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Greater prairie chicken, ©Dominique Brand/Tom Stack & Assoc.
OPPOSITE: Greater prairie chicken in spring showing “booming” behavior. Photo by Dominique Braud/Tom Stack & Assoc.

Safe Harbor

Prairie chickens and cows are strange rangefellows. But in Texas, it works.
By Ben Ikenson, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, the San Bernard River passes through John and Taunia Elick’s ranch in southeastern Texas, a ribbon of water and hardwood trees unspooled across rolling gulf coast prairies. The ranch is home to Texas Longhorn cattle and a wide range of wildlife, including migatory waterfowl and bald eagles which use the tall cottonwoods that line the river for their winter roost. It’s no wonder Elick named the 1,800-acre spread near Sealy, Texas, the Eagle Roost Ranch.

If ranches were always named for the birds that populated them, the Elicks’ place would have been called the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Ranch. A grouse species that thrived on the land before the Elicks’ time, the Attwater’s prairie chicken, unfortunately, has become North America’s most endangered bird. But Elick and fellow ranchers in the area have joined an effort to bring the bird back to the important Gulf Coast prairie ecosystem.

“I want to do something for wildlife,” said Elick. “I want to help create and maintain habitat for wildlife because I believe that what is good for the ecology of the land is good for me and my ranch.”

Elick is one of eight landowners working to restore Texas coastal prairie habitat on over 17,800 acres. As part of the Coastal Prairie Conservation Initiative, partnerships
John Elick ©Taunia Elick
John Elick’s holistically managed ranch provides habitat for wildlife, grazing land for cattle, and recreation–“It doesn’t get any better than this.” Photo by Taunia Elick

with private landowners are aimed at improving lands for the endangered bird. Jointly sponsored by the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, the Sam Houston Resource Conservation and Development Board, and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, landowners can volunteer to receive cost-share incentives to carry out prairie habitat conservation practices such as brush control, grazing management, and prescribed burning to improve the health of their rangeland.

Also, landowners can sign a “Safe Harbor” agreement which essentially immunizes them from liability under the Endangered Species Act if management practices attract endangered species. In addition to the Attwater’s prairie chicken, other rare species covered under the Safe Harbor provisions include the endangered Houston toad and the Texas prairie dawn-flower.

Elick uses the “holistic approach to managing the ranch for cattle grazing, wildlife habitat, and recreational enjoyment of the land.”

Before he was involved, Elick had been worried that the federal government would, in some way, infringe on his property rights if it was discovered that his property attracted such a splendid array of wildlife, including the prairie chicken and the bald eagle. After hearing about the Safe Harbor agreements, Elick approached program representatives within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the local resource Conservation and Development Board.

“Basically,” said Elick, “I learned that the Safe Harbor was designed to protect the ranch owner’s property rights, and yet provide the government special use ranchland for endangered species habitat without the price tag of acquiring the land. Both the government and private landowner benefit without any negative drawbacks to either party.”

Terry Rossignol is manager of Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. The rancher improves his habitat for his cattle operation and the Attwater’s prairie chicken benefits from the improved habitat as well.”

If participating landowners carry out the agreed upon, cost-shared habitat improvements, they may develop, farm, or ranch without fear of being stopped. They are only required to notify the Fish & Wildlife Service and give the agency an opportunity to relocate any endangered species expected to be adversely affected. “This program has mushroomed in popularity and, because Texas is more than 97 percent privately owned, it now holds the key to successful recovery of the Attwater’s prairie chicken,” said Rossignol. “Without the help of private landowners, the bird is doomed.”

At sunset on his ranch, Elick often sits atop a horse on the forested banks of the trickling San Bernard, letting several of his Longhorn cows take a drink from the river. Quail call to each other in the brush. A bald eagle glides by en route to the branch of a cottonwood tree, his evening roost. Some might say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” But Elick believes it can. With the help of the new partnership program, he hopes to see Mother Nature welcome home the Attwater’s prairie chicken–a piece of nature and of the past that has been missing from his ranch for too long.

Ben Ikenson works for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For info contact: Terry Rossignol, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, P.O. Box 519, Eagle Lake, TX 77434, 409-234-3021, Ext. 13; or John Campbell, Sam Houston RC&D, 1410 S. Gordon, Alvin, TX 77511, 281-388-1734.


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