The Katy Prairie has been home to bands of Natives Americans, hardy pioneers, ranchers, hunters, farmers, and more recently suburbanites. The history of the prairie is a spellbinding tale of the connection of people to the land and how that connection has transformed both the landscape and those who live on it.
Katy Prairie: Landscapes In Transition
The Katy Prairie lies in the Texas Coastal Plain and encompasses over a thousand square miles, (Wermund, 1994) bound by the Brazos River on the southwest, pine forest on the north, and the city of Houston on the east. Historically, the Katy Prairie has been characterized as a poorly drained tallgrass prairie subject to periodic fires and containing a considerable amount of wetland areas.
Comanche and Karankawa Native Americans were the first humans to use the prairie, following the bison herds that grazed the area. The standing ponds were frequented by thousands of ducks. Up until the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Katy Prairie remained more or less untouched by Europeans. Around 1870, the first settlers began to raise corn, potatoes, and cattle on the prairie (Lobpries,1994). At the turn of the century, rice farmers appeared, creating 30-acre fields harvested by hand. Sportsmen began to take advantage of the hunting opportunities, seeking the indigenous ducks, curlews, and prairie chickens (Gore, 1994). Small-scale agriculture had only a minor impact on the region, and the Katy Prairie remained primarily a plain/prairie ecosystem. In 1914, George Finlay Simmons described the area as still "a coastal prairie region with few farms and ranches; the only timber lies in strips from a quarter-to a half-mile wide along Buffalo and Brays Bayous. The remainder of the country is flat, uncultivated prairie, sprinkled with small ponds and grassy marshes" (Eubanks, 1994).
With the increase in rice farming and a growing population in the 1930's and 1940's came an increase in hunting and bird watching. Ducks remained the most popular species, but hunted species included snipe, cranes, doves, quail, rails, and geese. The presence of ducks and doves increased, directly due to the habitat availability afforded by the flooded rice fields. However, as farming ate up grassland areas, upland species such as the prairie chicken declined drastically (Gore, 1994).
Farming advancements during the 1950's and 1960's boosted rice farming to a tremendous scale. It was at this time that the snow goose emerged onto the Katy Prairie. Historically, the snow goose wintered in the marshes and prairies along the coast. Vast amounts of available open-water habitat combined with waste rice created by modern farming methods made for exceptionally conducive wintering grounds and thousands of geese moved inland to the new habitat (Lobpries, 1994). Migratory birds increasingly depend upon The Katy Prairie as other areas along the Gulf Coast have diminished in size or lost to development.
In the 70s and early 80s, developers began to establish residential projects on the prairie. The City of Houston experienced a huge growth spurt and began spreading to the west and northwest. From 1978 to 1983, 100,000 acres of the Katy Prairie were converted to urban use, primarily residential, with some industrial and retail development. This was coupled with a decline in rice farming, with land use for rice falling 59% in Waller County from 1980-1992 (Henry, 1994).