was reversed when the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) found the state-listed Louisiana pigtoe, a native freshwater mussel currently considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in a canal operated by the Lower Neches Valley Authority (LNVA). In less than a month, LNVA went from being a non-participant to having one of the most active mussel research teams in Texas. Other river authorities took note and followed suit.
Meanwhile, forestry groups in East Texas were engaging in a growing movement known as Conservation Without Conflict. This industry-led program seeks to find ways to encourage landowners to conduct and document conservation work without the risk of increased liability from federal regulation.
Stakeholder involvement in species conservation has never been more critical. The FWS is gathering data and considering taking action on over a dozen East Texas species: Louisiana pigtoe, Texas heelsplitter, alligator snapping turtle, western chicken turtle, tricolored bat, plains spotted skunk, Louisiana pinesnake, Texas screwstem, Texas golden gladecress, Neches River rose-mallow, white bladderpod, Texas trailing phlox, Texas prairie dawn flower, and Navasota false foxglove, all of which could benefit from additional data collections, and combined have historic habitats that cover all of East Texas. While each species is unique, the Natural Resources program saw an opportunity to examine the larger ecosystem and apply the available science to increase the efficacy of local stakeholders’ collective conservation efforts. By considering the entire landscape, including the array of plants, animals, and people involved, policymakers may promote stakeholder buy-in and cohesive, long-term conservation. Throughout the process, engaging members of the community and tapping into their intimate knowledge of the land affords additional insight into species distribution and habitat condition.
The East Texas Initiative seeks to accomplish two goals. First, the Natural Resources program will facilitate regular communication between East Texas stakeholders and USFWS so both have the information they need to operate. Second, the program will incorporate further discussions within East Texas communities to identify the priority gaps in knowledge needed to characterize species status. The Natural Resources program can fund research to address these gaps and develop the science-driven tools stakeholders need for long-term ESA compliance.
To kick off the initiative, the Comptroller’s office hosted an online meeting on April 1, 2020 to foster clear communication between the FWS and any local stakeholders interested in ESA processes. The FWS summarized ongoing and planned species status assessment (SSA) and recover documents for the species of interest. The Comptroller’s Natural Resources program outlined its commitment to evaluating funding research in East Texas for the next few years.
Based on stakeholder interest, the Natural Resources program formed a public working group on East Texas aquatic species to coordinate research and provide updates through this initiative. The aquatic ecosystem working group will focus primarily on the East Texas mussels, alligator snapping turtle, and western chicken turtle.
See the upcoming meetings page on our website to get more information on recent work group meetings. If you are interested in participating in future meetings through this group, sign up for our GovDelivery list here to be notified of upcoming meetings.
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