Wildlife biologist Dana Milani and landowner Bert Geary examine an adult female mountain lion. Geary is one of more than 50 landowners who've granted access to their land to study an animal that has been the historical object of scorn by many Texas ranchers. (Photo by Price Rumbelow)

Wildlife biologist Dana Milani and landowner Bert Geary examine an adult female mountain lion. Geary is one of more than 50 landowners who've granted access to their land to study an animal that has been the historical object of scorn by many Texas ranchers. (Photo by Price Rumbelow)

Tracking Mountain Lions In Texas: Rancher Supported Study Implies Population Is Stable

The mountain lion of Texas is known by many names in the southwest; cougars, panthers, pumas to name three.

In California it’s protected. In Arizona and New Mexico, you can hunt this predator but with strict limitations. In Texas, mountain lions can be hunted at will. Still, preliminary results from a four-year-old study suggest that the Texas mountain lion population is stable and may be growing.

Data from a Texas project tracking mountain lions by satellite imply a population of between 25-40 animals in one of the sky islands in Texas. Sky island refers to a mountain range surrounded by flatlands or in the case of this study, the high desert that’s a 90-minute drive north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The project, privately funded by individuals and non-profit foundations, is an initiative of the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

What separates this project is that it’s taking place on private land, an accomplishment in a state where 95 per cent of the land is in private hands. What’s more, most of the test area is owned by ranchers, many of whom have harbored revulsion for the mountain lion.

“You have to understand the values that people have, the history that they (ranchers) have, the culture that they have,” said Louis Harveson, the leader of the research team.

That history is marked by a loathing for the animal, the notion that mountain lions should be killed on sight. Yet Harveson’s managed to get more than 50 ranchers and other landowners to open their gates to his research team.

Harveson assured ranchers that no lions would be brought in from other regions, only that the existing population in the Davis Mountains of west Texas would be studied. He also asked ranchers to consider the animal’s role in maintaining nature’s checks-and-balances.

“Mountain lions are the apex predator, just like sharks and oceans,” said Harveson.

“There’s a food chain that’s in existence,”he explained. “And that apex predator symbolizes wildness. This animal that’s able to kill a deer a week or a large prey item a week, that just says that there’s a good healthy ecosystem intact.”

In four years, Harveson’s team has used leg snares to capture 22 mountain lions, tranquilize them and place satellite and VHF radio beacons on their collars.

James King is a landowner whose family has deep roots in ranching.  He’s allowed the research team on his land to record details of the animals’ diet.

“The kill sites are detectable by the fact that the lions don’t move with these GPS collars,” said King, referring to the GPS location beacons. When the signal remains fixed on a location, it means one of two scenarios are unfolding.

Either the animal has died, or the stationary signal suggests that the lion has stopped at a “kill site,” a place where the animal eats its prey.

Wildlife biologist Dana Milani is a member of the research team. She crosses canyons and sepia-toned mountain ridges every working day.  She documents the lions’ voracious appetite for deer, rabbit, and porcupine. That appetite keeps those lower level species in check.

“You’re always trying to be quiet to stress the animal less,” she said while moving through underbrush.

She says she has been fortunate lately given how elusive the mountain lion is. Milani recently checked and collared two adults, a female and a male. She took samples of blood and tissue for genetic analysis before withdrawing and letting the sedation wear off.

She says without the support of ranchers and other landowners, she could not paint a picture of how lions sometimes help ranchers.

A case-in-point. James King has trouble eliminating feral hogs. That’s an invasive species brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

“I shoot a lot of feral hogs. And they’re hard to exterminate. And those lions are out there at night doing that job,” he said with a wide smile.

King says the antipathy toward the mountain lion goes back to the days when sheep and goats were raised in this part of the southwest. Today King says ranchers principally raise cattle. He says he’s encouraged by one development profiled in the study.

“Here in the Davis Mountains we’re not seeing any kills of domestic cattle.”

