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Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

State not appropriating red light camera funds to trauma centers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not in Houston any more it's not

Sandy Greyson drove away from an Arlington meeting eight years ago, and 2 tons of irony wiped her off the road.

A red-light runner struck her passenger side, pushing the Dallas City Council member’s car into a field. Greyson suffered a broken wrist and a head wound that required 19 stitches.

She was taken to an emergency room similar to the 128 trauma centers in Texas that are supposed to benefit from the state law that allowed red-light cameras.

The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

That would be the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, along with such exotica as hunting and fishing license fee funds and the sale of specialty license plates. It’s the oldest trick in the budget-writer’s playbook, because dedicated revenues count as general revenues for budget “balancing” purposes. If you don’t have enough general revenue, just stop appropriating dedicated revenues until everything evens out. You can then declare yourself fiscally responsible, and the only people who get screwed are the ones who thought those revenues that were supposed to be dedicated to them. Everyone else just gets hoodwinked. People like Mr. Polunsky, who conveniently overlook the fact that there is in fact a Door #3 from which to choose to deal with this situation, help to ensure that it persists. The only truly remarkable thing about this story is that it gets written so long after the session. This was as true at the time the budget was printed and posted as it is today, but for whatever the reason it doesn’t make the news until later on. While I seriously doubt it would change the outcome, stories like this should be written before the budget gets passed. At least then no one could say they didn’t know what was about to happen.

It’s (almost) 2012, and Bigfoot still does not exist

Which will not stop stories about Bigfoot and the fools who keep looking for him from being written.

The Finding Bigfoot crew has not visited Texas yet, but something is out there deep in the Big Thicket, say members of Texas groups dedicated to hunting the beast.

Ken Gerhard of the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization has never seen one, but he thinks technology will help solve the mystery.

“I have been immersed in Sasquatch research for a number of years, and I can tell you in my mind a mountain of evidence supports the existence of these creatures,” Gerhard said. When hunting season ends, he will return to the woods to look for tracks, hair and habitations and to listen for vocalizations at night.

There have been sightings along the Trinity River corridor, and a cast of a suspected Bigfoot track was made in Sam Houston National Forest, said Gerhard, a San Antonio cryptozoologist who co-wrote Monsters of Texas (CFZ, $16.99) with Nick Redfern.

Texas is in the top 10 states for Bigfoot sightings, Gerhard said, outranked only by Washington, California, Oregon, Ohio and Florida.

“Eventually someone is going to come up with some evidence, although it is very frustrating that we have not found a body yet,” he said. “And it is a very good argument against Bigfoot’s existence.”

Exactly, said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which discounts the idea of Bigfoot running around the woods. Someone would have found some verifiable piece of evidence by now, TPWD biologists contend.

“The theory is that with as much traffic as there is in East Texas that sooner or later a Bigfoot would not stop, look and listen and make the mistake of walking out into traffic and become the victim of a hit-and-run,” Cox said. Or a hunter would mistakenly shoot one.

I’ve written about Bigfoot several times. In that last link there’s a guy claiming there are as many as 7,000 of the beasties tramping about across the country, apparently in complete isolation from the human population. I’m going to save myself some typing and just quote myself from one of my earlier posts:

You don’t have to catch an actual Bigfoot to make me believe. Just find a body. Or a bone. Or hell, a DNA sample. All over North America, there’s evidence of animals that lived thousands and millions of years ago, and you expect me to believe we can’t find one Bigfoot skeleton? Please.

It’s interesting. With the relentless expansion of human development into the traditional habitat of various animals, we see story after story of unfortunate encounters between people and alligators, people and bears, people and mountain lions, all taking place in what was once the exclusive domain of those animals. Where are the stories of human encroachment on Bigfoot territory? Why has no one been forced to kill a Bigfoot to defend family, property, or self? Is their domain so wild and so remote that no exurban real estate speculator has ever set sight on it? Or is there perhaps a more prosaic explanation?

I said that five and a half years ago, and I don’t think I can say it any better today. I will note, however, that this story points out one more aspect of Bigfoot-hunting that I hadn’t previously considered:

[Vaughn M. Bryant, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University]’s specialty is paleo nutrition and the study of coprolites, or fossilized feces.

