Critical habitat is closer than you think – Rice University students create a Habitat Conservation Plan to support wildlife in our city

Across the world, species are rapidly disappearing before our eyes. This is a biodiversity crisis. Urbanization has caused habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation, which contribute to the decrease in global biodiversity. At Rice University, fifteen students signed up for Dr. Cassidy Johnson’s Conservation Biology Lab in hopes of making changes on their campus and in their city to protect and enhance the local biodiversity. These students are creating and communicating their desires to implement a Habitat Conservation Plan at Rice University in order to contribute to urban conservation efforts right here in Houston. Their project tackles specific biodiversity concerns including critical habitat, bird conservation, pollinator gardens, medicinal gardens, carbon sequestration, and wetland restoration.

The following piece is written by students in the Conservation Biology Lab who are taking part in developing that plan. This is the first post in a series.

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When people walk through the Rice University campus they might appreciate the shade of one of the 2,000 live oaks while their dogs or children play in the grass. This place of study and research provides an important resource of greenspace for the surrounding Houston community. But what may go overlooked is the biodiversity that the campus holds. 
The Conservation Biology Lab class at Rice is bringing biodiversity and the importance of preserving wildlife in an urban setting to center stage. They have been tasked with creating a Habitat Conservation Plan for the campus to ensure Rice protects its biodiversity for years to come. 
For one portion of the project, we are designating 15 acres of the campus as critical habitat. Critical habitat is a geographical area that is essential for the conservation of a species. Using data from the iNaturalist app, we identified areas of campus that currently harbor a high level of biodiversity, such as the Harris Gully Natural Area seen here. Additionally, we determined areas with high potential for biodiversity by looking at their current functions such as water retention and pollinator habitat.
By assigning these areas as critical habitat, we are proposing restrictions as to what the university can and cannot do within them. Preventing actions such as development and over-mowing can have a large impact on the success of a species. For example, the northeast side of campus provides a large understory area for many bird species. Designating this area as critical habitat would prevent the university from ever potentially clearing that area for development, and will ensure this ideal bird habitat will remain intact on campus. 
Other portions of the project include specific conservation actions within the critical habitat areas to support specific taxa including birds, amphibians, pollinators, and native plants, as well as calculating the impact of these projects on Rice’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2038. The Houston Audubon was a key resource in developing our Habitat Conservation Plan, providing bird-friendly recommendations as well as a native plant list. 
Urban conservation is becoming increasingly important as cities expand, which makes projects such as these crucial to the well-being of our environment. Even areas in the middle of Houston have the potential to support high biodiversity and we hope this project will set a precedent for the rest of Houston to encourage action in protecting small pockets of land even within the city! 
We were surprised by some of the areas that our analysis identified, such as a neglected ditch shown below that supports the highest insect diversity on campus. 
This goes to show that any area has the potential to support important species, and that small protected areas can accumulate to a large impact. 
So what can you do at home to support critical habitats? 
  • Don’t over-mow your lawn, especially in high water retention areas which provide insects with habitat, and birds with food 
  • Plant native species and increase plant diversity to provide a variety of resources to your local species for both food and habitat
  • Encourage your neighbors to do the same! Connected habitat patches allow for an even  higher level of biodiversity than one lawn alone
Authors:
Jessica Alanis and Ellen McMullen are seniors at Rice University. Jessica is studying environmental science and Ellen is studying bioengineering and ecology & evolutionary biology. They undertook this project as a part of Dr. Cassidy Johnson’s Conservation Biology Lab class in the Rice University BioSciences Department.

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