Landowner Incentive Program protects habitat

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a Texas program that provides grants to protect or improve wildlife habitat on private land is about to get a big dose of federal flattery, with more than $1.4 million coming to Texas.

In 1997, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department started the first government program in the nation that provided grants to private landowners to improve or protect habitat for threatened or endangered species. The idea was to encourage landowners to do the right thing voluntarily through incentives instead of coercive regulations.

When George W. Bush left the Texas Governor's Mansion for the White House, he took the idea with him, and the new federal LIP is the result.

The Texas program started with an annual budget of $100,000. This spring, the federal government is offering $34.8 million in grants through a new national program called, not coincidentally, the Landowner Incentive Program, modeled after the Texas effort.

TPWD will receive more than $1.4 million in federal LIP funding to be awarded to landowners during the next two years. Texas will match the federal grants with as much as $100,000 in state funds and more than $350,000 in private landowner funds.

In Texas, state LIP dollars have already restored dwindling native short-grass prairie in the Panhandle, protected rare plants in a “hanging” bog, restored longleaf pine forests in East Texas, enhanced spring flows and improved nesting habitat for rare songbirds near Uvalde, and restored hardwood bottomlands along the Trinity River.

The focus is on habitat that supports many species. This means a LIP grant that restores Panhandle prairie will help not only the rare lesser prairie chicken and swift fox, but could also improve pheasant or quail hunting.

“The bigger idea is that we're going to have more wildlife habitat and a healthier natural environment for our kids and our grandkids because of programs like LIP,” said Mike Berger, TPWD private lands branch chief.

“If we can help private landowners take conservation action that improves habitat, and their neighbors see this and the idea spreads, that could have a big impact beyond what we're able to do on our limited public lands.”

Approximately 95 percent of the Texas landscape is privately owned.

Last year, the program budget was $725,000, and the program dispersed about 32 grants. Most Texas projects are getting results.

Just east of Canadian in the Panhandle, the Arrington family is working to enhance about 1,200 acres of prairie on their 5,400-acre ranch, restoring upland prairie springs and riparian (wet) zones such as cottonwood bottoms along the Washita River. They are also removing undesirable exotic plant species such as salt cedar and Russian olive from river bottomlands.

“They've fenced 3.5 miles of the Washita River on both sides and it's rejuvenating really well, coming back quick, with lots of wildlife, lots of water, and greening up,” said Robert Sullivan, former TPWD wildlife diversity biologist in Canyon. “That riparian corridor is the artery of biodiversity. It's the permanent water source for much of the area.

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