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Easement Program Enhances and Restores Whooping crane Wintering Habitat

story by Garry Stephens, Zone Biologist, Corpus Christi, TX

The enhancement, restoration and preservation of critical habitat for North America’s last wild flock of migratory Whooping cranes is being carried out along Texas’ mid coast area through the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP). NRCS is voluntarily working with local landowners, to restore and manage the easements to provide habitat for all wetland wildlife species.

Three years ago the owners of Falcon Point Ranch in Calhoun County, Texas entered into a perpetual easement with the federal government through a WRP conservation easement. This permanently protected area can potentially play an instrumental role in conserving habitat for these Whooping cranes, as well as many other associated wildlife species.

“Restoring and protecting wetlands along the Texas Gulf Coast has been a priority for NRCS with the WRP for the past five years,” said Claude Ross, NRCS program manager. “This area contains a large amount of private lands which provides vital resting, feeding, wintering, and nesting grounds for migratory and aquatic birds and native Texas wildlife. These farm and ranchlands provide winter habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the Whooping crane, Aplamado falcon, and Piping plover among many others.”

Wetland conservation is helping protect threatened and endangered species such as the Whooping crane

Falcon Point is located in a coastal region known as Welder Flats. Scientists estimate that at least 10 percent of the remaining flock (approximately 25 – 30 birds) winter in this area. As the representative of the owners of Falcon Point Ranch, Bill Ball has been involved in efforts to conserve their part of the Welder Flats for more than five years.

“When my partners and I bought Falcon Point Ranch as a development project, we knew we could do it in a way that would be compatible with the Whoopers,” said Ball. “We never dreamed it would result in over 3,900-acres of conservation easement on our property, and an additional 10,000 acres on adjacent properties. It is a true success story that would not be possible without the WRP program.”

Tim Anderson, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) in Corpus Christi, has been instrumental in assisting with the development of NRCS restoration plans for WRP easement offers along the coastal areas of Texas.

“Falcon Point Ranch is an important part of the Whooping crane winter range,” said Anderson. “Conserving this important habitat by enrolling it in the easement will contribute significantly to Whooping crane recovery. In fact, one of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population’s families totaling three cranes has established a wintering territory on the Falcon Point Ranch.”

“The restoration efforts and benefits through the WRP on these areas are not only aimed at Whooping cranes, but all of the plants and animals that thrive in these unique ecosystems,” said Garry Stephens, NRCS biologist in Corpus Christi.

A very important aspect of programs, such as WRP is the ability to conserve and preserve restored wetland habitat for future generations to enjoy.

“I was with my 5-year old granddaughter, Charlotte, at Christmas and she spent 10 minutes looking at the whoopers through binoculars as they foraged in the WRP-protected marsh,” Ball. “She was fascinated and did not want to leave. She was so enthralled with seeing something so majestic. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”

With the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, many of the NRCS’ programs like the WRP, Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) and the Farm and Ranch Land Protection (FRPP) were consolidated under one program called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The ACEP provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands, forestland and wetlands. By voluntarily helping landowners through these programs, it helps protect the long-term viability of the nation’s food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses. Land protected by agricultural land easements provides additional public benefits, including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.

Easement programs and private landowners working voluntarily with NRCS and partners may certainly be the link that enables Texans and future generations to see something as rare as a Whooping crane.