Prairie restoration project turns back the clock on Paige ranch

VIBS 660 Reporting Science & Technology: November 29, 2022

Under a blanket of stars nearly untouched by light pollution, dozens of people in parked cars or sitting on lawn chairs basked in the glow reflecting from an inflatable movie screen, where a projector cast a series of short documentaries about a variety of topics in nature and wildlife conservation. Behind the dialog from the films, a gentle breeze whispered through the sparse trees and wide expanse of grassland.

Visitors to this nature preserve didn’t have to look far to find the principles from one of the short films一detailing efforts to protect the monarch butterfly in upstate New York一put into action. This ranch is slowly being reverted from non-native grazing grass back to its natural prairie vegetation, in part to help support the monarch butterfly.

A windy evening animates the native prairie grasses that were returned to this pasture at Billig Ranch.

This year was Pines and Prairies Land Trust’s second Wild and Scenic Film Festival, taking place on Saturday, October 22 at Billig Ranch, a nature preserve near Paige. Pines and Prairies is a Bastrop-based nonprofit organization that, along with managing two wildlife preserves and a nature park, works with landowners to put restrictions on their deeds that protect wildlife on their land.

Pines and Prairies’ instance of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival is part of an international program by the same name. The original Wild & Scenic Film Festival began in 2003 by the South Yuba River Citizens League, a nonprofit river conservation organization from California near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The main festival screens over 100 films each January, after which the organization lets other groups across the country host their own film festivals, such as Pines and Prairies’ event in October.

As part of the film program, Pines and Prairies chose 12 short films from a list compiled by the Wild & Scenic Film Festival organization. The short documentaries shown at Pines and Prairies’ film screening ranged from the comedic, such as the story of a cormorant’s caretakers teaching the bird how to pickpocket, to heartwarming, such as a documentary about a woman-led elephant orphanage in Kenya, to even the dire, such as a short film chronicling a Native American tribe struggling to adapt to the loss of fish in their river due to a dam upstream. Throughout the evening, the audience bounced between mirthful laughter, awe and quiet contemplation.

In addition to the films, the day featured guided hikes, such as a “bug walk” led by a local PhD student, and a presentation on local archaeology projects. Attendees also had the chance to camp overnight at Billig Ranch and take an early-morning birding hike the next morning. Pines and Prairies’ partners in the local community, such as Austin forestry nonprofit TreeFolks and the Bastrop County Community Emergency Response Team, were also there for attendees to talk to and learn from.

When she got a chance in between working hard at the event, Pines and Prairies outreach manager Laurie Mason took part in the bug walk. She said she saw both the adults and children engaged and joyfully learning.

“There was a huge diversity of participants, kids and adults,” said Camille Wiseman, president of the Pines and Prairies board.

The proceeds of the Wild & Scenic Film Festival help fund Pines and Prairies’ habitat restoration projects at Billig Ranch, which focuses on reverting pastures to prairies and restoring habitat for threatened animals like butterflies and toads.

In 2008, Pines and Prairies received the 677-acre Billig Ranch from Erwin Billig, who wanted his ranch to become a haven for wildlife. In addition to general land management, Pines and Prairies completed two projects in 2014 restoring prairie grass on 130 acres and a third project restoring an additional 149 acres in 2019. Pines and Prairies plans to conduct a controlled burn on the two pastures of prairie they planted in 2013 within the next couple of years, said Melanie Pavlas, the executive director of Pines and Prairies.

Funding assistance from state and federal resources

For the first two projects in 2013, Pines and Prairies Land Trust used the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Landowner Incentive Program and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. For the third project in 2019, Pines and Prairies’ funding came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. These three programs help private landowners improve wildlife habitat on their land and follow good conservation practices. As Pines and Prairies is considered a private landowner, the programs they used to fund these projects are also available to the average Texas private landowner.

Billig Ranch is in the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion, the land type that dominates the region east of Austin. Wide expanses of prairie-like grasses, including bluestem and wildflowers, punctuated by clumps of various oak species characterize this ecosystem type. In Bastrop County’s case, this mix includes loblolly pines. Several factors, from the local flora to the loose sandy soil, support an endangered species, the Houston toad, in much of Bastrop County.

