The bowlegged gait, flat twangy drawl, pressed Wranglers with a hubcap-size belt buckle hardly fit the stereotype of a tree-hugger, but listen to Steve Manning tell a small gathering at Andy’s Cafe in Gatesville—including two state legislators, one congressional aide, an employee of the Blackland Research Center, representatives of the Texas Farm Bureau, and a biologist from the Nature Conservancy of Texas—that “we’ve got a chance here, a chance to save an endangered species,” and you start wondering if he bleeds green. It wasn’t always that way. Four years ago Manning and his fellow members of the Central Texas Cattleman’s Association (CTCA), an organization representing the 83 families who once owned the 200,000 acres where Fort Hood is located and who run 3,500 head of cattle on the military reservation, found themselves to be an endangered species, thanks to an endangered bird known as the black-capped vireo. The vireo population was being killed off by the brown-headed cowbird, which follows cattle for forage and has the nasty habit of kicking vireos (and two hundred other songbirds) out of their nests to hatch their own offspring. Though the ranchers were only indirectly to blame, the military declared a two-year grazing moratorium on 25,000 acres of CTCA land that contained critical vireo habitat. Keeping cattle off the land meant lower numbers of cowbirds, which would give vireos a better chance of surviving. To Manning and the CTCA, though, it also meant ending a way of life, especially after the Army proposed putting another 20,000 acres off limits to cattle to further control cowbird parasitism of vireo nests. It was about that time that Steve Manning, cattle rancher, became Steve Manning, environmentalist. Others in his boots may have fumed, cursed the government, dug in their heels, or in some cases, destroyed habitat so there would be no vireos to preserve. Manning just wanted some common sense—something, anything to stave off another grazing moratorium. The solution was Manning’s plan to save the vireo.
The Nature Conservancy of Texas had been trapping cowbirds on Fort Hood since 1990 with positive results, reducing the parasitism rate from over 90 percent to under 20 percent. (Before that program started, a federal study had concluded vireos would disappear altogether from Fort Hood by 2004.) But Manning, mindful that birds pay little attention to property lines or fences, proposed an initiative on private land to augment the cowbird trapping being done on Fort Hood. If the presence of cowbirds on land surrounding Fort Hood was further reduced, and vireo numbers increased, a grazing ban would be unnecessary.
Though the solution seemed simple enough, no federal or state agency could have pulled it off, in light of landowners’ historic mistrust of government and the bureaucracy that went with government rules and regulations. The CTCA volunteered to coordinate the effort, Manning says, because “long range, our fate was tied to Fort Hood’s fate. Our dog in the hunt is we’re landowners too, and we’re trying to survive just like everyone else.” It did not hurt that Manning once worked full-time on Fort Hood’s firing range and knew how to wend his way through a bureaucracy.
His gentle approach persuaded most of Fort Hood’s neighbors to join in the cowbird-trapping program. Manning got the whole community involved, enlisting students at eleven area high schools in five counties to build the six-foot-by-six-foot-by-eight-foot cages and hiring workers to deliver the cages to field locations. Landowners voluntarily monitor the traps, releasing birds other than cowbirds caught in the traps and dispatching the cowbirds, using some of the carcasses as feed for a raptor recovery program. As a result, fewer than thirteen of every one hundred vireo nests are being robbed on Fort Hood, and the population is rising.
The plan has worked so well that an agreement was reached last year by representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which enforces the Endangered Species Act), the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Army, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to secure federal and state funds to keep the project going and expand the program throughout the Hill Country—prime vireo habitat. Such unlikely bedfellows as the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Wildlife Association, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Environmental Defense, and several Texas Audubon chapters are participating in the cooperative project. And, of course, Manning and other CTCA ranchers can still run cattle on Fort Hood.
Cowbird trapping may not address larger issues affecting vireos and other endangered species, such as loss of habitat as a result of encroaching urbanization, but it’s a start. And it has prompted Manning to take on other seemingly unsolvable problems through landowner-incentive plans, including a regional program that rewards landowners who selectivly clear cedar (as Ashe juniper is sometimes called ) in the name of water conservation.
“Confrontation is not going to fix these things,” Manning says. “If we’re going to survive, we’ve got to see all points of view and get those who don’t agree with us to see our view. For us, it’s more than grazing rights and money. You can find somewhere to graze with a lot less aggravation. But there’s a connection to this land.”