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Ecoregions of Texas

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1 Ecoregions of Texas



4 What is an ecoregion? A relatively large unit of land or water that is characterized by a distinctive climate, ecological features and plant and animal communities (Source: National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth

5 23. Arizona/New Mexico Mountains
The Arizona/New Mexico Mountains are distinguished from neighboring ecoregions by their lower elevations and an associated vegetation indicative of drier, warmer environments, due in part to the region’s more southerly location. Forests of spruce, fir, and Douglas-fir, common in the Southern Rockies (21) and the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains (19), are only found in limited areas at the highest elevations in this region in Arizona and New Mexico. Chaparral is common at lower elevation; pinyon-juniper and oak woodlands are found at lower and middle elevations; and the higher elevations, outside of Texas, have mostly open to dense ponderosa pine forests. Once part of a marine reef in a tropical ocean more than 250 million years ago, El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak now reach over 8000 feet in elevation. Photo: Gary Stolz, USFWS Pine, fir and hardwoods are found in patches on the upper or cooler slopes of Ecoregion 23. Photo: National Park Service El Capitan on the left is 8085 feet, and Guadalupe Peak on the right is the highest elevation in Texas at 8749 feet. Photo: Phil Gavenda Upper McKittrick Canyon vegetation in Ecoregion 23b includes juniper, ash, oak, Texas madrone, and bigtooth maple with some ponderosa pine at higher elevations. Photo: National Park Service

6 The Chihuahuan Desert Slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas form the leading edge of a giant uplifted Permian reef created from the accumulated remains of algae, sponges, and marine bivalves. The 2--- foot high, white cliff face of the southern Guadalupe Mountains dominates the landscape of the northern Trans-Pecos of Texas. The lower slopes of the mountains, composed of eroded limestone, shale and sandstone, represent a continuation of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem; soils and vegetation in much of Ecoregion 23a are similar to those in the Low Mountains and Bajadas (24c) of the Chihuahuan Deserts ecoregion (24). There is some evidence that the lower Guadalupe Mountains were once grasslands overgrazed in the late 19th century and subsequently invaded by desert shrubs. Yucca, sotol, lechuguilla, ocotillo, and cacti now dominate the rocky slopes below 5500 feet. These shrub species are sometimes called succulent desert shrubs to distinguish them from shrubs such as creosotebush typically found in the drier Chihuahuan Basins and Playas (24a). Grasslands persist near alluvial fans and on gentle slopes with deeper, sandstone-derived soils. Water is scarce; the few streams that originate from springs at higher elevations do not persist beyond the mouths of major canyons. Several lizard species that are adapted to the exposed, sun-baked landscape of West Texas are indicative of the succulent desert shrubland: the round-tailed lizard, the checkered whiptail, and the greater earless lizard. The Montane Woodlands ecoregion covers the higher slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains above 2500 feet with densities of juniper, pinyon pine, and oak varying according to aspect. At middle elevations, a chaparral community occurs beneath the trees, composed of shrubs such as desert ceanothus, alderleaf mountain mahogany, and catclaw mimosa. The top of the plateau is grassy and park-like with scattered trees. A limited area of Douglas-fir, southwestern white pine, and ponderosa pine appears at the highest elevations, forming an outlier of the type of forests that prevail at similar elevations elsewhere in the Arizona/New Mexico Mountains (23) where more moisture is available. However, these patches of high elevation conifers are too small to map at this scale. The east and west faces of the Guadalupe Mountains are cut by a series of canyons. Surface water is scarce. Infiltrating rainfall percolates through the limestone, creating caverns throughout the range and a few springs that emerge from sandstone layers 6000 feet or below. The canyons support a high number of endemic plant species due in part to their isolation as relics of a wetter climate. McKittrick Creek is considered a perennial stream, although it often runs underground and ends at the mouth of its canyon. The riparian areas surrounding the springs are oases of velvet ash, chinkapin oak, Texas madrone, bigtooth maple, maidenhair fern, and sawgrass. Mule deer, reintroduced elk, black bear, mountain lion, and the only chipmunk in Texas, the gray-footed chipmunk, are protected within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

