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After the storm

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deadfish2021COURTESY PHOTO | TPWD Red drum killed by freezing temperatures in last week’s winter blast float in Pringle Lake, a backwater estuary along the middle Texas coast near Port O’Connor.

Texas wildlife, fisheries experts reporting mixed bag of hits following frigid winter blast

Story by Matt Williams

The polar vortex that pummeled the south in February with snow, ice and record low temperatures caught lots of people off guard and wreaked havoc on life as we know it. Many who lived through Winter Storm Uri will forever remember it as a chaotic week when Texas froze over and all sorts of trouble came in the wake.

The state’s power grid choked, leaving millions to fend off the ruthless cold in the dark without heat for days.
Limbs snapped and trees toppled, taking power lines with them. Pipes burst, flooding countless homes and businesses. Roofs collapsed and ceilings caved in. Lakes and ponds froze over.

At Lake O’ The Pines and Toledo Bend reservoirs, sections of two popular marinas sank under the weight of ice and snow.
Excessive demands for gasoline caused long lines at pumps.

Grocery store shelves were stripped bare and many fast food hubs ran short of meat for tacos and buns for burgers.
For many, finding clean water to drink and warm water to bathe became a challenge.

To make matters worse, all of this hardship and more fell on top of a lingering pandemic that refuses to go away.
Texas’ fisheries, wildlife and habitat took some hits in the winter storm, too. It’s still too early in the game to know the full extent of the damage done in the outdoor world, but some of the early reports indicate it isn’t pretty.

A panel of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department experts offered some thoughts on the situation thus far:

White-tailed Deer and Exotics

White-tailed deer program leader Alan Cain doesn’t foresee any significant losses with white-tailed deer with the exception of a few older animals.
“Obviously, some mortality of the very old deer or those deer in poor body condition is to be expected — this is just nature, survival of the fittest,” Cain said.

Cain pointed to possible damage to native habitat in some regions as a more pressing concern. He said some brush species in South Texas that had green leaves before the freeze are now parched or brown.

“We’re also seeing some impact on the winter weeds which are critical for deer this time of year and into the early spring,” he said. “There are still some green patches of burclover, but we’re also seeing lots of it burned from the freeze. I’m hopeful the moisture from the snow and ice soaked up in the soil we’ll see a good start to the spring green up as temperatures warm.”

Exotic animals didn’t fare near as well in the winter blast. Axis deer and black buck antelope were among the hardest hit. “Many of the exotics don’t do well with extended periods of extreme cold,” Cain said. “I’ve heard reports of axis deer seeking shelter in barns on some ranches in the Hill Country, which is completely unexpected. This just shows how desperate some of the axis deer were to find shelter from the weather. I suspect it will be several weeks before we know the full impact on the exotics.”

Coastal Fish Kills/Shad Die-offs

Sadly, widespread fish kills occurred along the Texas Coast when frigid air chilled water temperatures into the mid-40s in shallow bay systems. Reports of dead fish and cold-stunned sea turtles began coming in as early as Valentine’s Day. Quantification of the impacts are still ongoing, according to a Feb. 23 TPWD news release.

Biologists and game wardens have documented mortalities along the entire coastline, but TPWD says it appears that bays south of Galveston were the hardest hit. Early assessments indicate the majority of fish impacted were non-recreational species, but game fish including spotted sea trout, red drum, sheepshead, grey snapper, snook, black drum and tarpon were also impacted. Experts will know more as gill net sampling and angler creel surveys get underway this spring. Freshwater sport fish aren’t near as susceptible to mortality in freeze events because they can usually find refuge in deeper water. However, shad populations that provide vital forage for game fish aren’t always so lucky, according to TPWD fisheries biologist Brian Van Zee of Waco.
Van Zee said threadfin shad die-offs have been reported at lakes Texoma, Lavon and Graham.

“It’s not that uncommon, especially at Lake Texoma,” he said. “Luckily, shad populations rebuild quickly. Once it warms up they’ll starting spawning like crazy.” Van Zee added the game wardens at Lake Falcon in South Texas scooped up numerous tilapia that perished in the cold.