“Quite frankly, I have tried to get out of the Bigfoot-poop business because it is very time consuming and didn’t really lead anywhere productive,” Bryant said. At A&M he is studying excrement found in the Paisley Caves of Oregon that is 12,000 years or older.

If you can’t even find Bigfoot poop, what does that tell you?

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

[…]

Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Piranha!

You never know what you might find in Texas’ lakes.

When a pre-teen girl dunked a hook baited with a piece of hot dog into the 23-acre lake in Tom Bass Park on Aug. 27 and pulled out a flapping, snapping, hand-size fish, she unexpectedly uncovered evidence of a crime and underscored what fisheries managers and natural resource law enforcement see as an increasing threat to Texas waters.

The fish she caught from the popular Harris County park wedged at the intersection of Texas 288 and Beltway 8 was perch-shaped, but with a blunt head and a mouth rimmed with razor-sharp, pointed, wedge-shaped teeth. Adults with the girl knew they had a fish that needed investigation.

The fish ended up in the hands of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries staff who made an identification confirmed and verified by outside experts.

It was a piranha – specifically, a red-bellied piranha.

It was not a pacu, the mostly vegetarian relative and fellow South American native of the carnivorous piranha. Almost invariably, “piranhas” caught from waterways in the United States are misidentified pacu.

But not this fish. It was the real thing – Pygocentrus nattereri, a native of the Amazon basin and the stuff of legends built around piranhas’ aggressive carnivore behavior and a set of teeth that can easily and efficiently rip apart its victims.

The rest of the story recounts once again the problem with invasive species in Texas. There’s a lot of damage done to Texas’ ecosystem by ignorant and careless people who think that dumping a no-longer-wanted fish down the sewer or at the park. There are penalties for doing so, but good luck catching someone at it. For all the good that it will do for me to say this, if you own an exotic pet and need to dispose of it, please contact a pet store or the zoo or your local animal control department for help. Don’t just dump it somewhere.

Texas gators hanging in there

There’s good news despite the bad news for Texas’ alligators.

This year’s admittedly inexact estimate of the gator population in their prime habitat zone – the wetlands along the arc of the Texas coast – indicates there are a lot more alligators out there than most thought.

At least half a million gators, and maybe as many as 700,000, live in the 22 “core” alligator counties – up from earlier estimates of 400,000 or so. Tens of thousands more are scattered across the other counties in the eastern half of Texas.

(In the 1960s, before they were protected by federal and state law carrying penalties packing a wallop as painful as getting slapped by the tail of a 12-foot “bull” gator, Texas’ gator population had dropped to only a few thousand.)

“The population, overall, is doing pretty good,” Amos Cooper, who heads alligator programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, understated. “We’re not going to run out of alligators any time soon.”

But there have been a few bumps in the muddy road upon which Texas alligators crawl, especially along the upper coast where the state’s largest gator population lives.

“A lot of habitat has never really recovered from Hurricane Ike,” Cooper said of the wetlands in Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, which held as many as 300,000 gators before the September 2008 storm.

Ike’s saltwater surge killed, outright, some gators and forced others into available freshwater. Some of those died from delayed effects of saltwater exposure, and others, especially smaller gators, fell prey to larger gators – alligators are highly cannibalistic.

But the biggest problem was Ike’s damage to brackish and freshwater wetlands gators require and the lack of salt-flushing, vegetation-regenerating rains over the past three years.

“We’ve just never had the rain we need to flush the salt from the marshes,” Cooper said.

This year’s drought added greatly to the problem.

“We had our second-worst nesting season on record this year,” Cooper said. Only the summer of 2009, the first nesting season following Ike, saw wildlife managers count fewer alligator nests.

See here and here for previous gator updates. The good news is that alligators are long-lived, so a bad mating season or two isn’t devastating to the population. On the other hand, we don’t know how long this drought will last. It sure would be nice if we had some boring weather for a few years, wouldn’t it?

What we lost in the wildfires

It’s going to take a long time to recover from the fires.