7 24. Chihuahuan Deserts This desert ecoregion extends from the Madrean Archipelago in southeastern Arizona to the Edwards Plateau in south-central Texas. The physiography of the region is generally a continuation of basin and range terrain (excluding the Stockton Plateau) that is typical of the Mojave Basin and Range (14) and the Central Basin and Range (13) ecoregions to the west and north, although the pattern of alternating mountains and valleys is not as pronounced as it is in Ecoregions 13 and 14. The mountain ranges are a geologic mix of faulted limestone reefs, volcanoes and associated basalt, rhyolite, and tuff extrusive rocks. Outside the major river drainages, such as the Rio Grande and Pecos River, the landscape is largely internally drained. Vegetative cover is predominantly semi-desert grassland and arid shrubland, except for high elevation islands of oak, juniper, and pinyon pine woodland. The extent of desert shrubland is increasing across lowlands and mountain foothills due to gradual desertification cause din part by historical grazing pressure. The Chihuahuan Deserts ecoregion contains great contrasts and variation in both topography and vegetation. It includes desert flats and valleys, bolson drainages, plateaus, sand hills, and mountain ranges. Grasslands, shrublands, cactus savannas, and mountain woodlands occur. Photo: Michael Farhi The area generally west of the Pecos River in Texas is often called the Trans-Pecos. It occupies the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends south nearly 500 miles into Mexico. Shown here is Croton Peak in the northern part of Big Bend National Park. Photo: USGS

8 24. Chihuahuan Deserts The Chihuahuan Basins and Playas ecoregion includes alluvial fans, internally drained basins, and river valleys below 3500 feet. The major Chihuahuan basins in Ecoregion 24a, such as Hueco, Salt, and Presidio basins, formed during the Basin and Range tectonism when the Earth’s crust stretched and fail collapse resulted in sediment-filled basins. These low elevation areas represent the hottest and most arid habitats in Texas, with less than 12 inches of precipitation per year. Precipitation amounts are highest in July, August, and Spetember, and winter precipitation is relatively sparse. The playas and basin floors have saline or alkaline soils and areas of salt flats, dunes, and windblown sand. They typical desert shrubs and grasses growing in these enviornmens, such as creosotebush, tarbush, fourwing saltbrush, blackbrush, gyp grama, and alkali sacaton, must withstand large diurnal ranges in temperature, low available moisture, and an extremely high evapotranspiration rate. The alien saltcedar and common reed have invaded riparian areas. Land use, particularly grazing, is limited in desert areas due to sparse vegetation and lack of water. However, limited areas of agriculture exist near El Paso and Dell City, where irrigation water is available to produce cottong, pecans, alfalfa, tomatoes, onions, and chile peppers. The Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands occur in areas of fine-textured soils, such as silts and clays, that have a higher water retention capacity than coarse-textured, rock soil. The grasslands occur in areas of somewhat higher annual precipitation (10 to 18 inches) than the Chihuahuan Basins and Playas (24a), such as elevated basins between mountain ranges, low mountain benches and plateau tops, and north-facing high mountain slopes. Grasslands in West Texas were once more widespread, but grazing pressure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was insustainable, and desert shrubs invaded where the grass cover became fragmented. In grassland areas with lower rainfall, areal coverage of grasses may be sparse, 10% or less. Typical grasses are black, blue, and sidoats grams, bush muhly, tobosa, beargrass, and gallets, with scattered creosotebush and cholla cactus. Effective management strategies for grasslands take into account their fragile and erosive nature. The low mountains and Bajadas ecoregion includes disjunct areas scattered across West Texas that have a mixed geology: Permian-age sandstone, limestone, and shale in the Apache and Delaware Mountains; Cretaceous-age limestone on the Stockton Plateau and southward along the Rio Grande; and Tertiary –age volcanic rocks in the Chisos and Davis

