Hope for Habitat in West Texan’s Hands

Wiley Dabbs is leading a habitat enhancement project on the 22,000-acre Decie Ranch between Alpine and Marathon.

A habitat enhancement project six years in the making is coming to fruition on the 22,000-acre Decie Ranch, located between Alpine and Marathon in the Big Bend region of West Texas. Decie Ranch Manager Wiley Dabbs says it can take years to learn the lay of a large property—to understand how the watersheds and landscapes work, how drought affects the land, and to define the real problem areas.

On top of that, it takes a village to do the largescale work involved, from funding to implementation.

Wiley graduated from Sul Ross State University with a bachelor’s in Animal Science and a minor in Natural Resource Management. At the time, he was more interested in cowboying and developing his horsemanship, but an opportunity to do brush management on a ranch sparked his interest in largescale habitat restoration work.

“Balancing brush control, wildlife management and cattle operations was really gratifying,” he said.

He now manages the Decie and lives full-time there with his wife April and two daughters, Gracie and Maggie. And he views habitat management as a way to give back and to ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from these lands.

Wiley has had vital support from Decie Ranch landowners along with the help of organizations including the Borderlands Research Institute, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create, fund, and implement a plan specific to this property.

These organizations can help fund land management projects through cost-share programs and grants. Additionally, they offer onsite visits from habitat specialists, soil scientists, and other professionals who are able to provide free consultations about the vision you may have for your land.

Building a good management plan is key to the long-term health of West Texas lands, especially considering that extended droughts, fire suppression, historical use patterns, and other factors have taken a toll. Lands that once supported mostly grasses have become overgrown with woody brush in recent decades.

Decie Ranch is a beautiful, sprawling property with a variety of terrain from wooded mountain slopes to desert valley flats. However, a significant portion, like much of the southwest, is covered in a thick monoculture of creosote bush (Larea tridentata).

While creosote releases an iconic, and some would say pleasant, smell during the region’s infrequent rains, it doesn’t slow down surface water flow as well as the grass communities that formerly dominated the area. This makes the land more susceptible to erosion, and it becomes less productive for wildlife and livestock.

As grasses lose their competitive edge, brush like creosote, juniper (Juniperus spp.), mesquite (Prosopis spp.), and other woody shrubs take over. The term habitat specialists use for this type of pattern is “woody brush encroachment.”

Wiley sympathizes with the historical factors that led to woody brush encroachment across the southwest.

“Land that was bought with borrowed money had to be paid back with livestock. Ranchers were forced to do some things [like push stocking rates] to keep the land, especially in times of extended drought. But since then, ranchers have diversified,” he said.

Another common indicator of woody brush encroachment is whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima). Whitebrush boasts a lovely perfumed scent when it flowers, but at times is considered invasive, forming dense thickets along wetter areas.

Thinning out juniper trees makes room for beneficial grass communities to gain a second chance in this once grassland-dominated prairie.

On the Decie, Wiley pointed out an arroyo that had been deeply eroded due to the loss of native grasses that once held together its banks.

Native grasses, like alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), grow deep root structures which hold together fine clay soils. Introduced grasses, like Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), have shallow root systems and are poor substitutes for the native grasses that once proliferated.

A Borderlands Research Institute researcher demonstrates how a native bunch of alkali sacaton grass is holding together the soil in a highly eroded arroyo thanks to its long root system.

With loss of native grasses, so comes the loss of good soil and water from the landscape.

Fortunately, there are solutions.

Wiley is taking a multifold approach to remove the brushy encroachment, stave off the erosive process of soil by erecting brush weirs, windrows and trincheras, and repopulate the landscape with native grasses.

“My main goal with brush treatment is to restore watersheds and native grasslands,” Wiley said.

His program includes mechanical removal of brush by uprooting it, called grubbing, in addition to using herbicide treatments that specifically target and kill creosote and whitebrush.

He strategically piles brush in windrows to help slow down water flow in problematic areas.

Decie Ranch Manager Wiley Dabbs along with Borderlands Research Institute habitat specialists stand in front of a windrow created from brush Wiley removed from other areas of the ranch. This windrow will help slow down water in an area that undergoes erosion during hard rainfall events. “This ol’ brush pile cost me three trips to the chiropractor,” teased Wiley with a wry grin hinting at the cowboy toughness of his ways and the rough ride of the excavator.

He revamped the water system, installing seven miles of new water line, new troughs and solar pumps.

The ranch installed 12 miles of pronghorn-friendly fence—that’s fence which has the bottom wire set at least 18 inches off the ground, to allow pronghorn easy passage on their frequent movements.

He targeted a 1,500-acre treatment area for brush removal, and has grubbed juniper out of 300 acres.

Chemical treatment of brush, using herbicides like Spike, can take a few years to show results, but in the long run, the creosote and whitebrush should not come back with the same veracity.

These creosote bushes show signs of early damage thanks to a recent application of herbicide, which can be a useful brush management tool when used properly.

The result of all of these management tactics offer improved habitat for wildlife. Native wildlife like pronghorn prefer open spaces and thrive on native grass and forb communities. These same management practices increase the quality of habitat for livestock. All of this leads to improved quality of life for the people who enjoy the benefits of healthy wildlife and livestock alike.

The goal of this management plan is to improve watersheds and habitat for wildlife on the Decie ranch.

When grubbing, Wiley is careful to leave “good” browse plants like sumac (Rhus virens) and agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata), while removing the more invasive brush.

He is careful to leave larger juniper trees that provide shade for wildlife and act as nurseries for beneficial browse plants.

Wiley left some trees intact during the implementation of his brush management plan.

Although not an exact science, habitat specialists and land managers know these techniques work, because there’s a precedence of research for them on western lands. Additionally, organizations like Borderlands Research Institute practice ongoing habitat research in order to better inform these practices and to produce the best outcomes for the region.

A variety of native grasses were quick to come back along the windrows at one of Wiley’s project sites.

Habitat specialists can be a valuable source of information in interpreting rangeland health, identifying plants and discussing funding solutions that might interest the landowner.

The Borderlands Research Institute recently implemented a land stewardship component into its services. The wildlife conservation organization got its start at Sul Ross State University in 2007 researching the holistic ecology of wildlife in the region. Research, education, and outreach are integral to the Institute’s mission to help conserve the fragile resources of the Chihuahuan Desert. Since wildlife conservation depends on holistic land management, Borderlands Research Institute is able to work with traditional land managers on their shared goals of habitat enhancement.

“Scientists, alongside land managers like Wiley, refine habitat enhancement techniques together. We experience the best outcomes with teamwork, and the Borderlands Research Institute is available as a support tool to serve landowners of the Trans-Pecos,” said BRI Associate Director of Stewardship Services Billy Tarrant.

The land stewardship center at Borderlands Research Institute offers a variety of programs to help carry the financial burden of implementing new land management techniques that aid in natural resource conservation.

Site visits with habitat specialists lead to valuable collaborations with the knowledgeable on-the-ground land managers who share the same goal of helping the land become more productive and healthier for the long term.

To learn more about the land stewardship services at Borderlands Research Institute, visit bri.sulross.edu/land-stewardship.