Wild Turkey

Wild turkeys are big, hardy birds. Likewise, TPWD wild turkey program leader Jason Hardin isn’t expecting to see any major impacts from the big freeze.
“Most of our turkeys should be fine,” he said. “They should have had enough fat and energy reserves to survive. That said, any birds that were in bad shape (malnourished, injured, or sick) going into this event would have a harder time and would be more susceptible to predators. This undoubtedly depleted fat reserves, so there could be an impact going into the nesting season with reduced reproductive effort, but if we can stay warm and green from now until spring they should have a chance to replenish their reserves.”

Quail

Texas bobwhites just can’t catch a break. The verdict is still out as to how hard the iconic game birds may have been hit by the cold blast, according to Robert Perez, upland game bird program leader.

“Our Texas quail species do have adaptations to get through tough weather,” he said. “With the right escape cover available, the covey formation does an excellent job of heat retention. However, the snowfall seems to penetrate even good escape cover, so coveys may have been pushed and possibly weakened.”

Perez added that icing events lasting beyond 3-4 days can spell trouble for the dapper game birds. “Bobwhite and scaled quail are only weak scratchers, so they are not really adapted to having to dig through ice,” he said. “Once the body fat reserve is gone birds have been found whole/frozen after prolonged ice periods in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma. I have not gotten any reports of that so far with this winter storm, but it is possible.”

Doves, Ducks and Bats

TPWD’s webless migratory program leader Owen Fitzsimmons said there have been reports of mortalities among white-winged doves, pelagic offshore species and various songbirds, but he isn’t expecting the impacts to be significant. He believes any dove losses will be quickly offset with a decent breeding season.

“Birds need to consume a lot of food to generate heat and stay warm in sustained cold weather,” he said. “It only takes a day or two without food to kill a bird in extremely cold temperatures. The bad part was that all the snow and ice made finding seeds/insects impossible, so that’s why some birds didn’t make it.”

Additionally, TPWD reported hundreds of dead coots and multiple blue-winged teal mortalities at state wildlife management areas, along with dead or cold-stunned bats beneath road bridges.

Giant Salvinia Knocked Back

The big freeze may have helped in the state’s ongoing battle against giant salvinia. The invasive plant is present in more than two dozen Texas reservoirs and several rivers, according to John Findiesen, TPWD’s aquatic habitat enhancement team leader.

“I’m not completely sure what the long-term impacts will be, but short term looks good,” he said. “We had a cold weather event in January 2018 that was was not as severe as this one and had a shorter duration, but it still wiped out 98 percent of the salvinia in the state. Giant salvinia covered nearly 6,000 acres of Caddo Lake prior to the 2018 event. We found less than 50 acres of salvinia in our initial post-event survey in 2018.”

Unfortunately, the plant has knack for bouncing back. “This event will definitely help reduce salvinia coverage again, but I don’t know how long it will be before we see it floating again on area lakes,” Findiesen said. “Even if it all dies in Texas, it could easily be brought from somewhere else by trailer, boat or other equipment.”

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Turning ‘Time in Texas’ into Country Gold

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tyler dozier 2COURTESY PHOTO Tyler Dozier

By Caleb Fortenberry and Chris Edwards

The pandemic that seized the entire planet last year made for a drastic change in how humans live, work, worship and play. In the “blessings in disguise” category, many who had to re-invent their lives found new passions or re-discovered old hobbies.

Spurger native Tyler Dozier is one such young man who managed to turn bad news into something positive. “As bad as the coronavirus is, I got laid-off from the plant, and jobs are slow,” he explained. “So, I decided to do something that I enjoyed.”

Dozier took his God-given talent in music, which he’d honed through his young life, and blaze the trail that many talented Texans before him had taken. So far, he has gone gung-ho into his fresh start, with two singles already under his belt and a full-length album in the works.