“We’ve documented over 200 different kills,” said project leader Harveson. “And not a one domestic animal has fallen to mountain lions. And that’s a fact.”

Across the southwest, attitudes toward the predator may be changing.

Private landowners in Arizona have just agreed that a 10-mile corridor traveled by lions will be protected. In California, a new UC Davis study suggests migration corridors be created to avoid lions being hit on the highway.

James King says he’s not an evangelist for mountain lions. But like many of his neighbors, King simply wants information about the animal.

“Let’s give these scientists access so they can help us understand the movement, the population, their whole dynamics so we can be better land managers.”

The leaders of the Texas study say they don’t want to influence policy. They say the just want to gather data so that policymakers and area ranchers can make informed decisions on mountain lion management.

 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst delivering his concession speech after losing his re-election bid on May 27, 2014. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst delivering his concession speech after losing his re-election bid on May 27, 2014. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

Dewhurst Asks for Price Tag to Expand Border Operations

Months after Texas beefed up its border security presence in the Rio Grande Valley and deployed the Texas National Guard there in response to a record increase in illegal crossings, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurstwants to know what it would cost to expand the projects through 2016.

In mid-June, Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio and Gov. Rick Perry authorized a Department of Public Safety surge in the Rio Grande Valley that has an estimated cost of $1.3 million per week. In July, Perry ordered the deployment of up to 1,000 Texas National Guard members to the area, a mission that will cost $38 million through the end of the year.

Dewhurst, who leaves office in January, wrote the guard’s Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw on Wednesday asking for an estimate of the costs of expanding the operations from the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo; from the Rio Grande Valley to Del Rio; and from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso.


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Each day, dozens of trucks hook up to the Gulf Coast-run fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, Texas. (Jennifer Whitney)

Each day, dozens of trucks hook up to the Gulf Coast-run fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, Texas. (Jennifer Whitney)

Responding to Quakes, Texas Passes Disposal Well Rules

Texas regulators on Tuesday tightened rules for wells that dispose of oilfield waste, a response to the spate of earthquakes that have rattled North Texas.

The three-member Texas Railroad Commission voted unanimously to adopt the rules, which require companies to submit additional information – including historic records of earthquakes in a region– when applying to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections of fracking waste into a problematic well and require companies to disclose the volume and pressure of their injections more frequently.

The commissioners – all Republicans – said the vote showed how well Texans can respond to issues without federal intervention.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman called the vote a “textbook example” of how the commission identifies an issue and “moves quickly and proactively to address it.”

“We don’t need Washington,” he said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency last month said it supported the proposed rules.


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An oil rig south of Pyote, Texas, December 11, 2013. (KXWT/Tom Michael)

Spirits Are High At This Year’s Oil Show

Oil prices have fallen in recent months, but that hasn’t dampened the spirits of exhibitors at the Permian Basin International Oil Show. The event occurs every two years.

KXWT reporter Lana Straub reports live from the Ector County Coliseum, talking about industry growth, new technology, international expansion, an emphasis on safety, and some very big rigs.

Gavin Hope. Credit: myspace.com/gavinhope

Gavin Hope. Credit: myspace.com/gavinhope

Envisioning the King of Pop in “The Music of Michael Jackson”

The Midland-Odessa Symphony & Chorale presents “For Michael, The Music of Michael Jackson” on Saturday, October 18th at 7:30 PM at the Wagner Noël Performing Arts Center.

Conducted by Gary Lewis, the show chronicles the King of Pop’s musical legacy over the years. Hits from MJ’s days in the Jackson Five will be featured, as well as later chart-toppers like “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.”

For West Texas Talk, we sat down with Gavin Hope, the lead vocalist in the show, about the different vocal styles he accessed in his interpretation of Michael Jackson.

