Every year TPWD honors landowners from across the state with the Lone Star Land Steward Award for their contributions to natural resource conservation and management. This year seven winners, including long-time HCA Friends Steve Nelle and the Winklers at Winkler Ranch in Blanco County, as some of the best examples of sound habitat management.
On May 19 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, these seven land stewards will be recognized during the annual banquet, where the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award, the highest honor awarded in the program, will also be presented by the Sand County Foundation. The keynote speaker at this year’s banquet is Bob Phillips, host of television show Texas Country Reporter, which celebrates the Texas way of life.
Initiated in 1996 by the TPWD Private Lands Advisory Committee, the Lone Star Land Steward Awards seeks to recognize the important role private landowners play in the future of Texas’ natural resources by honoring them for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation. Because more than 94 percent of Texas lands are privately owned or operated, private landowners are the key to effective habitat management across the state. Since the program’s inception 21 years ago, over 200 landowners have been honored for conserving more than three million acres of fish and wildlife habitat.
“The landowners we honor with these awards really represent the unique natural and cultural characteristics that make up Texas’ storied heritage,” said Justin Dreibelbis, director of TPWD’s Private Lands and Public Hunting program. “We’re very fortunate that we have such dedicated landowners working to conserve these beautiful, wild places.”
Following is a list of this year’s award recipients.
Blackland Prairie – T Star Ranch, Navarro County
Bruce and Shirley Thomas, owners/managers
For the past 12 years, Bruce Thomas has managed the 231 acres of T Star Ranch, restoring the once-overgrazed pastures back to native grassland. When Thomas acquired the land in 2004 from a local rancher, mesquite had invaded the majority of the property, decreasing the chances native grasses would grow and limiting the food supply for wildlife on the property. After implementing a wildlife habitat management plan, Thomas saw native grasses return to the property, providing a sustainable habitat for a diverse array of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, dickcissel, Eastern meadowlark, loggerhead shrike and cattle. Thomas continues to prevent overgrazing on his land by designating specific areas of his property for grazing during extended period of droughts, allowing him to keep his cattle from overgrazing the majority of his land.
Edwards Plateau – Winkler Ranch, Blanco County
Matt and Peggy Winkler, owners
Derek Birck, manager
When Dr. Matthew Winkler purchased his Blanco County ranch 10 years ago, he and operator Derek Birck began implementing comprehensive wildlife and habitat management plans. They use conservation tools like prescribed burning, brush management, riparian enhancement, grazing management and invasive pest control to support a wide variety of plant and animal life. They also make sure to protect habitat for species of concern, including the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered species of bird in Texas. The property, which is protected by a conservation easement, maintains a healthy ecosystem for all wildlife native to the property, with emphasis on deer, turkey and pollinators.
One of the most significant parts of the ranch is a large bat cave, which supports one of the largest populations of cave-roosting bats in the county. Winkler makes sure to maintain clear flight lines around the cave and has been supportive of survey and inventory efforts of the bats in the cave.
Gulf Prairies and Marshes – Parks Ranch, Goliad County
Cuervo Ranch Holdings, Ltd., owner
Crow Ranches, Inc., manager
Since 2000, David Crow has managed the 5,600-acre Parks Ranch in Goliad County, maintaining its status as a site with one of the highest quail populations in the area. Crow consistently implements conservation management techniques, including winter and summer prescribed burns, mechanical and chemical brush management and rotational grazing plans. These techniques have resulted in a greater density of native grasslands, which in turn support a greater diversity of native wildlife.
Parks Ranch, which was owned by the Parks family from 1860 to 2000, enjoys a rich cultural history. It was the site of the Fannin Massacre of 1836, in which over 400 Texian soldiers were killed by the Mexican Army during the Texas Revolution. In addition, 10 acres of the ranch were donated to the State of Texas as a historical monument. The ranch also occupies a 2.2-mile stretch of the San Antonio River, along which Native American artifacts are still being discovered.
Post Oaks and Prairies – Pecore Farm, Fayette County
Albert and Wilda Pecore, owners/managers
Bert Pecore wasn’t always a conservationist. He let cattle overgraze the land and overworked the soil. However, he changed his ways 10 years ago, after having already owned his ranchlands for 51 years. By implementing sustainable wildlife and habitat management practices, Pecore and his wife restored their 196-acre ranch in Fayette County to its native grassland glory. Wildlife populations, including deer and a number of migratory birds, are thriving.
The Pecores consistently employ conservation management techniques, including designating and fencing specific conservation areas, introducing and nurturing cover forage crops, developing the soil by preventing plowing and tilling, rotational grazing and culling invasive cedar and mesquite trees. Pecore Farm is in a conservation easement, which will ensure the protection of this special property into the future.
South Texas – San Pedro Ranch, Dimmit and Maverick counties
Fitzsimons and Howard Families, owners
Chase Currie, manager
Joseph Fitzsimons and his sister, Pamela Fitzsimons Howard, have owned the San Pedro Ranch in South Texas for 15 years, though the land has been in the family since 1932. The property, which sprawls across parts of Dimmit and Maverick counties, supports five different soil orders and 36 different plant communities and has been home to four distinct cultural groups over the years. Fitzsimons and Howard have implemented several wildlife habitat management techniques, including rotational grazing, prescribed burning, brush control, water systems, riparian restoration projects and aerial censuses of deer and quail populations. These practices have improved the native habitat, which has helped sustain diverse wildlife populations and a productive Beefmaster cattle herd.
The ranch is also home to a unique type of soil, called Antosa Bobillo, which is a deep, fine sand that supports grasses that are typically rare in South Texas. Fitzsimons and Howard have used geographic information system technology to map out this soil type’s presence on the property, designating the areas in which it exists “no-disturbance zones” to help preserve this unique plant community.
Trans-Pecos – Harkins Ranch, Terrell and Pecos counties
Harkins Family, owners/managers
Monty and Lisa Harkins became the owners of the Harkins Ranch 21 years ago, though the property has been in the family since 1905. During their tenure as owners and operators, the Harkins have implemented innovative habitat and wildlife management practices, including rotational grazing, brush management, supplemental water provision, erosion control and deer population control. During their brush management efforts, the Harkins make sure to leave interconnected “trails” of brush throughout the property to allow wildlife to travel from place to place, using the brush as cover from predators. Since 1971, the Harkins have consistently managed the wildlife populations on the property by leasing hunting rights for white-tailed deer, mule deer, javelina and scaled quail. These efforts to control wildlife populations and invasive brush, as well as their creation of a vast network of water across the property, have produced an oasis for wildlife, with a wide variety of native grasses to support a greater diversity of species.
Special Recognition for Landowner Outreach and Education
Steve Nelle, Tom Green County
With a background in conservation and land and wildlife management, independent conservation consultant Steve Nelle actively educates landowners about the importance of sustainable livestock and habitat management on ranches across Texas. A wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the last 26 years, Nelle is now an advocate for prescribed burning to restore natural balances, carefully planned brush management and removing impairments from the landscape so the natural environment can return to or maintain a healthy balance. Nelle frequently conducts workshops to educate landowners and the general public about holistic land management, minimizing humankind’s impact on the land and maximizing the health of native ecosystems. In conducting these workshops, Nelle has worked with several conservation partners, including The Nature Conservancy, the Nueces River Authority, the Hill Country Alliance and Texas A&M AgriLife, among others. Since 1996, Nelle has delivered about 450 oral presentations to different conservation and land management groups across the state.
For more information about the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, including eligibility rules and how to nominate a landowner for next year’s awards, visit the program’s website.