9 The low mountains and Bajadas ecoregion includes disjunct areas scattered across West Texas that have a mixed geology: Permian-age sandstone, limestone, and shale in the Apache and Delaware Mountains; Cretaceous-age limestone on the Stockton Plateau and southward along the Rio Grande; and Tertiary –age volcanic rocks in the Chisos and Davis Mountains. The mountainour terrain has shallow soil, exposed bedrock, and coarse rocky substrates. Alluvial fans of rubble, sand, and gravel build at the base of the mountains and often coalesce to form bajadas. Vegetation includes mostly desert shrubs, such as sotol, lechuguilla, yucca, ocotillo, lotebush, tarbush, and pricklypear, with a sparse intervening cover of black grama and other grasses. At higher elevations, there may be scattered one-seeded juniper and pinyon pine. Strips of gray oak, velvet aah, and little walnut etch the patterns of intermittent and ephemeral drainages, and oask may spread up north-facing slopes from the riparian zones. The varied habitat provide cover for mule deer, bobcat, collared peccary, and Montezuma quail. The Chihuahuan Montane Woodlands ecoregion comprises the higher elevation mountainous areas above 5000 feet, mainly in the Chisos, Davis, Glass, and Apache Mountains. Increased precipitation in the mountains supports woodland areas except on sunny, exposed slopes that may have grass and chaparral only. Springs are few even at high elevations and mid-elevation streams may flow only during heavy rains. Oaks, junipers, and pinyon pines predominate on all these mountain ranges. Ponderosa pine and some relict Douglas-fir grow at the highest elevations in the Chisos Mountains. Higher elevation elk. sites in the Davis Mountains also support ponderosa pine, southwestern white pine, and whiteleaf oak forests. In these ranges, trees sometimes grow with a grassy understory, or with a brush cover of bigtooth maple, madrone, little walnut, oak chaparral, and grapevines. The higher mountainous areas are a major refuge for larger ungulates, such as mule deer, desert bighorn sheep and reintroduced The Stockton Plateau ecoregion is similar geologically to the Edwards Plateau (30), but it differs ecologically. Geologically, it is a continuation of the Cretaceous-age limestone that forms the Edwards Plateau, but it is located west of the Pecos River in the dry climatic conditions of West Texas. The character of Ecoregion 24e is transitional to the arid grassland and desert shrub habitats of the Chihuahuan Desert to the west. Its kmesa topography is more sharply defined than the rounded profiles of hills in the Edwards Plateau due to lack of precipitation and associated chemical weathering. The mesa tops are sparsely covered by honey mesquite brush and wither redberry or Ashe juniper. Mohr oak and Vasey oak, both shrubby in growth form, replace the plateau live oak that is common to the Edwards Plateau. The lower elevations on the Stockton Plateau are covered with Chihuahuan Desert shrubs and grama grasses.


11 The High Plains The Rolling Sand Plains expand northward from the lip of the Canadian River though, and they are topographically expressed as flat sandy plains of rolling dunes. In northern Texas, the vegetative cover of the Rolling Sand Plains is transitional between the Shinnery Sands (25j) to the south and the sandsage prairies of Oklahoma and Kansas. Harvard shin oak, the characteristic shrub cover of the Shinnery Sands, still grows in the Texas portion of Ecoregion 25b, but it is at the northern limit of its distribution. However, both Harvard shin oak and sand sagebrush perform the same important function of stabilizing sandy areas subject to wind erosion. The goal of both agricultural and grazing management is to keep enough vegetative cover on the land surface to minimize wind erosion. The sandsage association includes grasses such as big sandreed, little bluestem, sand dropseed, and sand bluestem. Lesser prairie-chickens use both shin oak and sandsage prairie habitats, but are presently imperiled due to agricultural conversion to modern farming practices as well as intensive grazing. Canadian/Cimarron High Plains ecoregion includes that portion of the Llano Estacado that lies north of the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. Winters are more severe than on the Llano Estacado (25i); the increased snow accumulation delays summer drought conditions because the snowmelt saturates the ground in the spring season. Although the topography of 25e is just as flat as the rest of the Llano Estacado, the northern portion has fewer playas, and it is more deeply dissected by stream channels. There is also more grazing land in Ecoregion 25e; the rougher terrain near the stream incisions tends to be grazed rather than tilled. In cultivated areas, corn, winter wheat, and grain sorghum are the principal crops.

