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Balcones Canyonlands Preserve poised to reach acreage target

Thursday, May 17, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

After 16 years, Austin and Travis County are on the verge of reaching an environmental milestone for Balcones Canyonlands Preserve – one of the nation’s largest urban preserves.


In 1996, the city and the county agreed to create the BCP to satisfy a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandate for protecting the habitat of golden-cheek warblers and black-capped vireos, tiny birds on the federal endangered species list that nest exclusively or nearly exclusively in Central Texas. The 30-year goal was to set aside at least 30,428 acres in western Travis County. (The agreement also required setting aside caves for six endangered karst invertebrates.)


On Tuesday, a Travis County staff member told members of a city scientific advisory committee that the county and the City of Sunset Valley have recently drafted a managing partner document that would add the 21-acre city-owned Gaines Greenbelt to the 30,409 acres so far set aside countywide and, thus, put the acreage over the long-sought target. Sunset Valley’s council must approve the final agreement, which would allow it to retain ownership and manage the property following BCP guidelines on the land, which is home to golden-cheek warblers.


“Everyone is excited about the number being reached,” Scientific Advisory Committee member Craig Farquhar told In Fact Daily after the meeting. “It’s a milestone and something people have been waiting for.”


But he and others cautioned that it didn’t mean BCP work was done.


“We still have a ways to go,” said Shelley Miller, environmental specialist with Travis County. 


Among other things, additional land – likely in the thousands of acres – is  needed to “deal with fragmentation.” This refers to how a number of smaller parcels that had been set aside are less effective in protecting habitat for the songbirds as development encroaches close by. That’s because the endangered songbirds “are really sensitive to noise and human interference,” Miller said. Larger tracts are being sought to replace smaller parcels.


Also, the county is “trying to refocus our efforts on cave acquisition,” she said. Forty-six of the 62 BCP caves have some amount of protection.


Reaching the acreage total is “only one criteria,” Committee Chairman David Steed said.


The Scientific Advisory Committee advises the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee on environmental issues in the preserve. If Sunset Valley agrees to the managing partner agreement with the city and the county – which jointly manage BCP under section 10(a) of the Endangered Species Act – it would be the first new partner to join BCP since the Lower Colorado River Authority agreed to set aside and manage thousands of acres near Lake Travis in the early days of the program.


Also at the meeting, much discussed were two articles in respected scientific journals about the songbird habitats and the potential impact on BCP.  An article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology concluded that mountain biking on lands protected for golden-cheek warbler have a 30 percent reduction in nest success.


Members of a reconvened subcommittee are investigating whether such research should prompt them to advise that restrictions be placed on some of the city’s BCP lands where mountain biking is either permitted or taking place illegally. Biologists have long warned that bikers could drive away the species the preserve was meant to protect. But bikers have challenged such studies and the parties have agreed more research is needed. 


Members of the subcommittee recently toured the biking areas near Bull Creek and plan to tour other areas.


The other article was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management by Texas A&M researchers estimated that the population of male golden-cheek warblers in Central Texas was 263,339 across Central Texas – that’s about 10 times more than previous estimates which used localized studies, Farquhar said.


Farquhar said he had questions about the methodology of the study and he and member Jean Krejka discussed whether to draft a letter to respond. “The whole idea is politically charged,” he said.


Members were introduced to Sherri Kuhl, who recently was hired as the city’s manager of the BCP program. Kuhl recently retired from LCRA, where she was an environmental manager.


Finally, Chairman Steed expressed disappointment that only three of the seven members of the committee attended the 3 p.m. meeting. This was the second time this year that the committee did not have enough members for a quorum. Willy Conrad, manager of the city’s Wildland Conservation Division for Austin Water Utility, said he would poll members to see if changing the time or moving the meeting downtown – currently it’s held in far west Travis County at the Reicher Ranch Cana House – would work better for members.

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