Odessa Permian players celebrate after the Panthers defeated their arch rival Midland Lee on Oct. 10, 2014 at Grande Communications Stadium in Midland, Texas. (Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez)

Odessa Permian players celebrate after the Panthers defeated their arch rival Midland Lee on Oct. 10, 2014 at Grande Communications Stadium in Midland, Texas. (Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez)

Photographer Captures Passions and Traditions of Texas High School Football

The Midland Lee Rebels and the Permian Panthers took to the football field Friday night for yet another matchup in the two teams’ historic rivalry that goes back decades.

Permian High and the Panthers were of course the inspiration for Friday Night Lights, and this classic high school rivalry has over the years come to represent all the emotion, passion, and traditions Texans love about football.

Permian topped the Rebels in a 45-28 upset Friday night in Midland.

Whenever these Odessa-Midland teams take the field it’s a heated game from the get go. This classic high school rivalry has over the years come to represent all the emotion, passion, and traditions Texans love about football.

Photographer Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez has been traveling across the state capturing those passions at games in the big cities and small towns alike for a project he’s calling When in Texas.

Lana Straub caught up with him on Friday before the big game.


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(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

How Would Greg Abbott And Wendy Davis Use Student Test Scores?

This is the first in a week-long series of coordinated reports from KERA, the Dallas Morning News, and KXAS-TV (NBC 5). Five Days in October looks at where the leading candidates for governor stand on certain issues. 

We begin with education, and answers to a question about student test scores that was tweeted during KERA’s televised gubernatorial debate last week.

I’m an instructional technology specialist out in Rosenberg, Texas. My question for the candidates is how do they feel about the new teacher evaluation system? While test scores are certainly important they’re not the end-all-be-all. 

Squires wants to know how Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott would use standardized test scores to evaluate students and teachers. We asked the candidates and also got an earful from frustrated parents, teachers and students.


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Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon speaking at Sul Ross State University in Alpine (Travis Bubenik)

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon speaking at Sul Ross State University in Alpine (Travis Bubenik)

State Climatologist to Ranchers: Careful With Your Water

State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon spoke to a room full of ranchers from across the southwest on Thursday, with this message: careful how you use that water.

Ranchers were gathered in Alpine for an annual meeting of the Society for Range Management’s Texas chapter, sharing ideas on how to best manage cattle and grasslands, among other tricks of the trade.

Nielsen-Gammon says with climate change, ranchers out west need to pay close attention to water and soil.

“The biggest effect out here is going to be be a side-effect of the rising temperatures,” he says, “which is increasingly dry soils and increasing lack of runoff.”


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Rancher Nick Garza checks seedlings at an experimental plot south of Alpine, Texas. (Lorne Matalon)

Rancher Nick Garza checks seedlings at an experimental plot south of Alpine, Texas. (Lorne Matalon)

Ranchers’ Hope: Hardier Seeds to Combat Draught

Scientists are experimenting with seeds to reinvigorate lands damaged by drought and overgrazing.

Ranchers from the southwest and Mexico are gathering in the high desert of west Texas to review results of an experiment to raise hardy seeds that can flourish. Their biggest challenge is a harsh, demanding landscape.

“My world is a million little paper bags of seed,” says Colin Shackelford, a research associate at Texas Native Seeds, a restoration project founded at Texas A & M University.

Shackelford gives ranchers a tour of an experimental plot of grass seedlings, pointing out bird’s eye blue groma, a grass loaded with nutrition for cattle. But between drought and overgrazing, the plant is under stress in ranches across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.


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Chinati Mountains in Presidio County (Charlie Llewellin via Creative Commons)

Chinati Mountains in Presidio County (Charlie Llewellin via Creative Commons)

EXCLUSIVE: Public Access to Chinati Mountains State Natural Area Done Deal

The Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in south Presidio County finally has public access, according to Corky Kulhmann, senior project manager for land conservation for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

For eight years, Kulhmann and his team have been working to gain public access to 39,000 acres donated to create a new state park.

“But that’s been blocked by either no funds or landowners changing their minds or just other priorities with state parks, as far as money could go when we had money,” Kulhmann explains. “It turned out a lot of the lands here are just a bowl of spaghetti.”