The young singer/songwriter has music in his genes. His father, Donald Dozier, is still known in the region for his prowess as a guitarist and played with many bands and artists through the years, including a pre-superstar Mark Chesnutt. Tyler said his father is his primary influence in chasing a musical career, although he did not get to see him onstage in his glory days.

“I never got to see him play, because I was too young at the time that he quit playing out,” he said.

Some other influences came by way of artists like Josh Ward and Cody Johnson, both of whom Tyler began following before they were huge regional acts.

The young artist said he pretty much taught himself to sing and started playing music when he was eight years old, beginning with piano. Eventually, he also took to playing guitar and drums. His father helped him get started on the guitar when he was 12, and he added the elder Dozier will also play with him live. “I do have plans of getting a band together,” he said. “I have some guys right now that I’ve played with for a long time just around my house and stuff. The only thing I’m missing is a bass player right now but if everything goes as I hope then I will have a band to play out in the next couple of months.”

Until he gets a band solidified for live work, though, he said he is content to play as a solo act, which he said is a good way for the audience to really hear him and his songs “as I am.”

At present, even though the continuing efforts to curb the pandemic have slowed down consistent live performance opportunities for musicians, Tyler has been able to take to the road and play some solo acoustic shows in such venues as Conroe’s Red Brick Tavern. “It’s a blast to get out and play in front of live audiences,” he said.

Before he even started getting into venues, he began laying down some of his material in the studio. His first single, “Doing Time in Texas,” a classic-sounding country tune detailing the heartbreak of a man’s willingness to wait for the woman he loves, went out to radio stations during last summer, when he was the tender age of 19.

The song was co-written between three songwriters, one of whom was Tyler’s cousin David Reed. “First time I heard it, I was like, ‘Man, I really got to cut this song’,” he said.

The song made enough of a splash in the Texas regional market that Dozier was able to score a management deal with Salter-Gann Universal Promotions and Management, LLC.

A second single, “How Can I Get You Off My Mind,” also penned by his cousin Reed, is currently making its rounds in the radio markets, and to add to that excitement, Tyler said he has plans to journey to Nashville soon to record some songs he has co-written with Reed.

Dozier’s performance of his new single, which is orchestrated by traditional country instrumentation, such as the whine of a pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitars, bares the influence of his dad’s old running buddy/bandmate, Chesnutt, but still sounds uniquely Tyler Dozier.

Whatever happens for the young East Texan singer and writer of pure country songs, one thing is certain to anyone who meets him: he will remain the same grounded, yet talented, young man he has always been.

“Man, it’s crazy how people have responded to my music. Especially when I play live. Man! People come up and talk to me and that’s just what this is all about. I’m just an ol’ country boy out here doing what I love and for people to enjoy listening to it as much as I do, it means a lot and it’s really inspiring.”

Tyler Dozier’s singles “Doing Time in Texas” and “How Can I Get You Off My Mind” can be downloaded from all digital music retail platforms and can be streamed on Spotify or requested from radiofreetexas.com.

Video interview with Tyler

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A place to rest their heads

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EastTexan Spring2021

Sleep in heavenly peace commits to ending childhood bedlessness

By Chris Edwards

In the classic song “The Weight” by The Band, a weary traveler’s lament known to every man, woman, child and beast, the late, great Levon Helm sings of someone looking for a place “where a man might find a bed,” to no avail.

There are many who are in search of that same, seemingly basic amenity/comfort, including children, a fact that bothered Woodville resident Brian Smith.

“I had no idea that children without beds was an issue, a problem at all. I simply never thought about it. I have always had a bed; everyone that I knew had a bed,” he said.

Sleep in heavenly1

Smith and his wife Deborah saw a story on a Beaumont television station’s news broadcast that reported on that particular issue and an organization fighting to end it, and it left a deep impression upon both their hearts and minds.

The story was about a non-profit organization named after a line in the old Christmas time hymn “Silent Night.” Sleep in Heavenly Peace is a nationwide concern, and was began by a concerned church youth group leader named Luke Mickelson.

