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Savannah restoration project seeks to bring back a piece of Texas’ natural heritage.

By Dan Jones

Imagine an expansive vista of mixed prairie grasses waving in the spring breeze. Bachman’s sparrows and eastern meadowlarks sing their distinctive songs throughout the day from scattered shrubs, oaks and hickories. Eastern wild turkey hens lead their poults on foraging expeditions for grasshoppers and other insects. Young northern bobwhites follow their mothers, selecting the tastiest grass and forb seeds. Texas horned lizards search for a banquet of ants in bare patches while keeping an eye out for graceful yellow-bellied racers. White-tailed deer browse their way through the cover along spring-fed streams, which emerge from sandy hillsides to flow toward creeks in bottomland hardwood forests. Obscure forms in the distance materialize into a herd of American bison, whose close cropping of native bunchgrasses and dusty wallows help maintain the character and diversity of this grassland-woodland complex known as a savannah.

Sights such as these greeted pioneers and early settlers of the 8.5-million-acre ecological region now known as the Post Oak Savannah. This landscape was the result of naturally occurring wildfires, intentional fires set by Native Americans for hunting and grass production, climatic fluctuations, and grazing by nomadic bison herds of the southern plains. Settlement eventually brought an end to the open range, and although the economy of the region prospered, the natural vegetation characteristics were drastically altered. Farming, livestock ranching, conversion of native grasslands to improved pastures, and suppression of range fires reduced and fragmented the native savannah grassland. In the absence of periodic fires, woody vegetation encroached on the remaining tracts, and the upland sandhills developed dense stands of oaks, shrubs such as yaupon holly and the invasive eastern red cedar.

With the help of staff at TPWD’s Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in northwest Anderson County, a portion of the Post Oak Savannah is being restored to pre-settlement conditions. In 2005, TPWD initiated an integrated approach to restore 2,500 acres of the area utilizing prescribed fire, selective timber harvest, herbicide application and rotational grazing.

The well-drained sandy upland soils of the area typically support a tall-grass prairie dominated by little bluestem and yellow indiangrass, with shrubs and trees such as post oak, bluejack oak, blackjack oak, red oak and black hickory. Several spring-fed tributaries of Catfish Creek flow eastward through the restoration site, fed by smaller springs and seeps. Associated with these streams are pitcher plant bogs, wet prairies and expansive fern beds.

This project will benefit a wide variety of wildlife, including grassland birds, which have exhibited a nationwide decline during the past four decades. Other possibilities include reintroduction of the Texas horned lizard and the seasonal use of bison as a grazing management tool. Partnering with TPWD in this project are the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, Audu-bon Texas, Quail Unlimited (Houston chapter), Houston Endowment, National Wild Turkey Federation and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Research associated with this project will document the response of upland game and non-game birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and spring flows related to savannah restoration techniques. It will also serve as a demonstration for landowners and managers interested in restoring this habitat type within the Post Oak Savannah Ecoregion. For all Texans, it will provide a window into the past and serve as a living reference point in the state’s natural history.

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