The fire burned through the heart of the Lost Pines area, a unique ecological island encompassing some 64,000 acres of loblolly pine, the westernmost stands of the great pine forest originally carpeting the southeastern United States.

Incinerated, too, was the largest single tract of remaining habitat of the Houston toad, an endangered amphibian whose survival is tied to the habitat beneath the pine canopy.

Much of that Houston toad habitat sat on 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park, one of the oldest, most popular and profitable Texas parks. All but about 100 acres of the tract was consumed by the fire.

The park, which opened in 1937, has been “a real diamond in our system,” said Mike Cox, spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It attracts up to a quarter-million visitors a year, placing it in the top 10 most visited sites in the 95-unit state park system, and has been one of only a handful of state parks that generated more visitor revenue than it cost to run.

[…]

How, when and even if the three recover to anything like their pre-fire status remains uncertain.

“The amount of destruction, to humans and the land … I’m stunned and shocked at the scale of it,” said Michael Forstner, a Texas State University biology professor and expert on the Houston toad who has spent time in the burned areas over the past week.

“It’s an incredible loss to Texas on many levels. On a personal level, it’s like losing an old friend,” Claire Williams, distinguished scholar at the Forest History Society at Duke University and a former professor of forestry at Texas A&M University, said about the Lost Pines’ forest.

[…]

Whatever way the forest regenerates – from intense plantings by humans or natural regeneration – it will be many years before the area resembles the Lost Pines that generations of Texans enjoyed and on which generations of Houston toads depended.

“It takes 10 to 15 years for a (pine) seedling to begin bearing,” Williams said. It takes 30 years or more for a pine, which can live as long as 300 to 400 years, to reach the size of what most consider a modestly “mature” tree.

“It’ll be decades before we know all the impacts of this fire on the Lost Pines,” Forstner said. “Nature is resilient. But, right now, it’s a very real tragedy for everybody and everything it touched.”

It’s all very sad. You wish there was something you could do to help, but there isn’t. Whatever healing there is will happen on its own, and on its own schedule.

Rescuing fish

Wow.

Wildlife biologists [last week evacuated] two species of minnows from the shrinking waters of a West Texas river in the first of what could be several rescue operations involving fish affected by the state’s worst drought in decades.

Smalleye shiners and sharpnose shiners, the species being collected from the Brazos River about 175 miles northwest of Fort Worth, will be taken to the state’s fish hatchery near Possum Kingdom Lake. When drought conditions abate, the minnows will be returned to the river.

Scorching conditions have left the water hot, muddy and salty in the river’s Clear, Double Mountain and Salt forks. Because of the drought, the water levels were so low this year that the minnows — candidates to be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act — didn’t have the 100 miles of river needed to reproduce.

Their life span is just two years, so scientists are scrambling to save the two species, which wildlife officials say are the most abundant fish in the upper Brazos and are found nowhere else in the world.

“If this drought continues for another year and they haven’t reproduced . . . we may lose the entire population,” said Gene Wilde, a fish ecology professor at Texas Tech who has spent much of his life studying fish in West Texas rivers.

There are a couple of other examples of this kind of rescue, but it’s pretty rare. I suppose one can make the case – a couple of the story’s commenters try – that this is natural selection in action, and we have no business messing with it. I don’t accept that reasoning, partly because the presence of modern humans has an outsized and unnatural effect on the ecosystem anyway, and partly because there may be direct negative effects on the human population in the area if these species were to vanish; who knows what might happen to plants and other animals if these fish were to go extinct? I’m no bio-ethicist, but I approve of this action.

Let the porkchopping begin!

Are you ready for some death from above?

“Pork choppers,” Texas’ newest weapon in the war on feral hogs, will take to the skies Thursday when it [became] legal for hunters to buy seats on hog-hunting helicopters and gun down as many pigs as they can put in their sights.

With more than 2 million feral hogs rooting around the Lone Star State, there will be plenty of targets for aerial gunners willing to pay $475 for an hour of heli-hunting.

Vertex Helicopters is already bringing home the bacon as a result of the measure passed by the Texas Legislature this year.