12 The Llano Ecoregion, translated as the “Staked Plain”, is an elevates plain surrounded by escarpments on three sides. Geologically, the Llano Estacado began as an apron of Miocene-Pliocene sediments (Ogallala Formation) eroded from the eastern Rocky Mountains that was eventually covered by Pleistocene wind-borne sand and silt. Several caliche horizons developed in the Ogallala sediments, including a hardened caprock caliche in the plain from the Rockies, isolating the Llano Estacado and truncating the drainage areas of the Red, Brazos, and Colorado rivers of Texas. As a result, the dry plain, cut off from a mountain surface water source and with little slope to induce runoff, has a very low drainage density. Instead, the smooth surface of the plain holds seasonal rainfall in myriads of small intermittent ponds or playas. The Llano Estacado was once covered with shortgrass prairie, composed of buffalograss, blue and sideoats grama, and little bluestem. An estimated 7 million bison once populated the southern High Plains. They were the most prominent elements of a prairie ecosystem that no longer functions as an interdependent web of bison, black-tailed prairie dog, black-footed ferret, snake, ferruginous hawk, coyote, swift fox, deer, pronghorn, mountain lion, and gray wolf. The Llano Estacado is presently 97% tilled for agriculture. Farmers produce cotton, corn, and wheat under dryland agriculture or irrigated with water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer. In the era before irrigation, agriculture was not sustainable during drought cycles; the Llano Estacado formed the core of the Dust Bowl during the drought years of the 1930’s. The capacity of the Ogallala Aquifer is limited, particularly under drought conditions emphasizing the need for enhancement and expansion of ongoing water conservation practices for agricultural and urban users.

13 The Shinnery Sands ecoregion is named for the Harvard Oak brush that stablizes sandy ares subject to wind erosion. The disjunct areas include sand hills and dunes as well as flat sandy recharge areas. The largest area, at the southwestern edge of the Llano Estacado, is composed of sands mostl likely blown out of the Pecos River Basin against the western escarpment of the Llano Estacado. While sand sagebrush and prairie grasses such as sand dropseed, sand bluestem, and big sandreed may create a continuous plant cover in many portions of Ecoregion 25j, the shrub and forb cover may be sparse in dune areas. The shinnery sands are habitat for the elsser prairie-chicken, a species that is in serious decline. The shrubs offer cover and shade for nesting, and shin oak acorns are a staple food source. The decline of the prairie-chicken is linked to the conversion of shinnery to other uses. The Arid Llano Estacado ecoregion is drier than the main portion of the Llano Estacado (25i) to the north. Its climate is transitional to the arid Trans-Pecos region to the southwest (Ecoregion 24). It has somewhat more broken topography and fewer playas than the plain (25i) to the north. There is also less winter precipitation and snow cover to provide lasting moisture over the summer months. The arid conditions are reflected in the land use, which is dominated by livestock grazing and more recently irrigated peanut production. Oil and gas production activities are widespread.


15 26. Southwestern Tablelands
The Canadian/Cimmaron breaks ecoregion is a broad erosional incision between the High Plains (25) and the Central Great Plains (27). During the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene, the Canadian River carried much more water than it does today, in Draining the meltwater from glaciers in the Rocky Mountains to the west. The river’s erosional force was great enough to cause the headward erosion of the edge of the High Plains. The dissolution of underlying salt beds and subsequent collapse of overlying rocks helped to create the deep trench of the Canadian River. Erosion has not penetrated deeply enough in the Texas portion of this region, however, to expose the Permian red beds that are prominent in the Cimarron Breaks to the north and east. The primary surficial deposit is in the Ogallala Formation. The Flat Tablelands and Valleys ecoregion includes islands of level land between the prominent buttes, badlands, and excarpments of the tablelands. Geologically, the surficial composition of these flat areas may be undissected Triassic or Permian red beds, or (In western portions) the Ogallala caprock that is found on the Llano Estacado (25i) to the west. The soils are predominantly fine sandy loams or silt loams; as a result, most of Ecoregion 26b has been tilled to produce cotton, sorghum, and wheat. There is a trend toward desertification in Ecoregion 26 which is more subtle than that in the Chihuahuan Desert country of West Texas (24). Fragments of remaining native prairie are composed of mid-height grasses, such as sideoats grama and blue grama, typical of a wetter climate. Where the land has been intensively grazed, short grasses such as buffalograss predominate, and invading cacti and honey mesquite are common. Saltcedars are replacing native vegetation in riparian areas.





























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