Solutions to Cave Related Problems.
Cave Ceiling
Preserving Texas Wildlife
Cedar Park and Leander, Texas Newspaper Article
Community Impact Newspaper - July 2008
Written by Beth Wade and Mark Collins
Preserving Texas Wildlife 1 Williamson County officials are trying to balance the county's inevitable growth and protect several endangered species found west of IH 35.

The Williamson County Conservation Foundation, which was established in December 2002, is working to maintain that balance by creating a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.

"We are basically, through the plan, trying to preserve caves and bird habitat so that if everything else got developed, it wouldn't destroy the species, because that is what the law requires," said Valerie Covey, precinct three county commissioner and WCCF board vice president.

Endangered Species

The RHCP will offer a simplified and quicker way for individuals to comply with development permitting requirements from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. With the RHCP, the foundation can obtain a countywide 10A permit into which developers can buy. That means if a developer - private or public - wanted to develop land with an endangered species habitat, he could go to the county for a permit, rather than to Fish and Wildlife.
Preserving Texas Wildlife 2

"We thought it was a good fit for what Williamson County is about, but it makes sense for each individual," Covey said. "It serves the purpose of the law and helps with development. Any time you build on the west side of IH 35, you have a good chance of hitting either a bird or bug habitat."

The goal of the plan is to provide enough habitats for the endangered bug species that it could eventually be removed from the endangered species list, said Kemble White, a scientific consultant from SWCA Environmental Consultants.

"The only way to reconcile the growth issues with the need to protect open space is to plan on a regional basis," White said. "It creates an entity that can step back, take stock of the entire area, and say, 'Yes, we want growth, but we also want to protect these areas."'

The foundation has been working on the RHCP for four years and submitted a draft of the plan and an Environmental Impact Statement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plan was available for public review until July 17.

Precinct Three County Commissioner candidate Gregory Windham said the plan makes it too easy for "developers to just write a check and destroy whatever they want. Of course you have to develop some of it. But I think there is already an entity in place on the federal level. I don't see a reason to create more government and more bureaucracy when there is something already there to protect the wildlife."

WCCF will gather all of the public feedback and take it into consideration before resubmitting the plan to USFW for final approval.

The county hopes to have its permit by October, after citizen comments have been addressed.

Interested individuals can stay up to date on the plan's progress at

Protecting the Animals

Because of West Williamson County's karst landscaping - an area that has a large number of caves, sinkholes, fissures and underground streams - the area is home to several types of endangered cave bugs, including the Bone Cave Harvestman, the Tooth Cave Ground Beetle and the Coffin Cave Mold Beetles. The beetle species are exclusive to Williamson County.

"There are [species] that are endemic, meaning they only live in this little outcrop," White said. "From a state or a North American perspective, it is a very small area. You will not find [the Coffin Cave Mold Beetle] anywhere else in the world."

The county purchased the 145-acre Twin Springs Preserve near Lake Georgetown in February for $2.3 million. Scientists found endemic cave bugs, the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Georgetown Salamander, a relative of the Barton Springs Salamander, on the preserve, White said.

The bugs and Golden-cheeked Warbler are both on the endangered species list. The salamander could be added in the next five years, White said.

Bird Habitat Preservation

In order to protect the Golden-cheeked Warbler's habitat, which is typically large cedar trees mixed with oak trees, the county must protect the land on a one-to-one basis, meaning that for each acre of land developed, the county must identify 1 acre of habitat that must be preserved indefinitely.

In Williamson County, 1 acre of land equals 1 mitigation credit, meaning the county has lessened the severity of its take. "Take" means to harm, harass, pursue, hunt, wound or kill an endangered species. This can be done through harm or destruction of a species' habitat.

Under the RHCP, developers would be able to purchase mitigation credits from the county instead of locating and purchasing the required protected acreage on their own.

Williamson County has already acquired approximately 600 credits that developers can purchase. The county purchased 500 Golden-cheeked Warbler mitigation credits from a landowner in Burnet County, and the other 100 credits come from the Twin Springs Preserve.

