Farm and Ranch
Texas-sized conservation opportunities for small-acreage landowners
By Kerry Halladay, Texas A&M
Oct 26, 2021
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Small Acreage – Big Opportunity tailors wildlife conservation for small properties to make big impact across Texas

The Texas landscape is changing — literally and figuratively. As more new landowners show up on the ever-more-fragmented landscape, the way wildlife conservation is done should change alongside the changing population, according to wildlife experts.

The Small Acreage – Big Opportunity program aims to both learn about the unique needs of small-holder landowners and help them achieve their wildlife conservation goals. Research shows that habitat management done by all landowners, no matter how many acres they own, can have a big impact on wildlife conservation across the state.

The program is a partnership among the Texas Wildlife Association, TWA, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, a unit of Texas A&M AgriLife.

“One of our goals is to read the tea leaves about what is going to be needed in wildlife conservation as we move forward,” said Iliana Peña, director of conservation programs with TWA. “But another part of the impetus for this program is to get to know more about small acreage landowners and what drives their wildlife conservation goals.”

Small-acreage landowners can do a lot even with a few acres. The Small Acreage – Big Opportunity program can help them reach their goals and help benefit Texas wildlife across the state too. (photo provided by Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute)

Big opportunities to learn

The program is hosting three workshops in the coming months. Each event is independent, and topics will be tailored to the unique needs and management interests of the region. Events require registration and cost $80 with lunch included. The event dates and locations are:

Oct. 30: Allen workshop, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., Connemara Meadow Nature Preserve, Alma Dr, Allen, TX 75013.

Amanda Gobeli, AgriLife Extension project coordinator at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, said the events are geared towards small-acreage landowners and especially new small-acreage landowners.

“These events will help them lay the groundwork for becoming great land stewards of their property,” she said.

A changing Texas landscape with new faces

More people are moving to Texas. That is driving demand for land and in turn driving rural land prices up. This in turn increases the incentive for landowners to sell or fragment larger parcels.

The Texas population grew by an average of almost a half million people every year from 1997 to 2017, according to Texas Land Trends — a Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute project which monitors changes in land use and demographics across the state. During that same time, the value of average rural land in Texas increased by almost 300%, from about $500 per acre in 1997 to $1,950 per acre in 2017. The most recent USDA Land Values report estimated the value of average rural land in Texas at $2,170 per acre.

“The land trends data that Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute put out shows this trend of more parcels of land becoming smaller with new landowners coming into ownership,” Gobeli said.

New landowners might not intimately know the Texas landscape or may have never managed a piece of land before.

“All the data tell us these folks are actually interested in supporting wildlife and having a piece of land they can use recreationally,” Gobeli said. “They have that interest, but they need knowledge and guidance if they are going to actually be able to learn how to manage that property to reach their goals. So, it becomes really important for us to have programs like Small Acreage – Big Opportunity that reach out to those new landowners.”

Fragmented land ownership means fragmented habitat

Landownership fragmentation, just like habitat fragmentation, is a major challenge to wildlife conservation in Texas, Gobeli said. She gave the example of her experiences with quail.

“When I was doing quail conservation work with the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, I got to see how passionate and interested a lot of these small acreage landowners are when it comes to habitat management and wildlife conservation,” she said. “But it was really frustrating, because all the literature says you need 1,600 acres or more to support quail populations. But these small acreage landowners are so interested and motivated to do something for wildlife.”

This issue with fragmentation impacts a lot of Texas’ wildlife species. For example, recent work by the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute found that it takes roughly 2,500 square acres of specific habitat to support a modest population of Texas-native Louisiana pine snakes. Habitat specialists like the dunes sagebrush lizard and the gopher tortoise are especially at risk of land fragmentation.

Maureen Frank, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist in Uvalde and assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, said research shows private lands, no matter their size, are essential for species conservation.

“We want to see large properties kept intact, but where land is already divided, that doesn’t mean all is lost,” she said. “There’s just a different approach and some different tools on small acreages. We want to encourage those landowners that their management decisions are important to Texas’ wildlife.”

Frank is currently working on a project to help landowners identify bird species on their properties using automated recording devices.

“If you have 50 or 100 acres, maybe you can’t maintain a quail population, but you can provide the habitat that migratory birds need as they pass through Texas to their breeding grounds in the spring or wintering grounds in the fall. You can help make sure these species have ‘stopover areas’ to refuel during a challenging journey.”

Meeting the needs of small-acreage landowners

Land ownership trends suggest fragmentation of Texas land will continue. And current approaches to conservation may not fit the needs of small-acreage landowners.

Peña said most of the wildlife conservation recommendations currently available to Texas landowners were developed with large-acreage landowners in mind. This fact led to the creation of the Small Acreage – Big Opportunity program.

It began in 2020 with three workshops. One was able to be held in-person before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the remaining two online.

In addition to the three workshops planned for 2021, there are three additional workshops being developed for 2022 with expectations that the program will continue to grow.

“Our goal is to bring in conservation and land management professionals from the area where we are holding the workshops. Those experts can come in and speak to our landowner participants about the issues and concerns they have about land conservation in their area,” Peña explained. “Another goal is to take the opportunity to introduce landowners to their local representatives from their state, federal and non-governmental organization conservation partners.”

Frank said small-acreage landowners and agency partners across the state have developed ways to successfully manage wildlife, even on small acreages and despite local challenges.

“There are so many tools and resources for landowners; AgriLife Extension county agents, local TPWD biologists, Wildlife Management Associations, cost-share opportunities, online mapping tools, wildlife and plant identification guides and apps, other local experts and the experience of other landowners. We want to connect our participants with all of this to help them be stewards of Texas wildlife,” Frank said.

For more information on the program, contact Peña at ipena@texas-wildlife.org, Gobeli at Amanda.Gobeli@ag.tamu.edu, Frank at mgfrank@tamu.edu, or visit the Small Acreage – Big Opportunity website at tx.ag/SABO.