Mickelson first encountered the issue of children without beds in his church and got a group together to build beds for a family in need. From that humble show of service sprung the organization, which became a non-profit with chapters around the country. Mickelson was even honored by CNN in 2018 as a “Hero of the Year.”

The Smiths added an East Texas chapter of the organization to its growing roster on September 5, 2020, which was a quest of approximately 10 months.

The couple investigated the practical aspects of getting a SHP chapter started, namely the cost of materials and the necessary non-profit paperwork, interest was fomenting, and several members of the community became interested in helping.

With a group together, the “core team,” they had their first building event on that day in September, when they built six twin beds to donate to families in the county who were in need.

Sleep in heavenly4

“There are children in Tyler County sleeping on the floor, on a couch, in a chair, or are sharing an undersized mattress on the floor with too many siblings or otherwise in a less-than-optimal sleeping environment,” Brian said.

The word got out quickly throughout the community, and Deborah said it was “an extremely rewarding experience” to see her desire to help the community pay off.

Although the story on the news brought the issue into living color for Brian and Deborah, seeing folks who could use a hand-up was nothing new to Brian. He said he has done mission work in some of the poorer areas of Mexico, places “where one sees true poverty,” he said, and seeing how people lived left a deep, lasting impression, which came back in spades when he and his wife saw that broadcast.

“Here, in the United States, to realize that our little county probably has hundreds of children without beds hurts my heart,” he said.

Sleep in heavenly2

“As a sentimental older man, I still get choked up when I think of the joyous reactions of the children we help. The feelings of peace and security that a real bed gives them gets me up for early morning bed builds,” he said.

SHP currently has 240 chapters across the nation, and in Bermuda, and there are hopes to break into Canada in the near future.

Anyone can volunteer at one of SHP’s bed-build events, and they do not have to bring anything, “except a desire to help others,” Brian said. The group will supply the tools, PPE, drinks, snacks and instructions.

The Woodville chapter of the group hopes to be able to build sturdy, functional bunk and twin beds from dimensional lumber one Saturday each month during the 8 a.m. to noon time period. The volunteer-driven assembly line process allows most anyone to contribute.

According to the chapter’s website, located at shpbeds.org/chapter/tx-woodville, anyone who wishes to volunteer can show up to the build day event or a delivery event, and those dates are available on a calendar on the site. There is also a link on the site to allow anyone who is interested in contributing financially to the cause, or to sponsor a build day.

According to Brian, the cost to build a twin bed is $170 and $350 for a bunk bed, and all of the materials must come from donations. Each chapter of SHP must be financially self-supporting and entirely dependent on donations, which is all carefully accounted for, from local chapters through the national headquarters.

The estimated monthly need for the SHP Woodville chapters is $2,500 to $3,000, which is enough to provide 14 to 17 beds per month, and this is the cost for the bare materials.

The organization also needs tools, such as saw blades, drill bits and other items, such as gloves, safety glasses and many other PPE items.

Brian added that for anyone who needs one of the beds, there is a place on the website to request a bed, and applicants can answer a few basic questions and submit. He and Deborah can also be contacted directly, at 844-432-2337 (extension 5757) or at PO Box 143, Woodville, Texas 75979, for anyone who might be interested in donating to the cause.

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A Healing Forest for Wolfdogs and Women Parolees

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EastTexan Spring2021AMY HOLZWORTH | PCE

By Jeff Fatheree

I was raised with the thought that pets were family, so the idea that there are dogs that are abused and abandoned is foreign to me. Having watched “Pit Bulls and Parolees” I learned that many of the dog world are abandoned, abused, deserted, and otherwise treated as if they have no worth in our society. Parolees often must feel the same things as these animals when they attempt to return to society.

