What Do You Mean There’s an Endangered Species on My Lot?

Houston ToadHere’s the scenario. You’ve just closed on the most beautiful piece of property you’ve ever seen. You stand at the top of your hill and gaze across beautiful green rolling hills and trees for as far as you can see. You look down at that lovely little creek running through the back of your property that has a trickle of water in it since all the spring rains. You sigh contentedly and imagine what it’s going to feel like to sit on your back porch, drinking coffee, reading the paper, listening to the birds chirp and the gentle sound of running water.

Then you hear a voice from behind you.

“Hey, my name’s Jim. You the new owner?”

“Yes, I am,” you say.

“How did you get them to let you build on this lot?” asks Jim. “ You know the previous owners tried to build on this lot for about 15 years. There’s an endangered species that lives on it. Funny thing is, though, no one’s ever seen one of those Houston Toads up here!”

Do we have a lot of endangered species in Texas?

Believe it or not, our biologically diverse Texas just happens to be home to 91 different threatened and endangered animal and plant species. Of those 91 endangered species in Texas, 63 are animal species.

In central Texas alone, there are 19 endangered animal species. This wild and beautiful area, with its milder climate and usually plentiful water, is perfect for quite a few living creatures. It’s also home to more Habitat Conservation Plans than any other region of the United States. Texas alone has eight different biological districts.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency that administers the Federal Endangered Species Act. Here in Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is the governmental agency that handles it for our state. All kinds of species lists are available on line. Some species are on the federally endangered species lists. Some are only on the Texas endangered lists. Some species are on both lists. With a world count of some 1,000 species on the threatened or endangered list, there’s a lot of information out there.

I just want to build a house. I won’t disturb anything.

Sure. But there are some things you need to be aware of.

First, before you purchase property, ask your realtor if there are any endangered species to be concerned about. Apparently, there’s no legal requirement to disclose the existence of endangered species.

If your realtor doesn’t know, call the folks at Texas Parks and Wildlife for the county where the property is located. They can give you all the information you need.

So what might happen if I’m in an endangered species zone?

It depends on the species and on exactly where your property is located.

For example, the Houston Toad is an endangered species found primarily in Bastrop County now, although the toad has been spotted in surrounding counties. To protect endangered species like the Houston Toad, Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP’s) have been put into place that revolve around maintaining natural habitats for these species -- protection of plants, soil and water sources it needs to breed and survive, and the like. In Bastrop, the HCP is called the Lost Pines Habitat Conservation Plan.

What can I do?

As a prospective property owner, you need to understand your choices for building on the property.

You might have to follow the steps and pay certain fees to get a construction certificate allowing you to build on that property. These construction certificates provide you certain assurances -- through the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “No Surprises” policy -- that no additional mitigation will be required. In the case of the Houston Toad, a construction certificate will cost you $150.00.

If you’re not legally bound to get a construction certificate, you’ll want to understand the legal and monetary consequences if an endangered species is discovered on your property.

You might have the choice to participate at different levels to preserve endangered species on your property. There are a couple of directions you can go with this that afford you different legal protections. Each HCP has its own rules and guidelines. Back to the Houston Toad, the mitigation fee could be $1,500 per half (0.5) acre; the cost varies depending on the path you choose to go with your property.

Incentive programs to assist private landowners in protecting and managing habitats for all wildlife, including rare species, can have a direct and positive impact on their conservation. Texas Parks and Wildlife offers the Landowner Incentive Program. It provides financial incentives that encourage landowners to help conserve habitats for rare and declining species. The flexible program is available to all private landowners who want to voluntarily do their part to help out an endangered species.

What happens first?

One of the first steps is a visit from an agent from Texas Parks & Wildlife who will inspect the property for signs of the species in question. For example, in the Lost Pines HCP, the Houston Toad’s mating season typically runs January through June, which might mean limited to no construction activity during those six months.

Will I also need to get a permit or something?

Maybe. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species program issues three basic types of permits:

  • Incidental take permits
  • Enhancement of survival permits
  • Recovery and interstate commerce permits

Read details at the U. S. Fish AND Wildlife Service Endangered Special Program web site.

So can I build on my property or not?

Most likely, yes.

It might cost you a little extra.

But . . . build a house while helping to preserve a great little toad that will sing beautifully to me from January to June? I’m good with that!

Just call the friendly folks at Texas Parks and Wildlife and be aware you might have some additional fees and applications to fill out to build your dream house in the Hill Country.