Saving the Snowbell

by | Feb 1, 2008 | Conservation

J. DAVID BAMBERGER IS on a mission to save the Texas Snowbell (Styrax platanifolius ssp. texanus), a small understory tree native to the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. About 10 years ago he bucked the odds, successfully growing the endangered plant from seed on his 5,500-acre Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve just outside of Johnson City. Then Bamberger hit the road, driving his dusty pickup gate to gate, suggesting that fellow landowners join his efforts.

“I introduced the point that landowners could get together and prove to society that we care and can do something without government help,” Bamberger recalls. “I’m trying to teach that you should be a traditional rancher and environmentalist at the same time.” Wearing jeans and boots splattered with legitimate ranch mud, and with an earnest smile on his weathered face, Bamberger gained access to more than 100,000 acres of private land never before opened to outsiders.

Some of those acres form Ann and Bruce Hendrickson’s Choya Ranch near Campwood, Texas. The Hendricksons already had found snowbell plants on their property, but like many ranchers they worried about outside control. “You hear so many bad stories about endangered species changing the whole program someone has on their land,” says Bruce Hendrickson, noting particularly that in this part of Texas requirements for the protection of endangered birds sometimes have sidelined development plans.
Well aware of those fears, Bamberger took it slowly.

“At first, I just said I wanted to discover that there were more of these plants than people thought. Then, I went back and said that I had plants from the seeds I picked and wanted to plant them.” Some who initially were opposed to propagating snowbells for replanting have turned into cheerleaders, he says. Most of them credit their change of heart to the time and resources that Bamberger devoted to the project.

“Few people could do what he has done,” says Paula Smith, who with husband Ernest and son Carter owns Dobbs Run Ranch in Texas’ Edwards County. “He’s the first one out there along with Steven Fulton and dedicated volunteers digging the holes and figuring out the best place to put the plants.”

Colleen Gardner, assistant executive director of Selah, watched her boss gently win over landowners to approaching endangered species from a practical and economic standpoint. “He isn’t telling landowners they can’t have goats or make money on their land,” she says. “He’s saying they can have that and still have these snowbells. He speaks to people in a way that makes sense, that protects the land and considers the legitimate needs of landowners.”

The man is also living proof that one person can make a difference, says Gardner. “The greatest threat to conservation, to any social change that needs to take place today, is apathy. People say, ‘I’m just one person and can’t make a difference. I won’t even bother.’

“This ranch was the most rotten piece of real estate in the county, and now it is a showcase, an award-winning model. Now people can say, ‘This is realistic; I can do something.’ He has shown that nature can repair itself. We don’t hear that enough.”

His efforts may well be the model for future conservation as well. The government agencies charged with helping endangered species recover are understaffed and often underfunded. “Recoveries will only be possible if private landowners cooperate with the agencies and help monitor recovery plans,” says Smith.

Hendrickson agrees. “You’re working with the help of agencies, rather than worrying about them stopping you from grazing cattle or other things,” he says. And while landowners are likely always to have a little concern about government involvement, “most take a lot of pride in having some of these plants and helping them grow.”

In fact, according to Smith, nothing in the Endangered Species Act threatens landowners who find or plant endangered plants on their property. “I think that is a complete non-risk as far as landowners are concerned,” she says. With the snowbell project, at least, landowners’ fears haven’t been realized.

Foraging by animals such as deer and goats is the major threat to the endangered snowbell. “You see a seedling one week, and it’s gone the next [if there is no protection like a cage],” says Jackie Poole, a botanist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who has worked with the snowbell for two decades. She believes it’s a combination of non-native ungulates, feral ungulates (such as goats) and an overabundant whitetail deer population.

Surviving colonies of snowbells have been found mostly on cliffs generally inaccessible even to nimble goats, although not to an 80-year-old rancher who has rappelling equipment and isn’t afraid to use it.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a recovery plan for the snowbell in 1987, no one was collecting the seeds or raising the plants for the recovery, says Bamberger, who began visiting ranchers in the early ’90s and started collection efforts in 1997. He retained the San Antonio Botanical Garden to propagate seeds he collected, then returned the plants that grew to the properties from where the seeds came, as well as to new ranches within the same watershed.

