NATURE NOTES:
For the Borderlands Research Institute, Ranching Heritage is the Key to Conservation

The Borderlands Research Institute – at Alpine’s Sul Ross State University – was founded in 2007, with a mission to empower land managers to conserve the region’s natural resources. In the Trans-Pecos, that means private landowners. National and state parks here are treasures. But what residents and visitors alike cherish about this part of Texas – its unbroken vistas and star-filled night skies, its “primitive” and wild qualities – is tied to the presence of large, and largely undeveloped, ranches. The Borderlands Research Institute studies the region’s wildlife. But it also works to provide tools to keep working ranches intact, and to preserve and restore features of those landscapes that are central to the Big Bend’s natural heritage.

Billy Tarrant is at the heart of that effort – through a project called Respect Big Bend and the BRI’s new Center for Land Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement. He’ll lead a roundtable discussion at the BRI’s Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference, August 4th in Alpine.

“Being out here as long as I had, I had a pretty big network,” Tarrant said. “And Louis Harveson, our director here, he made it clear what was going on, that this thing was trying to get going. Man, it was just too sweet – I had to take it. I flunked retirement, on purpose.”

A wildlife scientist, Tarrant worked for more than 20 years for Texas Parks & Wildlife. That included seven years as a regional director, overseeing wildlife management from the Panhandle and the Permian Basin to the Trans-Pecos. He joined the BRI in 2019, to spearhead “local stakeholder engagement” for the Respect Big Bend coalition.

Respect Big Bend was launched by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. By 2019, petroleum development had extended beyond historic Permian Basin oilfields to the very edge of the desert-mountain country, and the threshold of the Davis and Guadalupe ranges. And the prospect of that development expanding into the Big Bend proper triggered concerns, and protests.

Respect Big Bend isn’t premised on opposition to oil and gas – industry players are participants in the coalition. Indeed, the group encourages energy development here – but development in which impacts are mitigated and sensitive places are protected, Tarrant said.

Tarrant led the formation of a “Stakeholder Advisory Group” to chart a path of “development by design.” It was composed of landowners, community members and conservation advocates from the “Tri-County area,” of Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties.

Backgrounds and political orientations varied. But group members quickly found common ground in what they valued about their home. Those “conservation values” included ranching heritage; remoteness and quietness; “sky-island” mountains, grasslands and water resources; wildlife; and dark skies and wide vistas; as well as the arts and community. 

Those values weren’t ranked, but Tarrant said the group agreed that ranching heritage and private-property rights were the cornerstone.

“We have to respect that, because that feeds all the other values,” he said. “That feeds our dark skies. That feeds our clean water and clean air. That feeds our wildlife habitat, our grasslands, our sky islands. All that is impacted by large, un-impacted landscapes. If you can help a landowner get to a point where they’re on a higher economic plane to manage those assets, it just helps us all.” 

Next, the coalition “mapped” the core values onto the landscape, identifying areas of greatest importance. Those included corridors used by migrating and dispersing wildlife – like bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bears. The robust grasslands that sustain ranching, as well as pronghorn and wintering birds, were included. And critical “viewsheds” – places along roadways that provide stunning West Texas panoramas – were identified. 

The coalition released a report last May. But the group didn’t simply want to place a document on a shelf. The BRI’s Center for Land Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement was launched this spring, in part to carry the work forward.

Test wells have indicated the potential for natural-gas extraction in the Tri-County area. But petroleum geologist don’t project any significant development here in the coming decades. That’s not the case for other forms of energy. Wind and especially solar producers are increasingly looking to the Trans-Pecos. 

Tarrant said the Center hopes to work with energy companies and landowners to discourage development in the most sensitive places. But while Tarrant said most ranchers here would prefer not to see such activity on their land, economic realities often compel that. For landowners who choose to move forward on those projects, the Center can help identify area where impacts will be mitigated.

“It’s our goal to find these opportunities to incentivize non-development or to minimize development,” he said. “But if they’re going to develop, let’s do it mindfully. If there’s opportunities for a landowner to see economic gain without impacting the landscape, let’s take a look at those.” 

And the Center is committed to connecting landowners to alternative sources of income, so they can keep ranches intact and undeveloped. Conservation easements are one tool. Here, a landowner is paid half the value of a property, in return for a commitment not to develop or subdivide the land, and to maintain it as a working ranch. Then – there’s the market of “biodiversity credits.”

Amidst the ongoing and catastrophic loss of biodiversity on Earth, large corporations are increasingly under pressure to offset the damage they do by purchasing these “credits,” or investments to sustain biodiversity. The Big Bend is among the most biodiverse areas in North America, and ranchers here are well-situated to benefit from this emerging market.

In its work to study and conserve wildlife here, the BRI is in close partnership with ranchers – whose working lands are also habitat. And the BRI partners with landowners on restoration projects – that can improve conditions for both livestock and wild creatures.

These “cost-share projects” typically focus on grasslands and riparian areas. Brush and invasive vegetation are removed from pastures and stream corridors, to allow native grasses and riparian vegetation to return. Landowners cover half the cost, with a match in federal funds. The BRI recently reached an agreement with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, to allocate $3.5 million for such  projects here.

Tarrant said it’s indicative of a broader shift. When he began his career, ecological and ranching interests were often framed in bitter conflict. They’re increasingly seen to overlap, or align. After all, the words for ecology and economy share the same Greek root – the word for “home.”

“The ability to be more proactive and less reactive from a conservation standpoint has been so gratifying,” Tarrant said. “That’s the name of the game. These incentive-based programs – when landowners can achieve their goals and ours at the same time – those work, they’ve been shown to work. That’s why there’s more money to them – heavy-handed government regulation doesn’t always get it done.” 

For more on the Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference, visit bri.sulross.edu.