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South Texas NRCS and Partners Learn about Rare and Endangered Plant Species

South Texas NRCS and Partners Learn about Rare and Endangered Plant Species

Story by Melissa Blair and Garry Stephens

More than 35 USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employees and conservation partners learned about the habitats of rare, threatened and endangered plant as well as plants of cultural concern that inhabit rangeland areas of South Texas, on Wednesday, November, 3, 2010 in Rio Grande City.

�As USDA recognizes November as American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month, this training gave our field employees an opportunity to learn firsthand about plants that are rare and that provide aspects of cultural significance to the Indigenous People of the area,� said Garry Stephens, the south Texas area wildlife biologist and Texas NRCS Tribal Liaison.

Ted Herrera provided invaluable assistance in this training exercise by leading a discussion about rare plant species that are of Cultural Concern to the Indigenous People of South Texas. Peyote, for instance, is considered to be �sacred medicine� for 90 Native American Churches in 20 states in the country and grows in this area in association with several plant species that are considered to be threatened and endangered. Herrera is from the Coahuilteco Nation and is one of five Tribal Leaders of the Texas recognized Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation which is headquartered in San Antonio. Ted is the founder, and spiritual leader of the Rio Grande Native American Church. He also serves on the USDA-NRCS Texas State Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), as an advocate for stakeholders of tribally owned land and land owned by Tribal members. Herrera also serves as an Elder of the American Indian/Alaska Native Employees Association (AIANEA) for NRCS.

Noting the importance of maintaining our natural resources for now, and for the future, Herrera recently provided insight by saying, �Before our ways of life came to an end, our natural resources were sacred. Our ancestors prayed for the survival of their descendants, that they would keep their ways and protect their natural resources. We are those descendants.�

Kat Anderson with the National Plants Database traveled to Texas to obtain first-hand knowledge of Peyote in its natural habitat. Serving as the Ethno Botanist for this project, Anderson will be responsible for developing a plant guide for the USDA Plants website for this species that will highlight its cultural significance and to bring attention to the fact that it is becoming scarcer as it is overharvested and faces threats from agricultural conversion.

Tim Anderson, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Megan Dominguez, range specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service; and Jesus Franco, wildlife diversity biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, provided their agency�s perspectives on rare and endangered plants within the landscape to the group. They each provided information on assistance available from their organizations that can be used to leverage NRCS funding for ecosystem restoration work within these fragile ecosystems.

Russell Castro, NRCS state biologist discussed NRCS�s obligations within the realm of conservation planning as it relates to the Endangered Species Act.

Stephens discussed the importance of total resource management system conservation planning on an ecosystem based approach in order to protect and enhance local species of concern.

�By being able to recognize the plants in the field and by knowing their habitat requirements our field employees will be able to more effectively work with landowners in conservation planning while remaining in compliance with environmental laws as they relate to endangered species,� said Stephens.

Patrick Conner, former NRCS employee who now works for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), talked about preservation and restoration of rare and endangered plant species and the importance of conservation easements. Conner said, �No group gets more conservation practices on the ground than the NRCS and no group helps more private landowners develop conservation easements than The Nature Conservancy. TNC helps protect the conservation work NRCS does, with these voluntary conservation easements. TNC is looking forward to working with the NRCS�s Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve, and the Wetland Reserve Programs to assist landowners in establishing future conservation easements.

TNC�s Las Estrellas Preserve provides a site for research to determine the feasibility of using Star Cactus transplants and seeds for re-introduction in association with Texas State University (TSU). TNC is currently doing restoration work with Star Cactus on other private properties in the area.

The workshop attendees took a field trip to a ranch to observe, and identify the federally listed endangered plants Star Cactus, Zapata Bladderpod, and Johnston�s Frankenia as well as other plants of Culture Concern, including Peyote, in their natural, undisturbed habitat. Dedicated to conservation, the owners of this ranch have cooperative conservation agreements with both the Starr Soil and Water Conservation District and TNC.

Patrick Conner, South Texas Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, visits with workshop attendees about the work TNC is doing to protect the conservation easement work NRCS has done in South Texas, as well as the preservation and restoration of rare and endangered plant species.

NRCS field staff and partners learn about rare and endangered plant species in South Texas.

Patrick Conner, South Texas Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, visits with workshop attendees about the work TNC is doing to protect the conservation easement work NRCS has done in South Texas, as well as the preservation and restoration of rare and endangered plant species.

NRCS field staff and partners learn about rare and endangered plant species in South Texas.

Ted Herrera, shows a Star Cactus to NRCS employees and others who attended the rare and endangered plant species training in Rio Grande City.  

Ted Herrera, shows a Star Cactus to NRCS employees and others who attended the rare and endangered plant species training in Rio Grande City.