The Houston-based firm requires shooters to take a $350 hunting safety course before they can book a hunt, said President Mike Morgan, a former Army helicopter pilot.

And as far as I know, none of that money is going to the state. I had said before that we should look at this as a revenue opportunity, but the Lege wasn’t listening to me.

In 2010, 14,811 hogs were killed through the program statewide. Airborne gunners dispatched 17,743 hogs in 2009 and 18,578 in 2008, said Harmony Garcia, who handles the 150 or so active aerial permits for the parks and wildlife agency.

“People have been waiting for this. It’s going to be interesting,” she said.

Remember, that’s out of an estimated 2 million plus hogs. This may have an effect in some localities, but it’s far from a solution.

Even from 50 feet up in the air, shooting a 300-pound hog that is running 35 mph out of a helicopter that is going between 30 and 65 mph is no easy feat, Morgan said.

“Most people can’t hit the target. We’ve found that less than 15 percent of the rounds hit the target. It’s a huge eye-opener, actually it’s a punch in the gut, because these people are serious shooters,” he said.

[…]

Helicopter hunting is also risky, Morgan said.

“It’s incredibly dangerous; it’s probably the most dangerous method of hunting out there,” he said. “You’re shooting semiautomatic assault rifles out of a helicopter at altitudes of about 50 feet. There are some major risks here. We can mitigate some of the risk by training people properly.

“You’re going to have two types of hunters: cowboys and pros. The pros take things seriously; the cowboys don’t give a crap as long as they get to shoot something.

“Our goal is to make sure we don’t have a bunch of cowboys jumping in helicopters and going, ‘Yeehaw.'”

Just as a reminder, this is what it looks like. Something tells me there will be a lot of the latter regardless. Hey, it’s legal and it’s their money. If they fall out of the helicopter, it was all part of the adventure.

Thanks for helping us balance the budget, fishermen

The Chron’s Shannon Tompkins explains how budgetary shenanigans have an adverse effect on Texas’ hunters and fishers.

Every year, tens of millions of dollars in hunting and fishing license fees are left sitting in the state account used to fund Texas wildlife, fisheries and boating programs. Those millions of dollars in Fund 9 account balances – $31 million at the end of this month, jumping to an estimated $48 million this time next year and as much as $64 million by Aug. 31, 2013 – are there because the Legislature holds those millions hostage in the scheme used to produce, on paper at least, the balanced budget that it is required to fashion.

[…]

For a state to qualify to receive the federal funds, it must pass a state law prohibiting using hunting and fishing license revenue for anything other than wildlife and fisheries programs.

If a state legislature dips into hunting and fishing license accounts to pay for, say, roads or hospitals or any other program, the state stands to lose all of its federal excise tax reimbursements.

So, as much as the Texas Legislature might be tempted to stick its hands into a flush Fund 9, particularly in times such as these when the state faces crippling general-revenue shortfalls, the prospect of losing that $40 million in federal money is incentive enough to prevent such plundering.

But the Legislature has found other ways of using that Fund 9 money without actually spending it.

For TPWD to spend money from the Fund 9 pot, that money has to be appropriated by the Legislature through its budget and appropriations acts.

By appropriating only some of the license money, the Legislature can count the “unappropriated balance” in Fund 9 on the positive side of the ledger when calculating the overall state budget.

This tactic is not restricted to hunting and fishing license revenue. It happens with revenue generated from the sale of vehicle license plates (horned toad, bluebonnet, etc.) benefiting state parks, wildlife, hunting and freshwater fishing.

All of these “unappropriated balances” – money Texans spent believing all of the dollars would be used to fund programs they voluntarily support by paying additional fees for the specialized license plates – are rat-holed and left dormant in accounts as a way to offset negative balances in other state programs.

Couple points here. First, if you’ve been paying attention you know that this sort of prestidigitation is as old as the Texas constitution itself. It’s easy to do and it’s mostly painless, unless you’re directly affected by a program whose revenues are held hostage. State Sen. Kirk Watson has advocated legislation that would mandate using dedicated funds only for their intended purpose, but for a variety of reasons they mostly haven’t gone anywhere.

