The Gulf Coast Grassland, Houston’s Native Ecosystem, Is Near Extinction


With the structures of the Pasadena Petrochemical Complex looming in the distance, Tim Pylate stands in a field at the Armand Bayou Nature Center and imagines a different moment in history.

“If you could wave a magic wand and step back in time, this is what Texas would have looked like,” Pylate said, waving an arm over a field of beige prairie grasses punctuated with bright pops of yellow-flowering baptisia. “But again, less than 1% of that historical range remains, less than 1%.”

Pylate talks about the original Houston-area ecosystem, the native Gulf Coast prairie, which once stretched from Brownsville, Texas to Lafayette, Louisiana, but is now considered an ecosystem in endangered – only 100 acres remain in Louisiana and another 65,000 in Texas. It has been lost to residential and commercial growth, ever larger highways, overgrazing and invasive species.

The grassland is not only important for historical or cultural reasons. Ecologically, it is also important. The plants that naturally populate the native Gulf Coast prairie have roots that can grow up to 20 feet underground, turning the earth into a giant sponge to stave off flooding during heavy rains, and at other times serve huge carbon bank that purifies the air.

Not so long ago, Pylate and his team along with ecologists from two dozen other conservation groups such as the Coastal Prairie Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy Texas, Ducks Unlimited and the University of Houston Coastal Center organized under the aegis of the Texas Coastal Prairie Initiative. Together, they are committed to educating the public, raising funds, sharing resources, and finding a way to restore native prairie, in patches large and small, across the region.

It was big news in parks and conservation circles, but ordinary people probably heard little about it. Since the existing prairie acreage was on suburban sites such as Coastal Prairie Conservancy or Armand Bayou, most would not recognize the prairie even if they saw it.

So the coalition decided to bring the prairie to the city, in small patches in schools and colleges and in every iconic park in Houston. There are even a few at the Texas Medical Center. Fifteen acres of undiscovered native grassland have been spotted at Willow Waterhole, a relatively new park just outside the 610 loop on the southwest side of town, and 25 acres atop Memorial Park Land Bridge. will get its first real seeding this fall. In fact, the Willow Waterhole Conservancy is now trying to raise $3 million to develop the prairie.

Now Pylate and Armand Bayou are in the midst of a fundraising campaign, having raised $17 million of the $20 million needed to buy an additional 1,000 acres from ExxonMobil, where they will launch a new plan to create more land. in the meadows. An urban wilderness, the nature center has what may be the most pristine and meticulously preserved native prairie in Texas. Its 2,500 acres include 900 acres of coastal Texas tallgrass prairie.

“We wanted to make this ancient ecosystem visible to city dwellers and show resilience and how to manage land differently,” said Jaime González, director of Houston Healthy Cities at Nature Conservancy Texas and vice president and co-founder of the Coastal Prairie Partnership. “We also want to reconnect the things people love with the ecosystem they came from. Because we had a meadow, we have a rodeo and barbecue and take pictures of bluebonnets. Because we had a prairie, we have cowboy music. It’s about reconnecting Houstonians to their heritage.

Prairie origins

In the early 1800s – before the brothers Augustus and John Allen founded Houston and even before Stephen F. Austin arrived with Texas’ first settlers, the Old Three Hundred – the Gulf Coast of Texas was a blank frontier. inhabited by tribes of Attakapa, Akokisa and Karankawa Native Americans. .

From Brownsville to Louisiana, stretching inland from the Gulf Coast to the pine woods of eastern Texas, lay 9 million acres of coastal prairie. The land had grasses that reached 6 feet high and at different times of the year burst with color from sweet goldenrod, red milkweed and a variety of wildflowers.

Bison roamed in herds the size of Harris County, with the front of the herd consuming soft green tops of plants and the back of the herd munching on woody stems. As the alpha mammal of their time, bison were the architects of the prairie, consuming plants, then fertilizing the land and redistributing seeds that would sustain them in a new season.