The four tracts of land needed to open a public road to the park were not straight-forward deals. There was the family that wouldn’t sell to the state and instead sold to a developer, who then sold back to the state; a landowner that had to be tracked down in Florida through Facebook; and a deal negotiated with Presidio County after a default on taxes gave them the land, says Kulhmann.

The last piece of the puzzle has Kulhmann’s surveyors working with the state of Texas General Land Office to purchase land from them.


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An oil rig in the Permian Basin of Texas; Mexico wants to build at least two pipelines to import energy from here.
("Hitchhacking" via Flickr)

An oil rig in the Permian Basin of Texas; Mexico wants to build at least two pipelines to import energy from here. ("Hitchhacking" via Flickr)

Mexico Energy Reform: Border Pipeline Challenge

Mexico’s oil and gas industry is about to open up to the rest of the world — and American oil and gas companies are eager to get a foothold in a market closed to outsiders since 1938.

That’s the year Mexico nationalized its oil industry and ordered American and other foreign companies out.

But before major exploration can take place, Mexico has to create an infrastructure to support it — roads and especially pipelines. And that’s where the challenges begin.

In the last 12 months, there’s been a five-fold increase in pipeline capacity joining the U.S. and Mexico. The industry’s lobby group — America’s Natural Gas Alliance — says it’s all tied to Mexican energy reform. The pipelines are part of a nationwide infrastructure build-up in Mexico to support the new energy production that Americans want to be a part of.

U.S. energy producers are eyeing their potential in a greatly expanded market.


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A police officer in Santa Ana, El Salvador teaches a group of sixth graders how to use computers as part of the GREAT program. (Jude Joffe-Block)

A police officer in Santa Ana, El Salvador teaches a group of sixth graders how to use computers as part of the GREAT program. (Jude Joffe-Block)

US Seeks To Curb Central American Child Exodus With Youth Programs

CHALCHUAPA, El Salvador — The once-staggering number of Central American child migrants crossing the border has slowed dramatically in recent months. But to discourage future migration flows, many say the violence and poverty that helped trigger the exodus must be addressed.

Since 2008, the United States has spent $800 million on programs to combat drug trafficking, gangs, and crime in Central America through an aid package called the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has used some of those funds to create 140 youth outreach centers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in recent years. The agency hopes to add 100 more. New centers are being inaugurated each month in these countries.


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Wildlife biologist Dana Milani and landowner Bert Geary examine an adult female mountain lion. Geary is one of more than 50 landowners who've granted access to their land to study an animal that has been the historical object of scorn by many Texas ranchers. (Photo by Price Rumbelow)
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst delivering his concession speech after losing his re-election bid on May 27, 2014. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)
Each day, dozens of trucks hook up to the Gulf Coast-run fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, Texas. (Jennifer Whitney)
An oil rig south of Pyote, Texas, December 11, 2013. (KXWT/Tom Michael)
Gavin Hope. Credit: myspace.com/gavinhope
The Fort Davis band has returned to the field, but only as a volunteer effort. The band program was cut in February. (Lorne Matalon)

At Struggling Fort Davis ISD, Student Volunteers Revive the Band

Last month, a Travis County district judge ruled the state’s education finance system is unconstitutional.

Judge John Diez ruled the system doesn’t give schools enough money to meet state-approved standards, and that it puts too much of a burden on local taxpayers.

Fort Davis ISD is one of hundreds of other districts across the state trying to tackle budget shortfalls as that case makes its way through the courts. The state legislature cut more than $5 billion in funding in 2011.

View a timeline history of the battle over school funding in Texas, from the Houston Chronicle.

“In 2008 the state’s contribution to our budget was 68% – the state contribution to our budget last year was 28%,” says Superintendent Graydon Hicks. “That’s a problem.”

Meanwhile, the district has cut $3 million in spending over the last six years.