They experience what it is like to be judged by appearance and past rather than looking for the beauty within. Tia Torres and her family and crew are not the normal society people and they choose to give both animals and humans second chances. Villalobos Dog Rescue in New Orleans was an outcropping of this idea. Tia began in California rescuing wolves and wolfdogs in the area she grew up. She made a trip to Sri Lanka and learned what it meant to truly be a community of man. The blending of religions from all over and the love that the people there had for each other spoke to her and she spent a year studying the different religions. She was raised Catholic but came to appreciate the beliefs of all types of spirituality. Sri Lanka left her with a love for all things of creation but particularly the animals.

Tia told me that when she returned from Sri Lanka, she had a vision to minister to the outcast of society. The wolfdogs she started with do not belong to either the wolf world or the dog world. Captured somewhere in-between they often are put down rather than rehabilitated as neither rescue center wants to house them. When they moved to Louisiana, they found a large population of Pit Bulls, labeled as a vicious breed. Most of them end up being put down when they no longer have a home and family to care for them or they have begun to lose in dog fights. The parolees in Louisiana, much like the dog population, were outcasts and found themselves living on the edge of society. Tia saw the beauty of both beneath the surface and the Villalobos (Village of Wolves) was born.

Having done animal rescue in Louisiana during Katrina, Tia and crew went back to California. Louisiana continued to call to them and in 2011 they spent a year transitioning to “The Big Easy” and working with the parole system to give the dogs of New Orleans and the men re-entering society a chance to work together to change both man and beast. Taking care of and learning to be responsible for something other than oneself is a giant step in returning to society. The animals rescued from the streets of New Orleans, like the men, had trust issues and had spent time relying on and worrying only about themselves to survive. This mix has helped heal man and beast and resulted in adoptions all over the country of the animals from Villalobos. Tia, her family, volunteers, parolees, and crew have truly formed a “pack” with the dogs of Louisiana.

In 2017 they expanded the operation to include a rural property in Assumption Parish. They work with the animal shelters in some of the smaller areas to help with resources and taking in animals that are unable to be cared for locally. They have some hounds and other pups that flourish better in the rural environment there and it also acts somewhat as a retreat and healing area for the staff. They live “down the road” from another Louisiana legend, Troy Landry of “Swamp People” fame. Troy has spent his life making a living off the swamp. Being the person Tia is, when she received a call for help from Henderson County Texas, she was on the way. Some wolfdogs had been abandoned when their owner took his own life, and the Sheriff needed assistance to capture them or he would have to put them down. She planned to be there two days capturing and getting housing for 40 wolfdogs.

1 EastTexan Spring2021AMY HOLZWORTH | PCE

A lady in Athens had purchased the property several years prior, but the previous owner never moved so she could take ownership. Finding that only fourteen of the animals would cooperate, she said before her brain could stop her, her mouth asked well what if we just buy the place? The lady said certainly she would sell as she loved the idea of the animals remaining in the location they had called home. Sheriff Botie Hillhouse said, “Tia, you just bought the ugliest piece on the block.” Tia told me she saw it as an almost enchanted healing forest and envisioned what the future might hold. She has gathered volunteers and family to begin cleaning the property and has a caretaker that stayed through the Winter Storm of 2021 to make sure the wolfdogs had food and water.

They have also begun working with the animals to reacquaint them with human contact and the changes in the animals’ demeanor have been nothing short of miraculous. The long-term goal and plans are to build cabins on the property for female parolees and their children, if they have them, to live and work with the animals. Wolfdogs react better to females than males as pack animals often do. She would also like to have additional cabins available for religious teachers to stay in and teach the parolees and minister to their needs.

They intend to teach life skills as well as concern for something other than themselves to the parolees. They can certainly use volunteer help, as well as donations to allow for feeding and housing, and Tia is always grateful to have assistance. Her target date for completion and grand opening of Villalobos Dog Rescue Texas, is June of 2021. Check their Facebook page for updates and ways to volunteer at Villalobos Rescue Center - TEXAS. We plan on being there to let you know what is going on. We will likely be revealing a new name for the Texas location that will still include VRC in the title but reflect the healing nature of the forest.