Second, the hunters and fishers are lucky in that the fee revenues they generate will eventually be used for their intended purpose. They’re not being actively re-appropriated into general revenue like some other dedicated funds. As I’ve said before, just go say the words System Benefit Fund to Rep. Sylvester Turner, then stand back and watch the fireworks. It could be worse, that’s all I’m saying.

Finally, the main point that you need to take away from all this is that the underlying cause for this kind of trickery is the pernicious idea that budgets need to be “balanced” as of some arbitrary date. All that really matters, all that really should matter, is whether or not current and future cash flow can accommodate current and projected expenses. The fact that we claim to “balance” our budgets by deferring payments, pretending that certain things will cost less than we know they will, and shuffling funds from one pocket to another should convince us that this model is a complete fiction that does us far more harm than good. I don’t expect that to happen, of course, so we’ll continue to get the kind of budgeting we’ve asked for. Just don’t act surprised or outraged when it happens.

Austin braces for job losses

Ready or not, here they come.

The Texas Education Agency said Tuesday that it is laying off 178 employees this week. Those are among the first of thousands of state government layoffs expected in the coming weeks.

The TEA decision has been months in the making, as the agency seeks to reduce its staff by 32 percent to cope with budget cuts ordered by the Texas Legislature, an agency spokeswoman said.

This week’s layoffs come on the heels of 91 layoffs by the agency in February, with another 74 people retiring, quitting or transferring this year.

At the start of the legislative session in January, lawmakers proposed a 2012-13 budget that a Legislative Budget Board analysis said would cut 9,600 positions statewide in an attempt to balance a budget that spends 8 percent less than the current one. By the time the Legislature passed a budget in late May, the board estimated that 5,700 state government jobs would be lost, a 2.4 percent reduction from 2011 to 2013.

[…]

Two weeks ago, the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency that does long-term water planning, laid off 39 workers and eliminated an additional 28 jobs, said spokeswoman Merry Klonower. Almost all of the cuts are being made to the staff in Austin.

The board, which employs more than 300 people, is facing $16.8 million in cuts, a 30 percent reduction in its budget.

The workers received one month of severance pay.

In late June, the 3,000-employee Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced more than 100 layoffs as the agency faces a 21 percent budget cut. About half of the layoffs are being done in Austin. The employees also are receiving 45 days of severance pay.

All this comes on the heels of some non-robust job numbers in the year ending in May. The report for the current quarter ought to be interesting. So I’m just curious about something: If a poor jobs report were to be added to the poor poll numbers in Iowa and Texas, and someone were to eventually notice that one of the organizers of his upcoming Prayerapalooza hates the Statue of Liberty (which, let’s be honest, would already have the right-wing rage machine in full nuclear meltdown by now if there were any Democrats involved), do you think that maybe the national media might start to think that perhaps Rick Perry isn’t all that and a bag of chips?

Invasive species report

Interesting story about a group of scientists cataloging invasive species in the area.

Termed the Texas Rapid Assessment Team — Galveston, the group includes scientists from across the spectrum of disciplines and expertise conducting surveys and collecting samples to document all the alien/invasive species they can find. Their focus is strictly the Galveston Bay area, particularly the watersheds feeding the bay.

“We have cooperators looking at everything from phytoplankton and algae to fish, vegetation, mammals — the whole spectrum,” said Leslie Hartman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries scientist and coordinator of the TxRAT project.

More than 30 state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations are helping support the effort with personnel, equipment and funding. The aim is to catalog as many alien/invasive species as possible and include information on their locations and distribution. This information will serve as a “baseline” for future monitoring of alien species and their impacts, Hartman said.

Among the places they’re looking are in urban areas, such as Houston’s bayous, as these are the entry points for a surprising number of unwanted visitors.

The armored catfish are South American natives. Commonly called plecostomus, “plecos,” “sucker catfish” or “algae eaters” in the aquarium trade, juvenile armored catfish are sold to hobbyists. The small catfish eat the algae growing on aquarium glass.

But little plecos grow into big armored catfish. And when owners tire of the fish or the fish get too large for the tanks, they end up in streams and bayous.