“We simply cannot keep up cutting spending fast enough to follow the cuts in funding,” he says.

Still, they’ve had to try.

The district doesn’t get a lot of money from enrollment – it only has about 200 students. So, they’ve frozen salaries and removed some staff positions. They also cut spending on extracurriculars, even getting rid of meals for student athletes when they travel.

The district also cut its track, tennis and golf programs among others, but the decision to get rid of the band has perhaps drawn the most attention.

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Gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis support greater border enforcement but differ on what the approach should be. (Texas Army National Guard)

How Would Greg Abbott And Wendy Davis Secure The Border?

This is the second in a week-long series of coordinated reports from KERA, the Dallas Morning News, and KXAS-TV (NBC 5). Five Days in October looks at where the leading candidates for governor stand on certain issues. 

Today, we look at border security and how Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis differ on deploying National Guard troops along the border.

This summer, Texas was in the national spotlight as thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America came across the border. Gov. Rick Perry said he was also worried the border was so porous drug cartels and human traffickers are crossing into Texas. So Perry ordered 1,000 National Guard troops and additional Department of Public Safety troopers to the border.

Greg Abbott, the Republican running for governor, wholeheartedly supported the effort.

“The federal government failed to do its job. The federal government has the fundamental responsibility to secure and protect our border,” Abbott said during a Sept. 19 televised debate in McAllen. “It failed in its fundamental responsibility. But Texas will not stand idly by.”

Democratic candidate Wendy Davis said she also supported extra law enforcement at the border. But during the debate in the Rio Grande Valley, she questioned the cost of sending the Guard – over $3 million a week. She suggested it might make more sense to increase local or department of public safety numbers instead.

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The Rio Grande near Lajitas, TX. Some worry a plan to pipe water from near Del Rio to the Permian Basin could harm the river. (TranceMist via Flickr)

Pipeline from the Border would bring Water to Permian Basin Towns

There’s a proposal on the table in Texas to pipe water from the borderlands region of Val Verde County – home to Del Rio – to 13 rural counties in the Permian Basin.

Despite the recent rains we’ve seen, the drought’s still a long-term problem for some parts of the Basin, and the Val Verde Water Company says it can help.

Reporter Alana Rocha joined us to talk about her story on the plan for the Texas Tribune. She spoke with the company, environmentalists opposed to the plan, and some city officials who have rejected similar proposals from V.V. Water in the past.

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The Midland International Air and Space Port (Blueag9 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sickened Airline Passenger in Midland Does Not Have Ebola

Update Wednesday 9:45 AM: City of Midland Spokesperson Sara Higgins has confirmed the sickened airline passenger transported to Midland Memorial Hospital (MMH) after landing in Midland does not have Ebola.

“Ebola has been completely ruled out,” Higgins says, noting that Midland Memorial Hospital officials came to the conclusion after further medical testing, blood draws, throat swabs and other physical evaluations.

The hospital says the passenger has not displayed a fever – one of the primary symptoms of the disease – and was not traveling to or from an “endemic” region. She was, however, traveling from Dallas, where the only person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. is still being treated.

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Pumpjack located south of Midland, Texas. (Eric Kounce/TexasRaiser)

Oil Gushers In West Texas Raise Expectations

Oil drillers are hitting “gushers” in West Texas. Wells drilled this summer are producing more than expected.

Statewide, drilling for oil and gas is running at an even faster pace than a year ago with over 20,000 wells drilled so far this year, some 3,000 more than in 2013 according to the Railroad Commission of Texas. But maybe nowhere in Texas is there as much excitement over how much oil is coming out of the ground than in a multi-county area south of Midland in West Texas.

“These wells are surpassing what they anticipated in the beginning two years ago,” said Gloria Baggett, economic development director of Big Lake.

Big Lake has a population 7,600. That’s more than double from just two years ago.

Drillers are rushing in, expected to sink hundreds, maybe thousands of new wells in the next few years.

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