Last week I hosted a trip with the Tarleton Wildlife Society across the Rolling Plains of Texas. After 852 miles in the truck, I’m glad to be back in Stephenville. As we pulled out of Stephenville on Friday morning, I left the digital world in the dust. Though as I drove down the road, there was one thing I couldn’t escape: fragmentation. Fragmentation in wildlife terms is the same as fragmenting in any aspect- breaking apart from an initial whole. This breakup is usually the disintegration of continuous habitat and sometimes consequently a separation of populations. The quintessential fragmentation model is that of urban development. Those who have previously grasped the concept of fragmentation likely were exposed to the “parking lot theory.” This idea goes to state that the expanse of cities outwards and even upwards with concrete and steel is what destroys habitat.
If you’ve ever driven to Lubbock from Stephenville, you’re probably wondering where fragmentation occurs under the parking lot theory. There aren’t any “big” cities on the way; it’s thousands of acres of red dirt followed by more dirt, and a few overgrazed pastures in there. Most of Texas is rurally owned and managed, and I would postulate that if fragmentation was limited to urban development, it wouldn’t be such a high area of concern.
Growing up dad always told me, “They can make more of anything, but they can’t make more land.” I would imagine it is for this reason that Matt Wagner with Texas Parks and Wildlife writes, “The biggest threat to wildlife and habitat today is the break-up of large land holdings into smaller tracts.” With larger land tracts being broke up into smaller tracts, Wagner suggests wildlife populations are subject to more pressures including loss of open space and increased hunting pressure. Most recent growth in land ownership has occurred in the 10-180 acre parcel size. In fact, at least 65% of tracts in the triangle formed by Dallas, San Antonio and Houston are smaller than 180 acres.
Finally, we dive into the meat of the fragmentation - loss of space. We’re most commonly exposed to fragmentation in terms of large scale, unavoidable projects and now we’re beginning to notice that the problem may not be the big money, but pennies on the dollar: fragmentation at a smaller level, but higher rate.
The threat is a loss “usable space,” a term coined by Dr. Fred Guthery of OSU. The concept of usable space is defined as “suitable, permanent cover.” This means that each square foot of space can be utilized every day of the year by the species of interest. Though we may not disintegrate a habitat, what we may do is deter a species from utilizing that area at the time they need it such as for nesting. In theory, any practice that eliminates this usable space would be considered fragmenting.
It seems silly to say simple ag practices can be considered fragmenting habitat. Though if not done correctly, they can be detrimental. Planting grain, shredding, and grazing are all great tools for wildlife management, but can be a double-edged sword. Aldo Leopold, the Father of Game Management once wrote, “wildlife can be restored with the same tools that have hithertofore destroyed it: fire, ax, cow, gun, and plow.” In my next column, I’ll be addressing these tools.
For more specie specific information or other wildlife questions/ concerns, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 979-702-9681.