A robust landscape is one that can maintain its health in the face of disturbance. Ideally, a robust landscape reduces the amount of human intervention needed to maintain it. Plants and animals get what they need from the environment.
“However,” Kevin said, “it’s unlikely that the Foundation will ever be able to take a totally hands-off approach.“ Larger forces outside the Foundation’s control continue to affect the property. “The birds tell that story,” Sorola said.
Over the years, Sorola has seen a change in where certain birds can be found. As the planet warms, species that were once primarily found in Central Mexico, like the white wing dove, are common in the Rio Grande Valley and even the Texas Hill Country.
The presence in the Canyon of species like the Audubon’s Oriole, once only found in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, makes him wonder, “We should be concerned about our environment and what we’re doing to it.”
Native landscapes develop in harmony with their conditions—like Goldilocks and the three bears, they depend on not too much or too little of any one thing. The food chain, soil nutrients, and climate need to be just right.
“Just right” in the Texas Hill Country means something different than “just right” in the tropics, the Rocky Mountains, or the Serengeti. Non-native plants and animal species can be introduced to the landscape in myriad ways—from agriculture to tourism to private landscaping and recreational hunting. Once a species enters a new ecosystem without natural predators or food scarcity, it can take over.
If native plants and animals are driven out, birds go with them. Some birds, like the golden-cheeked warbler, require very specific habitat—a mix of old-growth cedar and hardwood trees native to the Hill Country. Other birds are picky eaters, dependent on particular plants or insects for food. If Sorola picks up native birds in his surveys, it’s a good sign that native plants and insects are flourishing as well.
Native Hill Country landscapes were once incredibly diverse, with many species of plants flourishing at the floor, understory, and canopy of the forests, with grasslands and meadows throughout. Diverse plant life supports a food chain with a mix of predators, prey, scavengers, and detritavores (like worms).
Human intervention in the landscape has eliminated some necessary diversity, and Kevin’s team must augment the natural processes that will restore it. They have to regularly initiate controlled fires to burn away aggressive young plants that choke out more delicate grasses. The fires change the nutrients in the soil, nourishing a different variety of plants. In the areas where the Foundation has conducted controlled burns, plant species that had been choked out by cedar and invasive species are actually coming back. “You won’t see that in other ranches in the area,” Sorola said.
Ninety percent of land in Texas belongs to private owners. Most private ranches, Sorola explained, do not manage the land with species diversity in mind. But being the most diverse menu in the neighborhood creates more work for the land management team. Animals will migrate in from far and wide to find the delicious plants they can no longer get elsewhere.
White-tail deer are “preferential grazers,” Kevin explained. They eat in order of their preference, eliminating one species before moving onto the next. Hunts and high-fencing are necessary to keep the discerning eaters from raiding the Foundation’s buffet of grasses, saplings, and shrubs.