It was hard work, sometimes taking up to six days to get all the plants in the ground at a particular site. Each snowbell was surrounded with a corral sturdy enough to protect it from predators, and most corrals are large enough that its seeds would drop inside the protective circle. “We had to carry all this equipment including materials, plants, sledgehammers, fence posts, fertilizers and buckets a long way and sometimes down into steep canyons,” Bamberger says. The amount of work daunted even the irrepressible rancher, so he began to recruit volunteers to help.

After investing $30,000 of his own money, Bamberger also sought financial help, securing a $17,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation for fencing materials and mileage expenses for volunteers. Some landowners now provide lodging and meals or the help of ranch staff, all of which qualified for matching grants where required. Additional funds came from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Landowner Incentive Program, which gives private landowners funds to help with recovery of listed or rare plants and animals in their historic range. This funding carried the project through spring of 2007 and was extended to the end of January 2008, fueling the rancher’s commitment to 750 plants.

“The pure cost, not counting my labor, is more than $100 for each plant in the ground,” Bamberger says. “An executive at the Parks and Wildlife [department] said this is the least expensive recovery program he ever witnessed. When the government does it, the cost is two or three times more. I don’t think conservation and preservation will ever be done by the government. The government can lead, but we – private landowners and volunteers – have to do it.”

Seeds are now propagated in a specially built greenhouse on the ranch. Bamberger keeps meticulous records on where each seed and plant originated and every October and November returns plants to the same watershed from which the seeds came. His group has collected and replanted throughout the Nueces River watershed and around the Devils River Watershed and in November had 682 plants in the ground and protected. Roughly 80 percent of the plants have survived, and those that do not are replaced in the planting season the following year.

Now, says Gardner, they are seeking grant money to do another five-year plan. “David is going to keep going until he is physically unable to do so,” she says. “The landowner relationship is what it’s about now. People run out to check on these plants after a rain. Once you get people excited about one thing, it can carry over into others – maybe wetland habitat restoration or cedar clearing. It doesn’t stop with a few plants in the ground.”

But there is a vast difference between putting out plants cultivated in a greenhouse and plants reproducing in the wild, says Poole, who rewrote the snowbell recovery plan for the USFWS in the mid-’90s. She explains that plants cultivated in a greenhouse have received regular watering and usually fertilizer. Plants growing in the wild, however, depend on nature for water and fertilizer. The draft plan, not yet approved, calls for 10 population centers of snowbells scattered throughout its historic range, each containing a minimum of five populations, at least one of which should contain 1,000 plants. That’s a bare minimum of 10,000 snowbells.

Bamberger believes that the protected centers where the plants will grow that he is establishing and the new attitude of landowners will help carry his work into the future. “My idea is to accomplish species preservation through incentives rather than regulation and legislation. Instead of saying, ‘You can’t do this or that,’ say, ‘If you’ll develop x number of snowbells, there’s a reward.’ Use a reward instead of
a fine.”

Gardner worries about the strings attached to federal money. “It is difficult to develop relationships with landowners when you bring in all the rules. They are afraid they’ll be told they can’t put a fence somewhere, for example. A lot of it is just education, and that takes time. There may be more the feds could learn from landowners than vice versa, when it comes to practical conservation. These people have been living on that land for generations and probably know more than anyone.”

Rancher Hendrickson, for example, works hard to control the deer population on his 5,000 acres. “Deer can destroy native vegetation, particularly young oaks and favored brush. We’ve lowered our deer numbers to about one-third of what they were when we bought the place, and we’re seeing some native plants coming back. With overgrazing you end up with mostly cedar, no young oaks, no young redbuds. Goats are also very destructive to the young, good trees, and proper rotational cattle grazing can be beneficial. Loss of diverse, native vegetation, and not just the snowbell, is a real concern throughout the Hill Country.”

Bamberger has created a good model, supporters say. “The snowbell project could serve as a model for other conservation efforts, where federal and state agencies and private landowners work together,” says Smith, the Edwards County rancher. “We need to work together to prevent the complete defragmentation of the Hill Country and loss of valuable habitat.

“David said looking for snowbells is just like being a kid on Christmas morning,” she adds. “He has infused the entire project with his enthusiasm, his interest in the plants and determination that it is possible to work toward the goal of [removing the plant from the endangered species list]. I certainly hope this is a trend.”

As he loads the pickup with seedlings, fencing and tools and heads down another dirt road through the middle of nowhere, David Bamberger hopes so, too.