No Science Is Good Science

Why Won't TPWD Do Its Job?

by Robert Bryce
For a good time, call Andrew Sansom, the head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Ask him why his agency opposes scientific inquiry. Here's his number: (512) 389-4802.

Sansom won't return calls from the Chronicle. So perhaps you'd enjoy asking why he and his staffers are opposing a study on the Fort Hood Military Reservation that could help save the base's endangered species. Fort Hood, which is located just outside Killeen and covers 340 square miles, contains more black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers than any other single land management authority in the world. Some 300 pairs of vireos and 2,000 pairs of warblers nest on the base. By comparison, the 46,000 acres targeted for acquisition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Travis County has an estimated 500 pairs of warblers.

Biologists at Fort Hood want to examine the effects that brown-headed cowbirds have on the rare vireos and warblers. The cowbirds are opportunists. They like to lay their eggs in other birds' nests and vireo and warbler nests are among their favorites. But Gary Graham, the chief of the endangered resources branch at TPWD doesn't think the study is worthwhile. "I do not see much real conservation benefits [sic] to conducting this study," he wrote in an April 26 memo. On May 23, Sansom sent a letter to the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) saying that Graham's memo "represents the Department's perspective" on the issue.

The five-year-long study in question is not a big one. It costs about $80,000 per year. Fort Hood is paying for the study because the FWS agreed that it would help the Department of Defense maintain the endangered species population on the base. The study, which was designed by some of the world's leading cowbird experts, has two years remaining. But here's the rub: To finish the study, the biologists want to remove cattle from an area covering 25,000 acres. They want to see if removing the cattle reduces cowbird numbers.

A group of cattlemen known as the Central Texas Cattlemen's Association has a grazing lease on Fort Hood which can only be described as a sweetheart deal. According to Fort Hood officials, the ranchers' grazing rights cover more than 182,000 acres for which the Department of Defense charges them $160,000 per year. But the cattlemen don't pay cash for the lease. Instead, they barter for it by mowing sections of the base and doing other maintenance activities. The cattlemen are paying a fraction of the fair market value. According to Jim Schwertner, president of Capital Land & Livestock, good pasturage in Bell County costs at least $10 per acre.

According to internal memos written by Fort Hood biologists, while the ranchers are paying far below market value for their lease, they are running four times the recommended number of cattle on the tract in question.

The cattlemen run 3,500 animals throughout the base. But they have been opposing the study, presumably because they don't want to have to move their cattle and/or they oppose anything that might benefit endangered species. So they called Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's office. And Susan Combs, the former state representative from Austin who now works for Hutchison as her liaison for state issues, weighed in on behalf of the cattlemen. Combs, who also owns a cattle ranch in West Texas, called for a March 29 meeting at her office to discuss the study. Officials from Fort Hood, TPWD, and FWS were obliged to attend.

Combs, who was a principal backer of the property rights legislation which passed during the last legislative session, may have inflamed the cowbird controversy during a property rights rally in Lampasas on April 23. Two days later, the Killeen Daily Herald ran a story about the controversy over the study. And Herald reporter Glynda Carpenter quoted Combs talking about a biologist at Fort Hood named John Cornelius. "A guy at Fort Hood, named Cornelius, is not fond of ranchers, or cows or a lot of things," Combs told the group. The same story quoted a Gatesville rancher named Bobby Curry, who runs cattle on Fort Hood as saying of the cowbird study, "I think it is a way to get rid of us. They don't care as much about us as they do the birds."

Dede Armentrout, regional vice-president for the National Audubon Society, says that Combs' involvement in the issue "shows Senator Hutchison's true colors. It shows a real hostility to the species and an allegiance to cows no matter what."

Reached last week at her office, the former representative refused to discuss the matter. "I am not going to be quoted," Combs said. "I don't know what's going on at this point so I cannot tell you anything." Curry also refused to discuss the matter. "We don't need any publicity," Curry told the Chronicle.

While Combs appears to be backpedaling, Fort Hood has decided to go ahead with the study and the cattlemen will have to move their animals out of the study area. To alleviate the cattle ranchers' concerns, they have offered to open up another part of the base that was previously not open to grazing.

What makes the months-long battle over the study so disturbing is the amount of rhetoric that has been generated. Combs and other property rights proponents have created so much ill-will toward the warbler and other rare species that they are now opposing legitimate scientific inquiry.

Graham said he is not opposing more science. "It's a matter of looking at what kind of science you do with the money available," he said. He contends that more cowbird trapping -- which Fort Hood has been doing for several years -- or other management techniques will be more valuable than the information gathered in the cowbird study.

Despite Graham's statement, he has been widely seen by environmentalists as a "hatchet man" for TPWD, which has been increasingly interested in mollifying the property rights crowd. This is not the first time the agency has stifled endangered species research. Several of the agency's best endangered species biologists have left over the past 18 months. The agency has also dismantled the Texas Natural Heritage Program, which was in charge of mapping the distribution of endangered species.

Armentrout has watched the agency over the years. But she says, "The issue that bothers me the most is the anti-science, anti-knowledge attitude" that seems to be taking over TPWD.

Sansom's number again: (512) 389-4802. Call him.n

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