A map of Billig Ranch showing the prairie restoration projects Pines and Prairies Land Trust has undertaken so far. Image by Pines and Prairies Land Trust

The Houston toad has become something of a mascot for nature conservation and ecosystem restoration in Bastrop County. The toad has had a rough history, listed as endangered in 1970 only about two decades after its identification. Major reasons for the toad’s decline include habitat loss一as its name suggests, its historical range included Harris County一and drought. Destruction of a significant chunk of its habitat due to the devastating fires of 2011 and 2015 in Bastrop County hasn’t helped the toad’s plight, either.

Another threat to the Houston toad’s habitat, though, is conversion of native grassland into typical grazing grasses such as Bermuda grass and bahiagrass, according to information from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. These grass species form sod, which makes it harder for the toads to burrow. Additionally, suppressing natural wildfire and a lack of forest management causes dense shrubbery in Post Oak Savannah ecosystems, another factor that makes life harder for the toads.

Natural Post Oak Savannah ecosystems typically host 150 to 200 species of plants per acre, said Tim Siegmund, a biologist from Texas Parks and Wildlife who advised Pines and Prairies on the most recent project at the ranch. As a result of practices that concentrate grazing on a location for the entire year, livestock overgrazes the native grasses and reduces the biological diversity to about 10 to 30 species per acre.

“It’s become simplified, so there’s less room for insects, which are the driver of the food chain for migratory songbirds,” Siegmund said. “You also lose the ability to produce a bunch of seeds. You’re basically reducing the amount of food available to all suites of wildlife by having these non-native systems come through.”

Additionally, lack of natural wildfire lets thickets of yaupon take over and crowd out other plant species, which also reduces food availability, he added.

Billig Ranch is a potential habitat for Houston toads, and it also hosts plenty of milkweed, making it a nice migratory pit stop for monarch butterflies. The Post Oak Savannah ecoregion provides spring and summer habitats for the monarch butterfly, and milkweed is an essential part of the species’ lifecycle. Pines and Prairies planted native grasses and wildflowers and other host plants that monarch butterflies like.

“Every time I see the milkweed seeds and the pods blowing around, that’s really gratifying to see,” Mason said. “Some of (the native grasses) are as tall as me. It’s just so different, and then to imagine what Central Texas would have looked like before, with this forest of tall grass instead of the short grass that we have now.”

Monarch butterflies are an ambassador species for pollinators, Pavlas said. The land management projects that help one species, like bringing back native vegetation for monarch butterflies, can also benefit other native species.

“As an ambassador species, the monarch butterfly is a colorful and well-known species that people are prone to know already and recognize,” Mason said. “If you maintain a habitat in such a way that benefits the monarch butterfly, then it benefits a bunch of other species as well.”

Another habitat management project in Bastrop County

Billig Ranch isn’t the only habitat-restoration project undertaken by Pines and Prairies Land Trust. This summer, Pines and Prairies started a project to restore bird habitat on the southern side of the organization’s other major nature preserve, Yegua Knobbs. The work included clearing out yaupon that, in the absence of natural wildfire or other forest management techniques, clogs up the understory and blocks out sunlight for other plant species. When this domination of yaupon reduces biological diversity, birds have less food-bearing species to choose from, making the forest a more hostile place for them.

Ultimately, though, a major component of Pines and Prairies’ work on Billig Ranch is harmonizing the restored prairie ecosystem with cattle ranching. One of their goals is to use Billig Ranch as an educational tool for ranchers. The work at the ranch could show that other landowners can restore their pastures of non-native grasses to native prairie while still raising cattle, Pavlas said.

“Then, everybody and everything benefits,” she said. “Our main reason to bring cattle back is to be able to show the community that you can have native prairie and run cattle.”

In the restored prairies’ early years, Pines and Prairies has been careful about the amount of grazing they allow at Billig Ranch. They worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of their funding sources, to develop a grazing plan. These guidelines include a timeline of when a piece of pasture can be grazed and when it should rest.

In 2013, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service started at Billig Ranch with helping Pines and Prairies with a plan to eradicate grasses like bahia, klein and Bermuda grass. Once the invasives were under control, they started a seeding plan for the native grasses, said Hilary Bravenec, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist in Bastrop.

“After the first year, we might have been able to find some seedlings out there,” Bravenec said. “It wasn’t really obvious whether or not it was going to be a success or do well, but by the end of the second growing season, it looked like a prairie.”

Right now, only 15 cattle are allowed to graze on the ranch. The cattle’s owner moves them to a different pasture whenever the grass is eaten down to a certain height.