With them were a multitude of species, from the birds that lived here year-round to those that migrated here every year. Some, like the Eastern Meadowlark and the Loggerhead Shrike, were “grassland obligates,” meaning they had to live on the prairie. As NASA grew and other businesses sprung up, residential neighborhoods followed, and housing almost disappeared. Animals, birds and insects have moved on or, like Attwater’s prairie chicken, their numbers have dwindled.

At one time, you could find red wolves here, although they are now considered extinct in the wild in the United States. The American alligator was once on the brink of extinction, but has made a slow and steady comeback after being protected by Texas Endangered Species. Law of 1973.

“There are many people who have recognized the importance of having these prairie grasses as an important part of our ecosystem. When you don’t take care of this land, you lose the things that are important to us,” Pylate said. “You lose alligators, bison, prairie chickens and bobwhite quail. You lose the red wolf. You lose all that, and it is our ecological heritage that you have lost.

Armand Bayou has done much to restore the habitat of the alligators, and they are now an important part of the nature center’s ecology. In fact, when various species nest, alligators provide protection for many birds, which build their nests directly above an alligator’s nest.

In a pond near the front of the nature center, a mother alligator protects her eggs on the ground while a yellow-crowned night heron sits on her own eggs in a nest in the tree branches above. She knows that any predator – like a raccoon or a snake – that wants her eggs, must first outrun the ferocious alligator.

After NASA’s appearance at Clear Lake, residential neighborhoods followed and wildlife lost their habitats, and as underground aquifers emptied, the ground crashed in on itself – a geological process called ” subsidence”. The nearby bayou—then called Middle Bayou and now known as Armand Bayou—expanded and washed away the existing riparian forest, killing trees and marsh grasses and driving out the wildlife that depended on it.

Over the years, Armand Bayou staff and hundreds of volunteers have physically removed invasive species such as daisy and Chinese tallow and replanted acres of grassland, collecting large and small bluestem seeds, growing new plants and then placing them in the ground by hand.

They also brought back marsh grasses – which spread more easily – and created a home for blue crabs, shrimp and speckled trout which spend the first summer of their lives in the brackish marshes or estuaries of central nature, where springs meet the sea.

“Nature’s Kidneys”

The Coastal Prairie Conservancy began as the Katy Prairie Conservancy about 30 years ago, with volunteers concerned about the loss of wetlands on Houston’s west side. Today they have conservation easements on 17,088 acres and own an additional 13,500 acres.

“We have to bring people down to earth if we want them to care. It’s incredible wildlife habitat, contributing to air quality, and wetlands are the kidneys of nature, reducing the risk of flooding,” said CPC President and CEO Mary Ann Piacentini. .

The park-like portion of the reserve to the west of town includes grasslands and wetlands, trails, and a nursery where volunteers produce plants from seed, just like in Armand Bayou. Birdwatchers flock here, and occasionally westerners come for lunch or to relax.

“People have to have places to live, but there just has to be a balance. Who wants to live in a place that has nothing green? asked Piacentini. “We want to be Memorial Park West, just bigger and more natural.”

At Memorial Park, it’s no coincidence that the new land bridge will one day be covered in grasses and flowers found here 200 years ago.

Park officials were still reeling from the 2011 drought that caused the loss of millions of trees when they began the process of creating a master plan for the future of the park.

Sarah Newbery, director of parks and green spaces at the Kinder Foundation who helped staff at Memorial Park, said their mandate was to examine the terrain and learn from it. Despite the park’s current canopy that provides generous shade, scientists assessed the ground and found that there were more grasses and fewer trees.

The new plan became a park that would have a mix of forest, savanna and grassland, she said. The park’s new grassland won’t be evident for some time, but when it is, it will be in a prime location and can evolve from season to season, as it historically would have.

Already, more wildlife are crossing the park, just as Pylate and his team at Armand Bayou are noticing in Clear Lake.

“There are indicator species, such as the alligator, osprey and least bittern. They tell you about bayou health,” Pylate said. “One day I passed by and they had just landed here on their way to Mexico. I saw 650 wood storks here in one day. Their population has shrunk exponentially over the years, so seeing 650 of them together shows that what we’re doing here is working.

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