BELTON — A small invertebrate living under Bell County is now prompting a big move by local officials.
Bell County Commissioners moved forward Monday on looking for a consultant to help it create a grant application. The grant, if approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, will fund up to $1 million of the county’s creation of a local plan to address endangered species.
The move was prompted by a letter to County Judge David Blackburn in April alerting him to Bell County being named a county of interest in relation to endangered troglobites.
These endangered troglobites — invertebrates that live their entire lives underground — are expected to be in various areas of the county and are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Blackburn said studies conducted by the government since the 1990s have continued to expand and are now looking at Bell County.
“It is clear that the reach of the ESA continues to expand and we’ve seen that from 1994 to the present time,” Blackburn said.
“It is not a question if listed or endangered species are going to be found in Bell County, it is just a question of when those species will be found,” he said.
The main issue now, Blackburn said, was to prepare for the management and protection of these endangered species while also protecting local growth and development.
To comply with the federal act the county plans to create a habitat conservation plan. The plan is needed by developers seeking incidental take permits for when their projects could disturb or destroy the habitats of endangered species.
Various entities in the area have expressed interest in partnering with the county to create the plan. Interested entities so far include Temple, Killeen, Harker Heights, Salado, Copperas Cove, Gatesville, Coryell County, Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, the Brazos River Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation.
In August, Temple City Council members discussed participating in the development of a habitat conservation plan at one of their workshops.
Temple City Manager Brynn Myers said the plan was needed to help lessen the burden of developers in the area.
“This is a vehicle or an avenue that is intended to allow development to continue while also protecting rare species,” Myers said. “(This is) by ensuring mitigating conservation measures are conducted where there is going to be construction activity, or some activity, that affects a protected species whether they are endangered or threatened.”
The grant being sought by the county is from the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund.
Blackburn said the fund has historically awarded $10 million nationally to conservation projects, with grants in fiscal year 2019 ranging from $358,000 to the maximum limit of $1 million.
“This grant would, in essence, pay for the development and creation of a submission to U.S. Fish and Wildlife for an (habitat conservation plan),” Blackburn said. “It does not pay for the maintenance and sustainability of the HCP, but it pays for us getting it started.”
Blackburn said the county has been told by representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife it has a good chance of receiving the grant if it applies this cycle.
Application for the grant is accepted in a three-month window between January and March. Commissioners estimate creation of the application by consultant, once selected, will take between 60 and 90 days.
Blackburn said he hopes a recommendation on the plan — from a committee of interested entities — to come before commissioners no later than Dec. 7.