Featuring the remarkable Lower Rio Grande Valley
By Keith W. Hackland
This South Texas Nature Reports are written for visitors from North America and Overseas who have never visited Tropical South Texas. It is also for local Rio Grande Valley residents who want to find out why so many thousands of visitors show up here with strange accents and carrying optics.
Waves of people from north and south of the Rio Bravo, today called the Rio Grande, who began settling the Lower Rio Grande Valley 100 years ago, named this the “Magic Valley”. They were very impressed with this unique corner of United States, recognizing the magical biodiversity that today we are just beginning to quantify.
As far back as records go, the area was first inhabited by nomadic Karankawa Indians, with European and Mexican settlement led by ranchers and missions in the 1700s. Then in the early 1900s there was a major influx of farmers from the Mid-West. They purchased farms of tens to several hundred acres and employed workers from Mexico to clear trees, level land, and develop an extensive irrigation system. The farm workers from Mexico also settled here and so the population grew.
This is a floodplain, where temperate semi-desert lands, brush lands, and grassy plains meet and mingle with sub-tropic vegetation and riparian forest, river and resacas (ox-bow lakes), lagoons and ocean. It lies under the converging Eastern and Central bird migration routes of North America as they round the Gulf of Mexico. It is a southerly scoop of Texas intruding into Mexico.
Biologically this is the richest, most diverse area in United States. The flora of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is known collectively as Tamaulipan brushland. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has defined 11 distinct biotic communities (flora and related fauna), sharing this small four county area, up to 40 miles wide by 140 miles long, running west along the Rio Grande River from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to Falcon Dam in Starr County. The communities identified are:
1. Clay Loma / Wind Tidal Flats
2. Coastal Brushland Potholes
3. Sabal Palm Forest
4. Mid-Valley Riparian Woodland
5. Mid-Delta Thorn Forest
6. Woodland Potholes and Basins
7. Upland Thorn Scrub
9. Upper Valley Floor Forest
11. Chihuahuan Thorn Forest
303 of the 624 Texas bird species of the 930 U.S. bird species, and 300 of the 500 U.S. butterfly species are found here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This very rich wildlife attracts an equivalent wealth of Wildlife Watchers. The LRGV the most popular destination in North America for birders and butterfliers. Other fauna and the flora are also rich and unique, attracting a share of attention from Wildlife Watchers as well.
The area has three National Wildlife Refuges, the world famous Santa Ana N.W.R., Laguna Atascosa N.W.R., and Lower Rio Grande Valley N.W.R.. It has numerous state, county, city, non-profit, and for profit refuges and sanctuaries, all richly endowed with flora and fauna, many quite different from each other. Not all of the eleven biotic communities are yet represented on protected lands, so setting aside additional conservation sanctuaries is a continuing concern.
There are just four counties, with a population of almost 1,000,000, and about 2,000,000 people on the Mexico side. Urban development is expanding fast into the extensive irrigated and dry intensive cultivated land and ranching land. Clearing of native brush continues on both sides of the river. The local culture is a blend of Texas and Mexico, producing a very attractive and unique milieu that intrigues visitors and is much loved by residents.
The poorest county in United States lies in the LRGV. Economic development is a priority. This is one of the fastest expanding population and urban areas in U.S., posing many threats to the survival of its unique native flora and fauna. During the past 100 years 95% to 99% of the land on the Texas side of the river has been cleared. This means the LRGV is not only the most diverse part of U.S., but also the most threatened.
97% of the land in the LRGV is in private ownership. This means participation of private land owners in improving wildlife habitat and the future of Wildlife Watching is critical.
A product of these converging interests, the LRGV has become a development hot bed of services for Wildlife Watchers. The LRGV attracts some of the most knowledgeable naturalists and biologists in the nation. It attracts innovative and successful nature tourism professionals, top nature photographers, writers, and artists, non-profit and commercial nature ventures. Novel and effective Wildlife Watching ventures are under way, many of them partnerships of government, city economic development corporations, chambers of commerce, travel facilities, non-profit groups, and for profit entrepreneurs, who develop, package, market and present the LRGV’s nature resources to Wildlife Watchers from across North America and Europe. Although hard statistics are tough to come by, it is safe to say that over 200,000 Wildlife Watchers a year currently visit the LRGV, coming primarily from North America and Europe, mostly between September and May. They spend over $34,000,000 in the area, and create over 2,000 jobs. Researchers tell us that the number of Wildlife Watchers visiting the LRGV is expected to increase to 2,000,000 a year over the next 10 to 20 years.
Welcome to the magical Texas tropics…