Houston’s bayou system swarms with armored catfish, which thrive in the near-tropical water. They face no natural enemies or other population controls and get big, with some growing to more than 2 feet long.

While their impacts on native species remain unclear, armored catfish do have a definite environmental and economic impact.

Like most catfish, they are “cavity nesters.” The well-named armored catfish, their heads and bodies encased in a bone-hard exterior, carve “nest” holes in the clay sides of the bayou. When water levels are low, the holes can be seen along the banks of the bayou. In some places, dozens of these cavities pock the bayou.

Those holes weaken the bayou bank, causing sections to slough into the water and otherwise accelerating erosion, costing the public money to maintain the banks for flood control.

So please don’t dump your unwanted fish down the toilet or sewer, aquarium enthusiasts. Those fish don’t belong here, and dumping them like that costs us all money.

Texas gator population bouncing back

Good news.

The storm surge from Hurricane Ike in 2008 severely damaged alligator habitat in coastal marshes along the upper Texas coast, resulting in the outright death of a considerable number of gators. It also delayed the mortality of others and, the following spring, produced the worst alligator nesting effort wildlife managers had documented. But two years later, the big reptiles are recovering quite nicely.

“They’re doing very good,” said Amos Cooper, who heads the alligator program for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

After being nearly exterminated by unregulated hunting that continued into the 1960s, Texas’ alligator population boomed when the wetland-dependant reptiles were given federal and state protection. By 1984, the population in Texas had recovered enough that the first hunting season since the ’60s was allowed. That closely regulated season has expanded over the past quarter century — as has the gator population.

So how many gators live in Texas? Rough estimates indicate perhaps 400,000 or more. But that’s just an educated guess.

[…]

During the 2008 alligator nesting season, TPWD aerial surveys found only 24 gator nests in those three southeast Texas counties. That was less than 10 percent of the number usually found.

But it’s arguable the alligator’s marsh habitat has recovered completely, including the nesting effort.

“It was up 75 percent over last year,” said Cooper of this year’s nest counts. “We’re slowly getting back to normal.”

Because alligators live long (they can age 60 years or more), one or two “off” years of nesting success won’t crater a population, so even with the loss of gators from Ike, the population remains strong.

“We are not in danger of running out of alligators. That’s for sure,” Cooper said.

Indeed, when we read last year about the devastating effect of Hurricane Ike on the gators’ habitat, the prediction was that they would rebound. I’m delighted to see that prediction has been borne out. Just keep your distance from them unless you really know what you’re doing, and all will be well.

Please don’t play with the alligator

You would think that this would be self-evident, but I guess not.

For the most part, encounters between alligators and humans are harmless. Already this season in Harris County, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has logged more than 25 calls for nuisance alligators, two of them within the past week, and all have ended amicably — for the humans, at least.

But wildlife officials warn that the reptiles can be dangerous during this active season if provoked.

“A lot of people will throw a piece of bread at the animal and say, ‘Come here,’ ” said Amos Cooper, alligator program leader at the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur. “The best thing to do is not to mess with it and give it two to three days to move along. If you feed it, they’ll lose their fear of humans, and that’s the worst thing.”

I got nothing. I mean, seriously, telling a gator to “come here”? What, do you want to pet it? There are days when I marvel at the fact that our species has managed to survive this long.

The bears come back to East Texas

Nice.

Bears are slowly returning to the woods of East Texas thanks to thriving bear populations in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, wildlife officials say. As a result, sightings in East Texas have been on the rise, up from just five in the 1980s to 54 in the 2000s.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials believe most of the bears that have made their way to Texas are young males. They will roam hundreds of miles to stake out their territory away from other males, which can grow to weigh around 350 pounds and stand 6 feet tall. The bears coming into Texas from Oklahoma and Arkansas are the American black bear, while those from Louisiana are the Louisiana black bear.

“Anytime you have bears moving into new country, the first ones to show up are going to be males,” said Nathan Garner, the department’s wildlife director in East Texas.

Wildlife officials are hopeful that females, who usually stay closer to their mothers and don’t travel as far, will eventually make their way to Texas as well and they’ll establish a new breeding population in the state.

