Man, Wildlife Nourished by Playas
‘Man About Texas’ Series
By Russell Graves
Field Correspondent, sportsandoutdoors.guru
SPEARMAN, Texas — It’s late January in the far north Texas Panhandle, and like the rest of Texas, it’s dry. Over the past four years, rainfall has been scant and dust wafts from the land with even the slightest puff of wind. The thirsty ground is parched, yet Spearman rancher Bob Pearson and I are in search of Panhandle wetlands.
Creeping along in Pearson’s truck, we ease past a wagon trail whose deep, grass-covered ruts cut an old road that leads from the Canadian River bottom north across the shortgrass plain. Soon we are at the edge of a 60-acre sunken depression. The broad, round spot is a playa (rhymes with hi-ya) lake, and it is one of an estimated 19,000 shallow water basins that make up a huge complex of wetlands that stretch from as far north as western Nebraska southward through the edge of Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle and extending south to near Lubbock. Although the lake is dry now, and no longer a lake at all, the thick and dormant vegetation hints of a wetter time in the recent past.
Around the ancient low spot, I don’t see much in the way of traditional agricultural manipulations, like row-cropping or terracing. Pearson, along with his brother and ranching partner, Doc, are past winners of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward award. They both enjoy the fact that their family ranch is largely unchanged by man’s influence.
“This land has been in my family since the 1940s,” explains Pearson. “My dad got this ranch from the family who originally homesteaded the place back in the 1880s. Since I can remember, my dad loved the playa lakes on this ranch, and he was careful to never plow around the lakes for fear they would silt.” Pearson, now in his 60s, plans to continue managing the ranch in the same way his dad did. “My dad was a conservationist before anyone knew what the word meant. He instilled an ethic in me to take care of this ranch and take care of the lakes.”
Even now, when the lake is bone dry, Pearson still finds beauty in the wetland.
“When the playa is wet, all kinds of waterfowl and birds flock in here,” he says. “When it’s dry, wildlife still uses the lake. I won’t be surprised if we see … ” He pauses and points to the east. In the grass, 50 yards away, I see the unmistakable form of deer antlers sticking up through the dried smartweed.
In the taller weeds around the lake’s margin, I see a couple of gray bodies slipping through the weeds. “There are always mule deer hanging out in these lake bottoms. They’ll bed in the high weeds and feed on some of the plants that grow in the wet soil.”
In the course of an hour, I see jackrabbits, mule deer, a few whitetails, quail and numerous songbirds around the 60-acre playa. These animals are not typically associated with wetlands, but these species – and many more — benefit from the native habitat provided by these shallow basins.