Critters of the Cross Timbers Ecoregion
By Abigail Diggs, Texas Alliance Community Outreach Intern
"I spent much of my childhood in an oak forest near my home, building treehouses, harvesting pecans, and avoiding copperheads. When I return to the Cross Timbers I find myself walking or biking the very same trails I grew up roaming and am thankful to be reminded of its subtle beauty. My favorite animal to encounter is the classic white-tailed deer!"
Stretching from the southern tip of Kansas to the heart of Central Texas, the Cross Timbers ecosystem functions as a sanctuary for naturalists and a home for an array of treasured wildlife species. This timbered grassland is unique in its bursts of dense forests: an ecological characteristic that sustained Native American populations and perplexed early pioneers. Now home to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the Cross Timbers has undergone a dramatic series of changes from its original state in which bison, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, mountain lions, black bears, and burrowing owls once imprinted on these grasslands. Many of the mammals listed above have been almost entirely extirpated from the area due to factors such as development and displacement. Present flora and fauna are threatened for these same reasons nearly 165 years later, in addition to the “the ensuing spread of highly invasive eastern red cedars,” as noted by the Nature Conservancy.
Bison, Rachel Rommel
A variety of cherished wildlife, including coyotes, falcons, quail, wild turkeys, bobcats, and white-tailed deer, pepper the Texas portion of the ecosystem and find habitat within the concentrated oak forests and wispy native bluestem grasses. A portion of the ecoregion contains the Central Flyway for bird migration, sustaining songbirds, birds of prey and waterfowl that utilize the region as a breeding ground or resting place. However, many species are struggling for survival in this urbanized environment, as approximately 105 identified mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, invertebrate, and plants are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need with various levels of vulnerability. The resilience of many iconic wildlife, including the bald eagle, Texas horned lizard, Northern bobwhite quail, northern harrier, and river otter, continue to face challenges in the Cross Timbers, where Texas Parks and Wildlife finds that “there is little public land, few private preserves and a low percentage of private land under wildlife management plans when compared to other Texas ecoregions.”
Bald eagle, TPWD
Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (H.R.4647), could bring over $63 million dollars per year to Texas, to help implement the Texas Conservation Action Plan (TCAP) for this region, and other parts of Texas. The TCAP proposes methods to conserve threatened populations in the context of their native ecosystem, through activities such as the control of invasive species, and an increase in land and water protection. State agencies, conservation organizations, land trusts, and private landowners could greatly expand programs such as habitat restoration, establishment of conservation easements, cost-share programs, and species introductions. In addition, a portion of funds could be used for conservation education and increasing access to wildlife through outdoor recreation. These opportunities, coupled with abundant green space in urban/suburban areas, increase property values, and have vast physical and mental benefits for city residents. As the region has already fallen victim to a period of stark wildlife loss in the 19th century, it is crucial that today’s species are protected and appreciated for their contribution to the natural world. Fish and wildlife are part of local ecosystems which provide us clean water, air, food, fiber and a wealth of recreational opportunities. The Cross Timbers ecoregion is truly a unique addition to the biodiversity of the Lone Star State, and as it continues to be faced with rising risk of habitat fragmentation, the mission to conserve its remaining old-growth forests, prairies, and river corridors must be of utmost priority. Though we face many challenges in this region, through public/private partnerships, and increased funding for effective conservation action, we can help to preserve our natural heritage for future generations of Texans.
Photos: Abigail Diggs