SER Webinar: Thornforest Restoration Along the Lower Rio Grande

Kimberly-Wahl Villarreal, Jon Dale

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The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) South Texas National Wildlife Refuge Complex facilitates conservation within the subtropical 4-county delta of the Rio Grande River, adjacent to northeastern Mexico. Habitat restoration is a key component for conservation here as land conversion to agriculture and urban development has led to more than 90% of the region’s natural cover being lost in the past century. Historically, much of this cover was a species-diverse Tamaulipan thornforest and most of the region’s remaining mature forest fragments are now under the stewardship of public agencies like USFWS. In order to re-establish connectivity between these fragments USFWS began a sustained effort at thornforest restoration on adjacent croplands in the 1980’s. As restoration has continued over the past 40 years approaches have been modified, particularly to meet objectives relating to federally listed endangered species (e.g., ocelot, Leopardus pardalis) recovery. Over time, the restoration program’s efforts have yielded a strong support network of partners and a foundation on which different restoration methodologies have been tested. More recently, concerns over how well restoration syncs with regional climate change projections have underscored the need to develop methodologies that will facilitate resilience in the thornforest ecosystem. To this end, USFWS and American Forests have partnered since 2018 to develop a “drought resilience” strategy that includes development of modified planting designs. This collaboration has now produced a pilot restoration project that will serve as the basis for ongoing adaptation and evaluation of this new strategy. We are hopeful that these efforts will provide some long-term answers for conservation within the Rio Grande delta landscape. Speakers:  Kimberly-Wahl Villarreal is the plant ecologist for the South Texas National Wildlife Refuge Complex (STRC) headquartered in Alamo, Texas. She manages thornforest restoration projects across the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildife Refuge and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, including a Fish and Wildlife Service operated native plant nursery. In addition, she addresses issues facing federally endangered plants in the borderland region and invasive species management across the STRC. Jon Dale is American Forests’ senior manager for forest restoration in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) and is the chair of the Thornforest Conservation Partnership, a coalition of agency, non-profit, research and industry stakeholders working toward a unified goal of biodiversity conservation in the LRGV’s 4-county area. Jon has 20 years of experience in planning and implementing ecological restoration and natural resource monitoring projects throughout Texas, the US and the neotropics, while working with a wide range of conservation-based and agricultural non-profits, agencies, universities and environmental consulting firms.

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Pre-approved for CECs under SER's CERP program