Many years ago families traveled Ellis County’s country roads to see pastures filled with Indian paintbrush, wine cups and bluebonnets. For some, it became a spring tradition to photograph their children in a field surrounded by bluebonnets. Child development was measured by comparing these photos. Grand fields of native wildflowers are no longer found. Traditionalists now journey to community parks, like Midlothian’s Mockingbird Nature Park, where photos still may be taken among the bluebonnets.
Our pastureland has changed significantly in past 150 years. In the early 1900’s, “cotton was king” in Ellis County. Rich black land and the arrival of railroads put Waxahachie on the map as a thriving farm community. Ellis County was the nation’s largest cotton-producing county in the nation. Cotton root rot, soil depletion, boll weevils, the Great Depression and alternatives to cotton forced farmers to change their practices. While some stopped farming, others grew sorghum, corn, bermuda grass for hay and/or turned to raising livestock.
In the early 2000’s, where pastureland was overgrazed by livestock, nonnative plants seized the opportunity to grow invasively. Restricted availability of herbicides and their expense made the eradication of invasive plants difficult. Now, when sufficient rain is received, uncultivated property is largely colored yellow from wild mustard (Rapistrum rugosin) in the spring and Texas broomweed (Amphiachyris amoena) in the fall.
The number of career farmers has steadily declined. Those who remain are stewards of the land and other natural resources. They implement rain catchment and wind and solar energy systems as conservation tools. Shifts in dietary practices and the return on investments caused a number of farmers to move from livestock and grain crops to the cultivation of sunflowers and grapes. The dazzling stands of sunflowers are a cash-crop for the remaining blackland while vineyards are a profitable match for the limestone soils. Cultivated acreage now more closely resembles southwest France than early blackland prairie.
Balances in the animal populations have changed as well. The once common horny toad and quail populations dwindled in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s, respectively. The reduction in harvester ants, a food source for the toads, and the arrival and the spread of fire ants were significant causal factors in the decline of these populations.
Native bird and duck species that nest on the ground continue to decline as a consequence of fire ants. Likewise, chimney swifts were ever present in the evening skies until their habitats were lost with the capping of chimneys to prevent rain and animal entry. Whooping cranes that historically have migrated through our area are becoming increasingly rare because of hunting and the reduction in wetlands.
Currently, Texas native turtles — red-eared sliders and cooters — are caught in large numbers to be sold as food or as pets. They are sought for export to Asian food and traditional medicine markets and run the risk of being over harvested. Raccoon counts have escalated with the growing of grapes, improper containment of household trash and the decline in their natural predators (e.g., mountain lions, bobcats, great horned owls). On a positive note, feral hog numbers have dropped sharply as a result of opportunistic trappers who have shipped them to Europe to satisfy the demand for wild boar, a popular culinary item now in short supply there.
Although this fast-forward look at the year 2061 is hypothetical, it is critical that we act now to plan for, preserve and protect our natural resources for the use and enjoyment of future generations. By 2111, Ellis County may have a desert-like ecosystem. To learn more about available assistance programs, google: Texas Master Naturalists, Texas Invasives,Texas NatureTrackers, or Texas Citizen Scientists.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author; they are not intended to represent
the views of Texas AgriLife Extension, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the Texas Master Naturalist Program.
Submitted by Mox Moxley, Texas Master Naturalist