Truly sustainable agriculture provides system stability on the land for humans, wildlife, and the land. From the farmer to the butterfly, both humans and wildlife rely on agricultural systems. Today, the ability to capitalize on wildlife resources provides farmers or ranchers with additional financial flexibility during difficult times. This option did not exist 100 years ago, but for many, can make the difference between a family agricultural operation remaining in business, or selling out. At the same time, many wildlife populations rely on habitat created and maintained by agriculture, such as waterfowl in rice fields on the Gulf Coast, or quail and prairie chickens on the prairies. For rural communities, the effects of developed wildlife industries helps create jobs, retain citizens, and provide for healthier rural America. In many parts of rural Texas, support businesses based on hunting form much of the local economy. Finally, many wildlife species provide services in the form of crop pollination and pest control worth billions to producers. Thus, in providing for truly sustainable agriculture, it is critical for producers to understand how to produce agricultural products without degrading natural resources, and the wildlife that live on working lands.
Currently there are fewer than 10 Cooperative Extension and NRCS employees in Texas with sufficient training to provide producers support on how to best manage this resource with their production goals for long-term sustainability of both resources. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service aims to change that. This project will provide critical training to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and other agency personnel with training on wildlife management in the context of agricultural production.
We will conduct education in (3) ways: First, 2-day training workshops will teach participants the basis of wildlife habitat evaluation, manipulation, and management, as well as prioritizing species management with specific agricultural operations. Second, we will produce a printed manual that covers this material, supplies example forms for evaluations, wildlife management plans, and critical monitoring, and suggests extensions of this work. Third, we will film and disseminate a series of videos for internet consumption, formatted for both traditional PC-viewing and mobile devices, that demonstrates field habitat evaluation, management practices, and monitoring activities.
We anticipate that this training will prepare participants to (1) evaluate wildlife habitat for various species of interest, (2) identify management strategies to improve targeted wildlife habitat, and (3) teach agricultural producers solutions for further integrating wildlife habitat within existing working lands. Printed post-training evaluations of the usefulness of the program will be conducted 1, 2, and 5-years post-training using likert-scale questions, and information on producers served. Additionally, we will host focus groups of past-trainees to direct future efforts.
This project was conceived by interviewing Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service County Extension Agents (CEAs), as well as agricultural producers who utilize these agents. After my first year as an Extension Wildlife Specialist, it became clear that most CEAs were not prepared to offer advice on wildlife management for producers. Staff at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department confirmed that, while that agency provides limited technical assistance to producers, they do not have the perspective on agricultural production to tailor recommendations to integrate with production needs. In order to effectively provide producers with advice and education based on sound science, there are several general categories in which participants will receive training.
- Ability to Conduct Habitat Evaluations for Producers
Participants will learn how to evaluate the potential for various wildlife species to inhabit a given property based on habitat needs. This is likely the most important element of providing wildlife management advice to producers. After training, participants should be able to target key habitat features, vegetation needs, identify relative quality and quantity of food resources, and current status of target wildlife species on property. These will address needs in game management for mammals and birds, as well as non-game management for alternative wildlife enterprises, such as bird watching. Additionally, special evaluation of endangered species habitat needs and status will be taught.
- Knowledge of How to Target Wildlife Management Strategies
Aside from evaluating habitat quality on a property, the ability to prioritize management strategies is critical for economic returns to producers. Participants will learn how to prioritize both (1) species and (2) locations for management, based on habitat evaluation, above. As a result, they can direct producers to the wildlife management options best suited to their property in its current state, long-term management directions and needed practices to achieve goals. This includes, but is not limited to identifying regions of the agricultural property that are better suited for target wildlife species, or times of year where habitat is available to provide for these species and/or their use.
- Providing Producers with Wildlife-Livestock Integration Solutions
Although not necessarily incompatible, some livestock production schemes are not optimal for wildlife production. Participants will learn about (1) potential competition between wildlife and livestock for food, habitat, or both; (2) modifications to livestock management that keep production on-track while allowing wildlife to thrive on the same property; and (3) planning wildlife and livestock management schedules that minimize conflicts between production needs and wildlife user experience.
- Advising on Developing and Growing Wildlife Enterprises
It is one thing to have wildlife resources to capitalize on, but another entirely to successfully market and develop the business. Experienced ranchers, hunting outfitters, consultants, and tourism professionals will train participants on how successful, sustainable wildlife business is developed on agricultural lands. This training will include development of both consumptive (hunting) and non-consumptive (wildlife watching, hiking, camping, etc.) tourism, laws related with various businesses, and marketing strategies to optimize returns on investment. While participants will not be qualified to dispense legal advice, their familiarity should allow producers to navigate their options with minimal need to enjoin an legal counsel.
Desired changes in behavior: Participants will be comfortable and confident providing agricultural producers with timely, relevant advice on how to best steward wildlife resources on their property, capitalize on these resources, and understand legal matters surrounding certain species, including their options for mitigating effects on agricultural production.
Participants successfully completing this course will receive a certificate of completion certifying their proficiency in sustainable wildlife management in agricultural systems.
This project uses both hands-on and classroom education to provide County Extension Agents with the knowledge and skills to better integrate wildlife management with livestock production on rangelands. Hands-on trainings consist of 2-day intensive, experiential, on-site learning for participants in the aspects of wildlife management, list above, on which agricultural producers regularly require advice. Teachers will consist of professional wildlife biologists from various governmental agencies, private NGO staff, private ranchers, wildlife tourism outfitters, and others. We will host 5 trainings across the course of this project, which will cover much of the variation in climate, topography, and production types in Texas. Trainings will be conducted with no more than 20 participants per event. This ensures high-impact learning. The emphasis in trainings will be on experiential learning. Although classroom lectures will address some items out of necessity, behavior-based objectives, listed above, will largely be achieved through hands-on, in-the-field learning. Classroom education helps inform field experiences, and provides context for methods learned. Also included are lectures on agribusiness with wildlife and integration with livestock, as well as laws and regulations related to wildlife that may impact livestock raisers on rangelands.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
To provide Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service County Extension Agents with the knowledge and skills necessary to assist livestock producers seeking to integrate wildlife management as part of their overall business operation.
We conducted two hands-on trainings as well as a series of classroom lectures to 25 County Extension Agents during this project year. These events provided in-the-field learning on a variety of topics related to wildlife management in the context of working lands. Topics consisted of assessing density and abundance of various game species, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, quail, and dove, as well as assessment of habitat quality for these species. Students participated in surveys for all species on property, and generated assessments as part of a mini-project to advise the landowner. After abundance estimations, assigning stocking rates for livestock with regard to wildlife abundance and diet needs were assessed. Participants were taught to understand and determine diet overlap between wildlife and livestock, and read common indicators of range resource overuse from overstocking.
The landowner provided perspective and education on their experiences integrating wildlife into their operation, the good and the bad. Opportunities and common pitfalls were discussed, and a tour of the property to demonstrate both good and bad habitat management outcomes were relayed by the landowner acting as an educator.
Agents received classroom education in wildlife agribusiness, including the up-and-coming field of bird and wildlife-watching. Training was provided in the basics of birding, marketing private lands as birding destinations, and infrastructure necessary to ensure successful, happy customers.