A habitat enhancement project six years in the making is coming to fruition on the 22,000-acre Decie Ranch, located between Alpine and Marathon in the Big Bend region of West Texas. Decie Ranch Manager Wiley Dabbs says it can take years to learn the lay of a large property—to understand how the watersheds and landscapes work, how drought affects the land, and to define problem areas.
Dabbs manages the Decie and lives full-time there with his wife and two daughters. He views habitat management as a way to give back and to ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from these lands.
Dabbs has had vital support from Decie Ranch landowners along with the help of organizations including the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create, fund and implement a plan specific to this property. These organizations can help fund land management projects through cost-share programs and grants. Additionally, they offer onsite visits from habitat specialists, soil scientists and other professionals who can provide free consultations about a landowner’s vision for their land.
Decie Ranch is a beautiful, sprawling property with a variety of terrain from wooded mountain slopes to desert valley flats. However, a significant portion, like much of the Southwest, is covered in a thick monoculture of creosote bush (Larea tridentata). These sites don’t slow down surface water flow as well as the grass communities that formerly dominated the area. This makes the land susceptible to erosion, and it becomes less productive for wildlife and livestock.
As grasses lose their competitive edge, brush like creosote, along with juniper (Juniperus spp.), mesquite (Prosopis spp.), and other woody shrubs take over. The term habitat specialists use for this type of pattern is “woody brush encroachment,” which Dabbs is taking a multifold approach to combat. He staves off the erosive process of soil by erecting brush weirs, windrows and trincheras, repopulating the landscape with native grasses.
“My main goal with brush treatment is to restore watersheds and native grasslands,” Dabbs said.
His program includes mechanical removal of brush by uprooting it, called grubbing, in addition to using herbicide treatments that specifically target and kill creosote and whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima).
He strategically piles brush in windrows to help slow down water flow in problematic areas.
He revamped the water system, installing seven miles of new water line, new troughs and solar pumps.
The ranch also installed 12 miles of pronghorn-friendly fence, which has the bottom wire set at least 18 inches off the ground, to allow pronghorn easy passage on their frequent movements.
He targeted a 1500-acre treatment area for brush removal, and has grubbed juniper out of an additional 300 acres.
Chemical treatment of brush, using herbicides like Spike, can take a few years to show results, but in the long run, the creosote and whitebrush should not come back with the same veracity.
The result of all of these management tactics offer improved habitat for wildlife. Native wildlife like pronghorn prefer open spaces and thrive on native grass and forb communities. These same management practices increase the quality of habitat for livestock. All of this leads to improved quality of life for the people who enjoy the benefits of healthy wildlife and livestock alike.
Although not an exact science, habitat specialists and land managers know these techniques work, because there’s a precedence of research for them on western lands. Additionally, organizations like Borderlands Research Institute practice ongoing habitat research in order to better inform these practices and to produce the best outcomes for the region.
“Scientists, alongside land managers like Wiley, refine habitat enhancement techniques together. We experience the best outcomes with teamwork, and the Borderlands Research Institute is available as a support tool to serve landowners of the Trans-Pecos,” said Borderlands Research Institute Associate Director of Stewardship Services Billy Tarrant.
The land stewardship center at Borderlands Research Institute offers a variety of programs to help carry the financial burden of implementing new land management techniques that aid in natural resource conservation.
To learn more about these services, visit bri.sulross.edu/land-stewardship.
Photo: Wiley Dabbs, manager of Decie Ranch in Far West Texas, is working hard to restore watersheds and native grasses on the 22,000-acre property, with the help of conservation partners like Borderlands Research Institute.