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Dixon Water Foundation heals land with livestock

This feature story was written for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine in November 2017. Read it here

When Casey Wade stepped onto the high desert grassland of Mimms Ranch in West Texas, he found the ground as hard as asphalt and dusty beneath his boots. The land was balding, its carpet of greenish-blond grass receding, leaving parched bare patches sprinkled across the rolling desert plains.

“The land was so dry,” says Wade, the vice president of ranching operations for the Dixon Water Foundation. “There were large patches of bare ground, and it just baked in the sun – it became like concrete with a hard crust on it, and nothing grew.”

That was in 2010. The 11,000-acre parcel had just been purchased by the Dixon Water Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating healthy watersheds through sustainable land management.

In the following years, Wade and the other members of the small foundation set to work to restore this land to its natural state — the short-grass prairie environment that dominated this part of West Texas before the arrival of European settlers. Their management system, called adaptive multi-paddock grazing, used only one tool: livestock.

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Key to the prairie: how one small species affects an entire grassland ecosystem

This story was written for J360F: Portfolio, and includes infographics, interactives, vidoes, and a photo gallery. View the entire story here.

Over 100 years ago, one Texas town stretched across 25,000 square miles of the Panhandle plains, and housed a population nearly 200 times the size of Houston’s. The 400 million residents of this town rose and retired early, kissed each other by way of greeting, and shared their homes with animals of all kinds.

But these were not human settlers; they were black-tailed prairie dogs, chubby herbivorous rodents known for their extensive networks of burrows and hailed as the “chicken McNuggets of the grasslands.

Their colonies, called towns, still dot the Texas prairie today. But since the early 1900s, the black-tailed prairie dog population has declined by over 95 percent, as the millions of acres they once covered dwindled due to agriculture and development. Now, the area of land occupied by prairie dogs hovers around two million acres across the entire Great Plains region.

Continue reading here.

Biologists seek assistance from anglers in tracking American Eel in Texas waterways

The original press release can be found here on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website.

AUSTIN — Every now and then, anglers fishing Texas waterways may reel in something unexpected: the slimy, secretive American Eel.

“[The American Eel] is just such a unique species that you don’t see that often, and so when you catch one or you see one, you remember it,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) aquatic biologist Stephen Curtis. “It’s going to leave an impression.”

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Texas receives funding to combat white-nose syndrome in bats

The original press release can be found here on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website.

AUSTIN – The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) will receive $30,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to research and combat white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease affecting bats across North America.

The FWS grant, which consists of over $1 million divided among 37 states plus the District of Columbia, brings the total funding for white-nose syndrome response in the U.S. to $7 million over the past 8 years. Texas’ portion of the grant will be used for testing bats in Texas for signs of the disease, as well as developing methods to prevent the spread of the disease-causing fungus and treat any potentially affected bats.

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Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Council awards $1.8 million in grants

The original press release can be found here on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website.

AUSTIN — Last week, the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Council approved over $1.8 million in funding for seven diverse projects spanning the Gulf Coast to the Red River, to the Piney Woods of East Texas, and the Texas Hill Country. The properties, which encompass over 16,000 acres of high-value working lands across Texas, will be permanently protected from development and fragmentation under a perpetual conservation easement each held by one of several land trusts operating in the state.

This year’s projects include land with a variety of uses, including longleaf pine forest and timber plantation, rotating crop organic farmland, and cattle ranches. The easements will protect working farm and ranch lands that also provide critical habitat for rare birds and other wildlife, valuable springs and waterways, and threatened plant communities. (more…)

Low-income Austin children have poor economic prospects in contrast with low-income UT students

This story was written for J339T: Mapping in Storytelling, Spring 2017.

Travis County may be one of the worst in the nation in terms of upward mobility, but if Austin students can make it to the University of Texas they have a much better chance of improving their economic situation, according to a new study.

The research, the latest from Stanford University  researcher Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity project, uses tax data to track the financial path of graduates from colleges across the US.

On average, American college grads from poor families have a 34.3 percent chance of working their way up to the top income quintile. UT Austin, Texas’ second-largest public university, beats the national average by 10.2 percentage points, better than every public school in Texas except its old rival Texas A&M. For perspective, a person at the the bottom income quintile makes around $30,000 in a year. Top-quintile earners receive more than $100,000 per year.greenwithextraarrow (more…)

Local Rabbi: Why I write for a Jewish erotica website

It was, without a doubt, an attention-grabbing headline: “Meet the jazz-playing, erotica-writing rabbi who planned a trip to Arafat’s grave.”

The headline was published by the Jewish news outlet The Forward, and refers to Austin Rabbi Neil Blumofe, who recently made news for scheduling a trip to the grave of former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Blumofe is the senior rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim, a synagogue in west Austin.

Although it sounds exaggerated, the headline is not far from true–Blumofe does indeed play jazz on his tenor sax, he did plan the trip the Arafat’s grave (although not for the reasons many media outlets claimed) and yes–starting in 2013, Blumofe has been a fairly regular contributor to the website “Jewrotica.”

“Jewrotica” contains a compilation of various short stories, articles, and analyses centered around the theme of Jewish sexuality. The homepage is a hot-pink-and-black collage of suggestive or borderline explicit pictures, and the logo features silhouettes of a naked couple, their crotches covered by white stars of David. (more…)

Experts still disagree on role of Tower shooter’s brain tumor

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Illustration by Melanie Westfall for The Daily Texan

Smart, strong, talented and popular, the young Charles Whitman seemed, outwardly, like a poster child for the “all-American boy” stereotype.

But as the sandy-haired boy grew up into a tall, athletic ex-Marine, beneath his mop of blond hair, something else was also growing. A brain tumor, nestled between his thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala, developed quietly to the size of a pecan.

During his 25th year, Whitman began to complain of headaches, a severe, persistent pain that he later described as “tremendous.” He wrote increasingly troubled journal entries detailing his mental state: “Recently (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.” He paid a visit to the campus mental health center complaining of violent impulses.

Then, one sweltering August day in 1966, Whitman did something no one expected: He climbed to the top of the UT tower with a sawed-off shotgun, and began shooting. His 96-minute reign of terror killed 13 people on campus and injured over 30, and only ended when he was killed by Austin police. (more…)

New anthrax drug to serve as insurance against bioterrorism

This story was written for J310F Reporting Words, Spring 2016

On a December day in 2005, Jean Patterson donned her gloves, mask and biosafety suit, and walked into her lab to check on a group of guinea pigs infected with one of the world’s deadliest biological weapons—anthrax.

Normally, all the guinea pigs would be dead or dying. Anthrax has a mortality rate of over 80%, and the guinea pigs had been administered more than 500 times the lethal dose. However, on this morning, the guinea pigs were still alive and squeaking.

“Under normal circumstances, certainly even humans would die, they wouldn’t have survived that level of toxin,” Patterson said in an interview with UT News. “But day after day, we came into lab to find the animals still happy and healthy.”*

The guinea pigs had been saved by the administration of the antibody-based drug now known as Anthim, which was approved by the FDA last month. Anthim was developed in part by a team of UT researchers—Brent Iverson, George Georgiou, and Jennifer Maynard.

Since its initial development in the early 2000s, Anthim has come a long way from its humble beginnings in guinea pigs. (more…)