Brush Sculptors: an appreciation for brush?

DALE ROLLINS, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, San Angelo, TX 76901-9714.

Abstract: The increasing economic and aesthetic importance of wildlife-based recreation is fostering a paradigm shift relative to land managers’ attitudes toward brush in Texas. Over the last 50 years, this evolution of thought has gone from “brush eradication” in the 1940s to one of “brush control” in the 1960s to an era of “brush management” in the 1980s, and Brush Sculptors represent a refinement of brush management. As wildlife management becomes the “tail that wags the dog” relative to land management motives, there will be an increasing need for refining our knowledge about how various brush management strategies can be used to enhance wildlife habitat.

Appreciate brush?

Back in 1991, I met with a group of county Exension agents in Ft. Stockton to propose an idea for a radically new program, at least for conservative west Texas! In year’s past, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service had hosted regional predator management programs called “Predator Rodeos”; rodeo being the Spanish term for “roundup.” I handed one of the county agents a dictionary and asked that he look up the definition of “appreciate.” Then I told the group I wanted to host a series of predator programs dubbed “Predator Appreciation Days.” As the County Agents rolled their eyes, I hastened to define “appreciate” to be “cautiously or sensitively aware of” or “to judge with heightened perception.” Aldo Leopold echoed this sentiment when he cautioned resource managers that “the urge to comprehend must precede the urge to reform. It is with this backdrop that the Brush Sculptors symposia might aptly have been dubbed “Brush Appreciation Days.”

Brush isn’t necessarily a “four-letter word” for Texas ranchers. Indeed, the same brush that complicates livestock handling, competes with grass, and saps the state’s underground water also dictates the habitability of most Texas rangelands as wildlife habitat. But, vast, dense stands of brush are not conducive to either livestock or (most species of) wildlife. Since the 1940s, there has been an evolution of thought about the relative and absolute value of brush to Texas landowners. In the 1940s the idea of “brush eradication” was espoused, but the resiliency of the brush (especially mesquite [Prosopis glandulosa]), transformed the goal to one of “brush control.” With increasing energy costs in the 1970s, coupled with increasing concerns about the use of pesticides, the buzz phrase became “brush management.” Charles Scifres and his associates at Texas A&M University began to view the brush “problem” in the context of Integrated Pest Management. Their inception of Integrated Brush Management Systems (Scifres et al. 1985) opened the door for “brush sculpting.” The Brush

Sculptors symposia herald this paradigm shift.

< Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked “and what is a weed but a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered?” As despicable as mesquite may be with your cowboy hat on (i.e., livestock perspective), it must be acknowledged for its contributions as a food and cover species for bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) and other wildlife. Similarly, pricklypear (Opuntia spp.) is a hindrance to livestock grazing, but its thorny lairs apparently enhance nest survival for bobwhites that tend to select pricklypear as a nest site (Slater 1996). Thus, with one’s camouflaged cap on (i.e., wildlife perspective), it’s possible to see beneficial aspects to some rather unsavory species of plants. As the presence of wildlife on rangelands increasingly becomes the “tail that wags the [livestock] dog” relative to land use strategies in Texas, it becomes imperative to assess proposed land management decisions while wearing a “camouflaged cowboy hat.” Such headgear seeks to tailor land management strategies to landowner goals (present and future).

Landowner goals

Most landowners in Texas can be identified somewhere along the goal continuum presented in Figure 1. Landowners in “Class I” are interested exclusively in livestock, with no compensation in management decisions made for wildlife’s sake. Ranchers in this group often exhibit “brush vendettas” and may go well beyond the point of diminishing returns in an attempt to clear the ranch of brush. At the right end of the scale are the “Class IV” ranchers, a new breed of landowners in Texas, whose motivation for land ownership is strictly wildlife based. Livestock are considered taboo, and with the recent passage of “Proposition 11”, this landowner can maintain his “ag use valuation” for ad valorem taxation purposes without a head of livestock on the place.

Those ranchers in between the endpoints have varying interests in livestock and wildlife. “Class II” ranchers have livestock as their primary motivation, but are also interested in wildlife. “Class III” is the opposite to Class II, with wildlife being the primary motive for ownership and livestock secondary. While the Brush Sculptor’s philosphy can benefit landowners along the continuum, those in Classes III and IV are most likely to use these technologies.

Let me share some observations based on my 10-year tenure of working with Texas ranchers relative to brush and wildlife matters. The composition of ranchers around the state (Class I-IV) varies across Texas. As an observation, ranchers in south Texas and the Edwards Plateau are further to the right (i.e. perhaps a 2.5 score, indicating they are more interested in wildlife as a land management factor) than their neighbors in the Rolling Plains (perhaps a 1.5 score), but the escalating trend to the right (i.e., more interest in wildlife) is statewide. Wildlife-based recreation opportunities typically buoy and/or drive the real estate market over the western half of Texas.

An appreciation for brush may require a new way of thinking. One of my axioms for wildlife managers is that the two keys for range managers is (a) know your plants and (b) know how to manipulate them. These underpinnings works for cows or quail, steers or deer. Several years ago, while on a tour in Wheeler County, I was extolling the virtues of various forbs and grasses as forage for bobwhites, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) or white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). When one fellow had digested all he could, he pulled up some sandburs (Cenchrus incertus) and thrust them up to me and asked indignantly “just what good are these for quail?” En guard! Just when I thought he’d caught me in a contradiction, Extension range specialist J. F. Cadenhead rescued me when he answered “they slow down bird dogs, don’t they?” Touche’!

“Cadenhead’s Corollary” cautions us not to judge a plant’s contribution to wildlife by its food value alone; a point worth remembering for aspiring Brush Sculptors. Land managers should learn to recognize the specific values of various species (or individual plants within a species) for their target species of wildlife. Specific considerations for sculpting habitats for deer , game birds, nongame birds and endangered species will be addressed by various speakers today.

Recognizing trade-offs

While a ranch can be managed for livestock and wildlife simultaneously, the manager should realize that both wildlife and livestock cannot be maximized simultaneously. Trade-offs between livestock and wildlife interests should be anticipated, evaluated and, if necessary, mitigated.
Figure 1. Landowner interest in livestock versus wildlife goals dictates the managers thought about brush.

Figure 1. Landowner interest in livestock versus wildlife goals dictates the managers thought about brush.

Comments: Dale Rollins, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist
Updated: Mar. 18, 1997

Literature Cited

Slater, S.C. 1996. An evaluation of pricklypear (Opuntia spp.) as a predator deterrent in nest site selection by northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). M.S. Thesis. Angelo State Univ., San Angelo, Texas. 52 p.

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