If you would like to join in and help, contact the Louisiana location. Email them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you wish to donate send a check to Villalobos Rescue Center P.O. Box 771127 New Orleans, LA. 70177 or go to their website at https://www.vrcpitbull.com/how-you-can-help/donations/ and send via PayPal. You do not need to make a reservation to come help but let them know you are on the way via email to the Athens or New Orleans center. You will love the reward of reaching out and giving a second chance to both pups and people.

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Overcoming - recovery gave me back my son

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Overcoming 2021COURTESY PHOTO Kyle and his mother, Nancy.

By Nancy Carr

Becoming a mother was one of the greatest joys I had ever experienced. Kyle was a vibrant, exuberant child with a larger-than-life personality from the day he was born. Our family was truly blessed. He was always the center of attention and became friends instantly with anyone he met. He had this thirst for life, until he was about 12 years old. That’s when things started to change and fracture our family unit until Kyle entered recovery in 2013.

Kyle was always precocious and outgoing, it was his defining character trait. So, when he started to isolate in middle school, I became extremely concerned. He began asking why he was “different” and why he didn’t fit in. As a parent, all I wanted to do was provide the best possible life for my child, so I looked into different therapists and psychologists to help him through this period. I thought, “he’ll grow out of it – he’s so personable and has such a bright future.”

Little did I know that would be the beginning of a decade-long battle against addiction. Kyle began showing signs of depression and anxiety. He asked to see doctors, who put him on prescriptions. Kyle began abusing those medications, and soon graduated from pills to heroin. His father and I would have never guessed our child was shooting up heroin at just 15 years old.

The next eight years would be filled with ups and downs. Kyle’s father and I were in complete denial of his addiction – we thought he would rebound every time he said “I’m done.” We sent him to multiple psychologists, therapists, treatment centers, and facilities. We were able to find centers in-network but we traded quality of care for cost. Finding a treatment center that treated all three aspects of addiction seemed nearly impossible. We saw him deteriorate in front of our eyes, attempt getting sober, then fall off again and again. Kyle would hide from the world feeling overwhelming shame and guilt, but continue using. He was a slave to the drugs.

In 2013, something finally happened. After a string of failed career moves, arrests, overdoses, and increasing medical problems, Kyle finally told us he couldn’t keep doing this. We sought out a treatment center that worked on mind, body, and spirit. As parents, all Kyle’s father and I wanted for him was to be happy and productive. We listened to addiction professionals who had overcome the same debilitating disease of addiction.

Our family experienced, what I like to call, “a collective enlightenment” as a result of Kyle’s recovery. Through intensive work, Kyle finally became open and honest enough to share with our family that he was gay. He had sat in fear for so many years, thinking we would turn our backs on him. He began coming out of his shell again and engaging in life for the first time in years. I saw the vibrant, social Kyle again. Our entire family started addressing issues we had glazed over for years. We became a true family unit.

Recovery has completely changed our lives. As a family, we’ve begun to have direct and open communication with one another. Kyle and his brother are best friends again. Kyle’s father and I have never had a better marriage. Kyle’s able to show up for us and participate in his own life again. But what’s most miraculous is how those dark days are now the foundation of the strong family bond we’ve built.

Almost four years later, our lives are completely different. It was through practicing honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, that Kyle found himself. He’s since identified that “different” feeling he experienced was due to his addiction and fear of coming out of the closet. Today, he’s a proud gay man and is a respected member of his community. He’s engaged to a wonderful man and living the life he’s always wanted. There is no greater gift than watching your child live life to the fullest, and that’s exactly what’s happened since Kyle got sober.

There’s no “right” way to prepare for a loved one’s addiction. This disease blindsides you, it hits you when you least expect it. Our family was able to overcome this disease by listening to our child, providing support any way we could, being cautious not to enable his addiction, and helping to find a recovery solution when Kyle became ready. My hope is that every parent who struggles with their child’s addiction is able to find the freedom we have, and to let them know that it gets better.

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