Habitat Management Restores Grassland Ecological Diversity

Passion for Prairie Restoration

Bluebonnets and little bluestem grass flourish as Mark and Cheryl Brown continue to establish native species on their Texas ranch. (Chase Fountain, TPWD)

Like many urbanites moving to the country to enjoy rural life, Mark and Cheryl Brown found their "little bit of heaven" on a worn-out 80-acre pasture near La Grange, Texas, offering a change of pace and beautiful views. What they hadn't expected was their appreciation for the land soon turned into a passion to restore it to the ecological splendor that once covered the South Texas Blackland Prairies.

"When we bought the acreage (in 2000), it looked like a moonscape," Mark recalls of the overgrazed weekend getaway in Fayette County, between Houston and San Antonio. "It was mainly sand, and the only grass growing was no taller than the top of your shoe. But we loved the views," adds Brown, a construction contractor.

Over the years, the Browns bought three more parcels of adjacent land, including one with a farmhouse, boosting their property to 200-plus acres.

"We began educating ourselves on how this land might have appeared in its natural state. The more I learned, the more I developed a passion to try to restore it to as much of that prairie system as possible," he explains.


The restoration began with removal of red cedar trees and thickets of mesquite. "We used loppers and learned to use prescribed burning to control seedlings of both species," Brown points out. He also manually spot-sprayed leftover stands of Old World bluestem and other "improved species" used during the years by previous owners.

After Brown retired, the couple moved to the property full time in 2018 into a new home located amidst a patch of prairie brimming with a diverse plant population and improved wildlife habitat. Plant species not seen on the property in years were reemerging, and birds and butterflies were stopping to visit thanks to the change in management.

Their efforts at prairie restoration earned the Browns the Lone Star Land Steward Ecoregion Award for the Blackland Prairie region in 2017. Earlier this year (2023), the couple received the Sand County Foundation's prestigious Leopold Conservation Award for Texas.


But, there was still more work to do. Brown realized he needed cattle to further his restoration goals. "While many people think cattle were the cause of the destruction of the native prairies, it was their overuse that was responsible for the barren, nonproductive scene we found when we first bought this property."

He points out this part of Texas originally was home to millions of bison, so the native prairies were quite capable of being grazed. Natural fires renewed the grasslands in a random, irregular pattern that enticed those herds into a patchwork rotational-grazing system.

"That's what I try to do with the limited number of cattle Cheryl and I run," Brown explains. They graze a dozen heifers through the restored prairie plot and other lands they are developing. He tries to regularly burn alternative strips on the property to mimic wildfires that once refreshed the prairie grasses for the nomadic bison.

"It's amazing to see the changes prescribed burns make and how quickly those areas spring back to highly productive pastures that the cattle love," Cheryl says. An active party to manual lopping of woody species on the Brown Ranch, Cheryl is also intensely involved with Mark in their local prescribed burn association and educational efforts to encourage neighbors and other landowners to consider restoration of native plots.

"Controlled rotational grazing helps native species return on the prairie by allowing periods of rest and can be used to favor native species over the 'carpetlike' sod and forage produced by so-called improved pastures," Brown explains. "These 'improved pastures' require regular fertilizer to maximize productivity and become a monoculture over time. I try to use my cattle sparingly to be disruptive to native species but not exploitive of them. This encourages a diversity of annual and perennial plants while also allowing them to complete their life cycle to produce seed and ensure the continuation of the plant community."


Tim Siegmund, private lands program leader and wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), has worked with the Browns over the past five years. He credits their efforts with helping the revival of a diverse population of native species on what they once described as a "moonscape." The Brown Ranch is now home to more than 220 species of native plants.

"We did a 30-acre prairie restoration, multiple broadcast sprayings of nonnatives before drilling in a diverse mixture of native species, talked about patch burn grazing and rotation, and the need for building additional fences to aid in managed grazing," he explains. Siegmund has also had four landowner workshops on the Brown's property and has begun to expand the footprint of the project to other properties in the area.

The Browns periodically till other areas of their property to promote forb growth and use them for fire breaks. Their prescribed burning program removes undesirable grasses while stimulating growth of natives, including milkweed critical to the larval stage in the life cycle of Monarch butterflies.


Siegmund says the Brown Ranch is testimony of what can be done across the region to preserve the heritage of native prairies.

"Like the Browns, many people are buying property in this area for recreational purposes and aesthetics, to live a lifestyle," he explains. "Land prices in Fayette County are consistently $25,000 to $27,000 per acre, a level which would take four lifetimes to pay off with dryland crops or cattle. "These people can raise livestock on a less-intense scale and still live the lifestyle," he explains.

But, what about the area's legacy ranchers still operating on a commercial business model? Siegmund says they, too, can help keep the native prairie systems alive by identifying small tracts such as hillsides, timber patches and other difficult-to-manage areas, and managing them for more diverse plant species and improved wildlife habitat.

"I tell those folks native prairie restoration doesn't have to involve their entire ranch, but areas that aren't optimally productive can go a long way to keeping the diversity and legacy of native prairies alive -- alongside the commercial cattle operation," he explains. "Many ranches and farms lease acreages for hunting. Those acres can be better managed for habitat and wildlife in programs to restore the natural prairie."


One important step for habitat restoration is to begin with a written plan, Siegmund stresses.

"Landowners need to know what they want to accomplish and work out a plan to get there. That's where wildlife and range specialists in their areas can help them enlist free resources, technical guidance and, in some cases, cost-share funds from state and federal agencies, and nonprofit conservation organizations."

The Browns established their plan 15 years ago to attract grassland birds. Today, annual songbird surveys show many migratory species take cover on their land, as well as "acres" of Monarchs during their annual fall migration to Mexico.

Siegmund says what sets the Browns' restoration efforts apart from many landowners is their determination to work regardless of weather or immediate perceptions of success.

"This is a long-term project," he says. "Sometimes, you plant seeds and don't see results for several years; we're dealing with perennial plants, and they don't just spring into immediate production or flower.

"The Browns have eagerly bought into this process with patience," Siegmund continues. "And, honestly, in the scheme of things, their slightly more than a quarter section of prairie restoration won't change the world by itself. But, the nearly 50 landowners who have joined their local conservation organization account for a sizable number of acres. Together, they all are beginning to have an impact."