"The good thing about the Twin Springs Preserve is that it will actually provide credit within our county," Covey said. "It is not going to be all outside the county where the birds are preserved; there is going to be actual habitat there that we get credit for." If needed, the county has access to the Burnet County landowner's remaining 500 acres that could be purchased to make more mitigation credits available.

Cave Capital

There are approximately 6,000 caves in Texas, and nearly 700 of them are in Williamson County, White said.

In fall 2005, the county began management of Cobb's Cavern, a 64-acre conservation easement approximately 6 miles northeast of Georgetown on Hwy. 195 - the owner of that land sold the county his development rights.

There are also two known caves on the Twin Springs Preserve, White said. With other scientists from SWCA, White determined there were more caves on the site, using geophysical imaging to look into the ground.

In Williamson County, cave preservation is different from bird habitat preservation because the endangered birds are found throughout the region, while the karst species are found only in this area.

"We will have enough of these [caves] that the species in the cave should be protected," Covey said. "If everything else was developed, we would have these caves that would keep these species from being extinct."

Preserving Texas Wildlife 3

The RCHP's goal is to set aside approximately 60 caves that will never be developed.

This plan does not mean that there will only be 60 caves out of 700 left; it would protect 60 caves that biologists feel could fully support the species, White said.

Funding Species Protection

The RHCP began with a federal planning grant of $1.2 million and $400,000 from the county and was designed to be self-sustaining.

"That grant was basically used for us to establish the plan," Covey said. "Consultants have to be hired, we have environmental lawyers who are involved to help develop and write the plan and we deal with Fish and Wildlife all the time in trying to get this approved, so there are quite a lot of costs."

Monies paid into the foundation for mitigation by developers will be used to acquire more land and monitor and maintain preserves.

Participation from developers is strictly voluntary. Developers who do not wish to participate are able to seek a permit from Fish and Wildlife on their own.

"Since we don't have the permit yet, we haven't seen the involvement that we are going to have," Covey said. "We anticipate it being very good because of the ease in getting the permit from the county, rather than having to deal with Fish and Wildlife."

Sources: Endangered Species Act of 1973, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

"Endangered" Defined

Endangered species, as defined by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, are any species in danger of extinction other than a species that is "determined by the secretary of the interior to constitute a pest whose protection under the provisions of this Act would present an overwhelming and overriding risk to man."

The ESA uses the following criteria to determine if a species should be considered:
  • The threat or present destruction of a species habitat
  • Overuse of the habitat for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes
  • Disease or predators harming the species
  • Inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms
  • Other natural or human factors affecting the species' continued existence.

There are two methods of getting a species on the endangered species list.

Petition process: Any individual can petition the Secretary of the Interior to add a species to the list.

Candidate assessment process: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists identify species as listing candidates.

Caves in Cedar Park

The Texas Cave Conservancy is doing its best to make sure that caves in Cedar Park are preserved, but also remain accessible to the public.

"There are approximately 700 known caves in Williamson County, and this is about the only place where you can really come and go hiking and read about the caves and where we have activities available," Texas Cave Conservatory member Mike Walsh said. "It's very rare to have parks that are open like this."

The Discovery Well Cave Preserve is a 110-acre preserve located at the corner of Anderson Mill Road and Lime Creek Road. The preserve houses 10 separate caves and is one of the last known homes of the Tooth Cave Ground Beetle. A master plan showing improved trails, a nature center, parking and picnic areas has been approved, but funding for the design has not yet been designated.

The Westside Cave Preserve features a wide variety of caves sprinkled throughout the west side of Cedar Park. TCC recently placed more than 40 educational signs at the entrance to the caves. Signs include information on endangered species, cave life and plants that make their home in the caverns.

To visit these caves, stop by the Cedar Park Parks and Recreation office at 715 Discovery Blvd., Ste. 111 and pick up a handout with detailed maps and additional cave information.

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