Brush Sculptors: Innovations for Tailoring Brushy Rangelands to Enhance Wildlife Habitat and Recreational Value

Proceedings of a Conference

Sponsored by
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas Agricultural Experiment Station
Renewable Resources Extension Act

August 21-22, 1997
Uvalde, TX

September 17-18, 1997
Abilene, TX

TAMU Agricultural Research & Extension Center
7887 US HWY 87 North, San Angelo, TX 76901

Edited by

Dale Rollins
Darrell N. Ueckert
Cristy G. Brown


For most Texas ranchers, “brush” is a four-letter word. Coping with excessive tree and brush cover has been a major, costly and often futile activity of Texas ranchers for decades. However, the increase in brush on former grasslands benefited some species of wildlife, e.g., white-tailed deer and northern bobwhite, but in many cases, threshold brush levels have been exceeded.

Historically, brush was viewed only as a threat and a nuisance to livestock production. “Brush eradication” was the prevailing management paradigm of many landowners and resource management agencies through the 1950s. The goal during this era was to maximize food and fiber production from rangeland, hence woody plants were considered “worthless.” Early attempts at brush eradication included mechanical, e.g., root plowing, and chemical, e.g., herbicides, methods applied in a broadcast, large-scale approach over entire pastures and ranches. Maintenance, follow-up brush management and grazing management were generally not integrated, hence many brush management programs were viewed as failures.

In the 1960s, it became apparent that brush eradication was neither physically possible nor economically feasible, so “brush control” became the prevailing philosophy. Most woody plants were still considered worthless and the management goal was to kill 100% of the targeted woody plants. During the 1960s, increasing public interest in environmental concerns (e.g., pesticides) began to shape the future of brush control. During the 1970s, the phrase “brush management” became more popular and reflected the notion that some woody plants did have value. Wildlife in Texas was becoming more important as an economic entity during this time, which helped temper vendettas against all brush.

During the early 1980s, this evolution of thought continued with the development of “Integrated Brush Management Systems (IBMS)” by Charles Scifres and his associates at Texas A&M University. Integrated Brush Management Systems recognized that brush control must be accompanied by other land and resource management practices and addressed simultaneously. Integrated Brush Management Systems are an example of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) philosophy, and are just as important to ranching systems in semiarid areas as succesful IPM strategies are to cotton farmers. Similar to insect management in a cotton field, it behooves all stakeholders to realize that:

  • not all brush is undesirable;

  • there are certain thresholds (i.e., action levels) at which brush control should be implemented;

  • control alternatives should be as selective as feasible and targeted to specific situations; and,
  • reducing the quantity of herbicides used has both environmental and economic benefits.

Range scientists, resource management agencies and (increasingly) landowners recognize that woody plants have both tangible and intrinsic values. This appreciation began when other products and uses of rangelands (beyond just food and fiber production) were recognized to have economic or societal values, i.e., wildlife, recreation, water.

Land ownership patterns and landowner goals in Texas are changing. Large ranches are continually being subdivided into smaller units. The median ranch size in Texas is now less than 360 acres. Small ranch size, changing landowner goals and the close proximity of neighbors, all interact to reduce brush treatment options, especially relative to broadcast applications of herbicides. Additionally, the high costs and/or environmental concerns, e.g., habitat fragmentation for endangered species, have limited the use of mechanical treatments such as chaining, root-plowing or roller-chopping. Many ranches have been purchased as a “hobby” or for their wildlife and aesthetic value. These “new” ranchers have little experience with brush control options and often have distorted perceptions about the utility of brush control for achieving their management goals. Similarly, land managers and the general public lack appreciation for how brush management can be used to attain multiple benefits for society, including wildlife habitat management, watershed enhancement, aesthetics and improved livestock carrying capacity.

Today’s society demands, and is willing to pay for, more from ranching and rangelands than just food and fiber. Because of demographic changes, global markets and increasing environmental concerns, we are entering a new era in which livestock production on semiarid rangeland is not as important as it has been historically. These changes in attitude and public policies are having a profound impact on traditional livestock enterprises throughout Texas. Attrition from rural communities caused by the decline in “traditional” ranching results in an acceleration of already economically depressed rural economies. The paradigms that have historically driven brush management decisions must be shifted to address these new challenges.

A vast array of brush management technology is currently available. However, the extent of the current “brush problem” reflects a general failure among landowners to adopt the available technology, or to use the technology in ecologically and economically sound approaches. Perhaps it is time for ranchers and land managers to challenge their old paradigms about brush management, and begin thinking as “applied plant ecologists.” This is the essence of the Brush Sculptors program; to successfully manage brush for multiple benefits. Rather than broad-scale application of single brush treatments, sculpting brushy rangeland to meet the multiple goals and objectives of the landowner while addressing societal needs, e.g., wildlife-based recreation, seems to bo the road to long-term, sustainable ranching. A Brush Sculptor appreciates and utilizes an IPM approach to brush management, i.e., the need to assess brush dynamics, then integrate and sequence various brush management technologies (mechanical, herbicidal, fire, and biological), monitor results and adjust management strategies as needed. Sculpting brush allows the landowner or manager to optimize the value of his resource for livestock, wildlife, aesthetics, recreation, water and real estate while providing the products and services that other rangeland stakeholders desire.

The goal of this symposium is to expedite the adoption of effective, environmentally friendly, and economically sustainable brush management systems which address the needs of rangeland ecosystems, land managers and a changing society. Adoption of these systems will result in enhanced environmental stewardship, rural community revitalization, and an increase in agricultural profitability, competitiveness and efficiency.

Dale Rollins
Darrell Ueckert
Allan McGinty

Table of Contents

Session I. Setting the Stage

Session II. Brush Ecology

Session III. Sculpting Brush for Various Wildlife Species

Session IV. Treatment Options

Session V. Other Considerations

Session VI. Success Stories

Session VII. On-site Demonstrations of Techniques

Sculpting Illustrations

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