By Randy Lee Loftis
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS A ritual of nature is happening in the woody hills around Austin and San Antonio. The first golden-cheeked warblers, with brilliant yellow faces streaked with black, have arrived from Mexico and Central America to raise their young.
The Texas Hill Country is the only place on Earth where this little songbird, an endangered species, makes its nest. The region’s canyons, springs, and caverns also house 16 other endangered species – a menagerie of odd animals and plants, some existing in just one spot, some blind, some of them beetles just 1/8-inch long. Some are so rare that they don’t yet have common names. In summer, this region is home to the world’s largest colony of bats, numbering in the millions, which makes it the largest gathering of mammals on Earth.
Yet the Hill Country is also a land of malls, sprawl, and rush-hour standstills. With growth fueled by high tech, finance, and manufacturing, and flavored by arts, music and tourism, the Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas have 4.3 million people now. By 2050 the population could reach 9.4 million and form a single urban expanse 125 miles long.
As people push deeper into the homes of endangered species in one of the U.S’s fastest growing regions, a question arises that’s being asked in other population hotspots around the world: Can we keep wildlife healthy in a boomtown? Based on the Hill Country’s example, no one knows.
Efforts to protect endangered species by protecting their habitats have to stay ahead of construction crews.
“It’s under assault right now like no other place I’m aware of,” says conservationist Andrew Sansom, research professor of geography and executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos.
Unbridled development could doom the Government Canyon Bat Cave meshweaver, Texas wild rice, Texas blind salamander, and others. Already, people have converted about 90 percent of the region’s savannas–among the world’s most important–to pasture, other agriculture, or cities, the World Wildlife Fund says.
If anyplace needs to reconcile conservation and commerce, it’s Central Texas. Development in the Hill Country –formally known as the Edwards Plateau – is happening directly on top of the chief drinking water supply for millions of people, including San Antonio, the seventh largest U.S. city.
Street signs remind drivers when they’re entering the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, an underground formation of pitted, sponge-looking rock 300-700 feet thick that has given people water for thousands of years. The aquifer is often exposed at the surface. As rainfall and rivers replenish it, pollutants such as spilled gasoline can slip in as well.