www.cricket-frog.info: For understanding, appreciation, and conservation of nature

Preserving Wild Places - Why It Matters to Herpers*
Michael Smith

When any of us first started with the reptile and amphibian hobby, we learned the most basic things about the animals we liked - what they eat and whether their defenses include biting, escaping, or defecating, for example. Enjoying them not only meant appreciating the beauty of their color or form, it meant knowing a little about how they live. For many of us, continuing to learn about how and where they live - their natural history - offers many rewards.

The more we learn about herp natural history, the more likely we are to want to see it firsthand in the woods or prairies, ponds or streams. And if we did not already, we often come to care about and take an interest in these natural places. After all, our snakes, salamanders, turtles, lizards, and frogs are part of those places. And so we come to think about the harvester ants that helped sustain our horned lizards, the deer mice that provide food for wild kingsnakes, and the tall cottonwoods or pecans whose canopies, trunk cavities, and old stumps provide shelter for so many species.

Once we catch the natural history "bug," it doesn't make much sense to care about the turtle but remain indifferent to the woods that nurture it. If we are fond of the frog, then by extension we are fond of the tadpole, and the spring pool in which it develops, and the landscape that makes the whole thing possible.

Those landscapes - woods, prairies, marshes, ponds, rivers, forests, and so on are everywhere threatened. The Rainforest Action Network tells us that we are losing 214,000 acres of rainforest every day, an area larger than New York City. In the U.S., the Sierra Club notes that every year 400,000 rural acres are being bulldozed for development. Their website also notes that more than half of our National Forest land has been affected by such things as logging and road-building.

In a Bioscience article, Whit Gibbons and others discussed reptile declines, stating that habitat loss and degradation are primary threats to both amphibian and reptile populations. They reported the loss of 97% of the longleaf pine habitat in the southeastern U.S., making problems for species ranging from flatwoods salamanders to eastern indigo snakes and gopher tortoises. Other habitat loss or degradation in quality was linked to reptile declines in various parts of the world.

There are efforts to protect open spaces from development. In Texas, publicly protected lands include numerous state parks and natural areas. When you look at the map, places like Lost Maples State Natural Area or Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area dot the state, protecting small but essential areas. There are national parks (such as Big Bend National Park), as well as National Wildlife Refuges (the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, for example), National Forests (such as Angelina National Forest), and National Grasslands. Despite all of this, out of our huge state only about eight percent of the land is protected.

State and federal land is subject to a continual tug-of-war between those interested in wildlife and solitude, and those interested in dirt bikes and jet skis. A state park may have so many tourist facilities and so much traffic that it is unsuitable for wildlife or solitude. Public lands, owned by all of us, must somehow accommodate different views about the use of those lands. But we should not kid ourselves about when land is ecologically useful undisturbed habitat and when it is just a pretty recreation area. Some of our parks are in varying degrees just remnants or outlines of the complete natural communities they used to be.

We are just beginning to understand a little about complete natural communities. The science of ecology has rarely investigated whole communities (see Jon Luoma's book, The Hidden Forest for an example). Ecologists tend to study isolated processes or parts of a community. One fact that emerges from what we do know about ecology is that living things are linked together in interdependent communities. To save a woods or a prairie, it is not enough to preserve a few things that form the broad outlines of the place, while clearing brush and building roads and tinkering with the parts that don't seem to matter. As pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold said, "If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?"

If we care about the Louisiana pine snake, Cagle's map turtle, the Texas tortoise, the Texas horned lizard, the Houston toad, and all the other threatened and soon-to-be threatened species, we have to preserve some of the places where they live. What we preserve will have to be more than just a small showcase for a few remnant animals. Small parcels of land may be inadequate for the survival of some populations. And the places we preserve must be "the real thing," complete with all its working parts.

Some people dream of one day restoring a species to an area by breeding animals for eventual release. But without habitat preservation the conservation value of private captive breeding projects is limited. To what habitat will they be released? Why should we believe that in some future time when more of us place a high value on wild places, that we could plant a few longleaf pines and get the Louisiana pine snake's east Texas and Louisiana habitat back again? We can certainly grow some sort of pine forest, but could we reconstruct the same community of plants and animals needed by the Louisiana pine snake? If we cannot, then captive pine snakes could never be successfully re-introduced into a future reconstituted forest.

So if we care about the futures of these animals, one thing we can do is to contact legislators and government officials about preserving land in its natural state. We could say that setting aside more habitat is a good investment of taxpayer money, and that preserving it means not "improving" it or using it for grazing, logging, or mining.

We can also support organizations that advocate for the protection of wild places, such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society. Further, we can support organizations that preserve land in a wild state. One of the largest is The Nature Conservancy, which currently protects over 80 million acres outside the U.S. and over 12 million acres within the U.S. Here in Texas it maintains numerous preserves, places like Clymer Meadow, a 1,000-acre virgin Blackland Prairie on the rolling hills of northwestern Hunt County, near Greenville, in North Central Texas. Another group is the Natural Area Preservation Association (NAPA), billing itself as the largest Texas-based land trust. NAPA protects more than 50 wild places in Texas, through donations, purchases, or conservation easements.

Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter - http://texas.sierraclub.org/
P.O. Box 1931 / Austin, TX 78767

Natural Area Preservation Association - http://www.napa-texas.org
P.O. Box 162481 / Austin, TX 78716

The Nature Conservancy Texas Chapter
P. O. Box 1440 / 711 Navarro / San Antonio, TX 78295

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department - http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/
Robert L. Cook, Executive Director
4200 Smith School Road / Austin, TX 78744

Texas Online - http://www.state.tx.us/
(information related to Texas government)

References and Further Reading:
Cooke, P., & S. Cooke. 1995. Natural wonders of Texas: A guide to parks, preserves, & wild places. Castine, Maine: Country Roads Press.
Gibbons, J.W., D.E. Scott, T.J. Ryan, K.A. Buhlmann, T.D. Tuberville, B.S. Metts, J.L. Greene, T. Mills, Y. Leiden, S. Poppy, & C.T Winne. 2000. The global decline of reptiles, dj vu amphibians. BioScience, Vol.50#8, Pp. 653-666.
Luoma, J.R. 1999. The hidden forest. NY: Henry Holt & Co.

* This article was adapted from one that first appeared in the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society

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