One complication is the worry of spreading seeds of non-native grass back into a pasture where prairie grass has been replanted. Some non-native grasses, like coastal Bermuda grass, don’t spread this way, but if cattle have been eating kleingrass or bahiagrass, they can bring seeds from those grasses back to the restored prairie. To prevent this, the cattle are grazed on Bermuda grass for a couple of weeks before returning to a native prairie pasture.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service also helped with a livestock water development project to bring water to the pastures without water. Most recently in 2019, the agency assisted with chemical brush management to take care of individual mesquite plants encroaching onto the prairie.

The new native grasses have been growing for several years without being manipulated, building up plant material, so the next plan is some prescribed burning to rejuvenate the grass and provide new seedlings an opportunity to thrive.

“The idea is to remove some of that decadent material,” Bravenec said. “It shades the plant out, the plant can’t do photosynthesis very well with additional shading, and sometimes it can even kill itself over time. So, it’s actually good to have some disturbance, and then it opens up more opportunities for other species to come in.”

Pines and Prairies’ projects at Billig Ranch are an example of holistic ranch management, Mason said. One of the challenges the organization faced in getting this holistic ranch management off the ground was finding the right rancher to bring out their cattle to the property, Pavlas said.

“(Running cattle and having native prairie) is a pretty new or controversial idea for generations of cattle ranchers,” Pavlas said. “When trying to find somebody that you can work well with to have them bring their cattle out, you have to educate that cattle person, and it can be challenging to teach them why we have these (grazing) restrictions.”

Instead of replacing pastures with “improved” exotic grasses, the historically-used strategy, the idea of switching pastures back to native prairie grasses is “changing the paradigm” of ranching altogether, Pavlas and Mason said.

“It’s changing the well-ingrained idea of how to graze cattle and leave something for the wildlife,” Pavlas said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to walk the talk: you can’t just have slides showing a rancher that ‘you too can do this.’ But for us to actually have cattle on the ranch and grazing them in such a way that you’re using them more as a tool than just agriculture, I think it’s important.”

Jon Beall, an Elgin-area landowner, holds a land conservation easement on his 315 acres through Pines and Prairies that prohibits anything harming the conservation values of the land. 

“There’s been a land rush in Central Texas, and despite the fact that I get three to five solicitations a week looking to buy something, I’m not going to sell,” Beall said.

A small portion of Beall’s farm is used by three small farms, including New Leaf Agriculture, a program through the Austin-based Multicultural Refugee Coalition that gives space for refugees from across the world to grow their crops.

“There’s lots going on out there, but only on a very small portion of it; the rest of it is left wild,” Beall said.

Beall’s land provides habitat for migrating birds and monarch butterflies, and he hopes to eventually attract bumblebees and bats.

“It is still possible in a few places in Travis County to walk around and not be able to see or hear neighbors or automobiles or see any lights,” he said. “I enjoy getting out in nature, personally, and I intend to leave the vast majority of the property (not farmed).”

In the past, other than the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, Pines and Prairies has hosted educational tours and guided hikes, but the people attending these events haven’t included a lot of cattle ranchers, Pavlas said. So, the organization’s future goals include outreach specifically targeted at local landowners.

“One of the big things we want to share about Billig is that habitat and agriculture can coexist, but it requires a little more thoughtful management,” Wiseman said. “Allowing people to visit that property, see the prairies, and join us for the journey and the challenges of agriculture … we really want to share that with people.”

“On the other end of the spectrum, it’s exciting to get to have people out onto the land who may otherwise have never had an opportunity to be on a ranch, much less a huge 670-plus-acres example of open space,” Mason said. “For some people, they may only see it driving by in their cars, or they may not see it at all, if they’re in a really urban setting. For people to get to walk around and to see it up close, it’s a really neat opportunity.”

This fall’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival was an ideal venue to further Pines and Prairies’ goal of promoting their reserves, like Billig Ranch, and sharing Bastrop County’s natural resources.

“It’s a unique thing to have a drive-in out under the stars,” Mason said. “Part of the Pines and Prairies mission is to connect people to the land and give them opportunities to form memories on the land. … People really enjoy that opportunity to get to be really intimately close to the land and to get to explore on the trails and walk around the ranch. I think it’s super important to have people out there, and I love getting to watch people enjoy the preserve.”


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