“Once they get here in decent numbers, in the next 20 years, we’ll have a population eventually. They’re expanding,” said Christopher Comer, assistant professor of forest wildlife management at Stephen F. Austin State University.

I’m always happy to read a story about wildlife and natural habitats that aren’t about them shrinking or disappearing.

The Texas Partnership for Children in Nature

The National Wildlife Federation was in town this weekend for a summit to advance a national policy agenda to connect children with the outdoors. Basically, kids spend a lot less time outside these days, and there are measurable effects of this change in behavior. For example, from the Be Out There web page:

Children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg et al., 2007)

Sixty minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)

The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11. (Wells and Lekies, 2006)

There’s a lot more information available at BeOutThere.org. This is something I struggle with, as I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I want to encourage healthy behaviors in my kids, though, and the best way to do that is by example, so I try to do what I can. Anyway, part of this movement is policy-oriented, as there are many things that can be done at the state and federal level to positively affect children’s daily lives. To get a feel for some of that, I had a brief conversation with Allen Cooper, who has been working for the past 18 months to help establish the Texas Partnership for Children in Nature. The Partnership was formed at the request of a bipartisan group of state legislators by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and the Texas Education Agency. Right now this partnership is working on a strategic plan to bring nature experiences into the daily lives of the 6.7 million children in Texas. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

The Partnership will be presenting its report in December, just in time for the next legislative session. I’ll be watching to see what they come up with.

That cold was good for something after all

It won’t do anything to control the mosquito population, but that cold front did help with some other nuisances.

The worst invasive plants are natives of warm climates — South America, mostly — and have limited tolerance to cold temperatures. Freezing temperatures kill them — particularly the floating plants such as hyacinth and salvinia.

“A good hard freeze can kill a lot more (invasive aquatic plants) than our crews ever could with herbicides,” [Howard Elder, of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division] said.

And East Texas, where water hyacinth and giant salvinia have established colonies that cover thousands of acres of water, got a good hard freeze this past week.

“It was down to 16 degrees, here. And it lasted for three days. There was ice everywhere. That’s going to help us a whole lot,” said Elder, based in Jasper.

[…]

The same thing can be said for the freeze’s impact on invasive fish species that have thrived, to the detriment of native fish, in some local waterways.

Bayous, streams and other waterways in and around Houston are infested with large and growing populations of invasive fish such as tilapia and armored catfish — species that compete with native fish and, in the case of armored catfish, burrow into banks and accelerate erosion.

Like the invasive plants, the invasive fish are natives of tropical or semi-tropical areas and can’t handle truly cold temperatures.

Every little bit helps. If only it had had the same effect on the mosquitoes.

See you later, alligator

We all know how much Hurricane Ike has affected and continues to affect people and property. I at least had no idea how devastating it had been to the state’s alligator population.

The throaty bellow of adult male alligators, a combination mating call/territorial warning and a signature sound of vibrant coastal wetlands, has been all but absent from marshes along Texas’ upper coast this year.

The gators are gone. Marshes that a year ago held, quite literally, tens of thousands of alligators have, for the past eight months, been all but devoid of the signature wetlands reptile.

Hurricane Ike, which shoved a wall of saltwater as much as 18 feet deep as far as 15 or more miles inland along the upper coast this past September, profoundly impacted the marshes and the hundreds of thousands of alligators that lived there.

The storm hit dead-center of the state’s most extensive alligator habitat and highest alligator populations. The four-county area of Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson and Orange in the southeast corner of Texas held an estimated quarter-million alligators ahead of Ike.

The storm’s lingering effects continued killing gators for months. Just how many were lost to the storm remains in question.

“Right now, it’s still too early to say,” said Port Arthur-based biologist Amos Cooper, who heads Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s alligator programs. “We know we had some mortality of alligators. But whether they were just displaced and will move back as the habitat recovers is something we won’t know for a while.”

The good news is that the folks who keep an eye on this are optimistic that the gator population will bounce back next year. That’s what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, so there’s no reason it can’t happen here. We hope, anyway.