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Goodbye to the horned toad?

A famous symbol of Texas has now all but vanished from large sections of the Lone Star State.

Before red imported fire ants hit Texas. Before dense African grasses took root on our cattle ranches. Before pesticides came to inhabit a corner spot in every garage between Orange and El Paso. Before all these threats to the horny toad — or Texas horned lizard, to be proper – conspired to secure it a place on state and federal threatened species lists, the icon of the Lone Star State was already in danger of being loved to death.

In the days of the Texas Republic, British consul William Kennedy reported being offered a horny toad for $10 by a Galveston sailor who kept them in the crown of his hat. By the early 20th century the going rate had plummeted. Kids collected them for five and ten cents a piece either for resale elsewhere or to be incinerated in a mold for metal jewelry and paperweights.

They were mailed out of the state in cardboard boxes as curiosities. One such package found its way to future U.S. President Harry Truman, who called them “furious looking little brutes.” And they were frequently transported as trading items by Texan Boy Scouts headed off to national jamborees.

”They were more of a Texas symbol, really, than the longhorn,” popular Texas historian June Rayfield Welch said of the lizard a few years before his death in 1998. ”But I think that many Texans living now have never seen one.”

Though they’ve long retreated west, leaving only small remnant populations east of Interstate 35, now they’ve even gone missing in the “Horned Lizard Capital of Texas.”

The Texas Legislature gave the South Texas town of Kenedy its distinction in 2001 after biologists mapped properties teaming with the official state reptile. In one case, as many as 90 lizards were spotted on a lot, said Ryan Darr, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist for Karnes County. But after just a handful of years of locally hosted tours and educational events the lizard populations collapsed.

“If they are still here, we’re found zero evidence,” Dean Williams, a Texas Christian University biology professor who recently embarked on a multi-year study in Karnes County in partnership with TPWD, told Lone Star Green this week. “We’ve found them in one place in Kenedy now. We keep going back and revisiting areas and there’s nothing.”

For decades, the lizards have suffered from the loss of habitat and reduction of their food supply. Imported invasive grasses introduced on Texas’ ranches in years past have also taken a toll.

“Horned lizards require bare areas and they require a diversity of insect food,” said Larry Gilbert, program director at the newly formed Texas Invasive Species Program at UT Austin. “These aggressive grasses are just crowding out everything else.”

While imported red fire ants have impacted the lizard by driving out their main food supply, red harvester ants, in many areas, Gilbert was quick to fault the pesticides. “These products were being sold way the heck out beyond the fire ant range and probably diminished the native ant community,” he said.

Early survey results suggest the towns around Kenedy have shared in its loss.

Canvassing homes in Karnes City recently, one homeowner after another told me about how the lizards had been there recently. A few years back, they said, it was different. “I miss them,” said one as talk turned to ant poisons. “I’m worried I did this myself.”

The hardest part of doing the lizard surveys, it turns out, is the number of people who want to tell stories about their experiences with the lizards. “You may want to get a two-minute answer to a couple of questions and all of a sudden you’re stuck there hearing a half-hour worth of stories,” Darr said. “There’s a very strong emotional connection there.”

“It’s horny toads and lightening bugs,” he continued. “Those are the two species that make people stop and think, ‘I haven’t seen those in a while.’”

The question researchers canvassing Karnes County hope to answer is why that is the case. The question for the rest of us is: What are we prepared to do about it?

How to help: Donate to the Horned Lizard Conservation Society and support the work of conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and National Wildlife FederationMake your yard a “wildscape” welcoming to insects, birds and reptiles. Support Texas Parks & Wildlife diversity efforts by ordering a horned lizard license plate. Share this post and educate others.

Greg Harman is a San Antonio-based writer whose column, Lone Star Green, is published every other week. You can see more of his writing at harmanonearth.com.