In May 2017, the H-E-B at Hardy Oak Boulevard and Wilderness Oak Road began expanding its parking lot. Two weeks in, workers discovered a cave under the property.
As a result, construction halted as local and state officials were summoned to decide if the underground cavern beneath H-E-B Market at Stone Oak warranted saving as a natural habitat or water-recharge resource.
“We engaged all the appropriate subject-matter experts to evaluate the cave – which was actually a relatively small space – and it was determined there were no endangered species and we were given a green light to continue,” H-E-B spokeswoman Julie Bedingfield said. “We proceeded to complete the project adding additional store parking.”
The situation is one example of efforts to maintain a balance between preserving natural areas and development of businesses and living spaces.
Stone Oak and Encino Park, plus the associated neighborhoods of Timberwood Park and Canyon Springs, are growing communities sharing land with various wild animals, endangered species and the Edwards Aquifer’s most sensitive recharge regions.
Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said the organization often sees similar scenarios with construction projects over and around the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
“If it were determined that there were endangered cave critters in the cave uncovered, H-E-B could enroll in the (Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan) to mitigate the ‘take’ of these species, or H-E-B could apply for their own take permit from the feds,” Peace said.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, take means to imperil — either intentionally or unintentionally — area wildlife, often forcing the government into protective actions.
Stone Oak’s threatened or endangered species include birds, beetles and cave spiders. Plenty of common wild animals often sighted include possums, raccoons, rabbits, skunks, squirrels, lizards, toads, geckos, bats, owls, hawks, turkey vultures, rats, mice and occasionally, even foxes and coyotes.
In 2014-2015, authorities even received reports of several unconfirmed sightings describing a mountain lion.
“Because urban sprawl is on the rise and more wild animals are losing their homes, and babies are the most vulnerable, as when trees are cut down and dens are excavated, they cannot flee to safety,” said Aleida Fuentes Boles, a spokeswoman for Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Inc., founded in San Antonio in 1977. “Wild animals are not a nuisance. Tragically, it has become a normality to view animals such as skunks, opossums and raccoons as a nuisance when they are cohabitants near our homes.”
As far North Side communities maintain construction and expansion, efforts must persist to uphold natural areas, the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and endangered-species habitats, officials said.
Initiatives such as the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan, a land-swapping credit program, enables Bexar County and San Antonio builders — in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — to assist with observing the Endangered Species Act.
“It is about preservation, conservation, protecting properties, helping endangered species,” said Melissa Ramirez, assistant director of the city’s Land Development Division.
In 2017, the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan was adopted by both San Antonio and Bexar County. It aims to help developers expeditiously secure endangered-species permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Under the plan, it potentially takes weeks instead of years to obtain authorization. The hope is to make compliance with the Endangered Species Act easier.
Money from the credits is then used to purchase sensitive habitat land to protect endangered species locally.
Today, these animals on the far North Side include two nearly extinct songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, and seven scarce karst invertebrates — beetles and spiders inhabiting the thousands of caves honeycombing the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
The conservation action also provides protections for several other species considered rare or threatened.
Developers impacting the birds’ habitat would pay $8,000 per acre. They’re also prohibited from clearing trees on the property during spring and summer nesting season only, and must take steps to protect such trees from oak wilt.
For cave species, developers would have to avoid underground areas designated as “critical habitat” by the fish and wildlife agency.
“The goal of the plan is to create preservation areas for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo,” Ramirez said. “The plan is tied to Camp Bullis and San Antonio’s military initiative. In 2008, the city and the county began talking about creating initiatives to protect the military mission.”
A decade ago, developers began chopping down juniper and other trees around Camp Bullis, on Stone Oak’s western border. The work pushed golden-cheeked warblers onto the Army installation, which must follow its own set of federal regulations for endangered species.
Military officials worried protecting so many birds would compromise the camp’s training missions.
Ramirez stressed the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan is optional for builders over and near the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. So far, the city and county have received about 15 applications as part of the process.
The 91-acre Panther Springs Karst Fauna Area Preserve in Panther Springs Park arose from the plan, Ramirez said.
Such preserves are known to support one or more habitats of an endangered species, with the Panther Springs one recently approved by San Antonio. It helps safeguard some of the endangered beetles and spiders living in area caves. The 300-acre park, opened in 2015, is located near Blanco Road and Wilderness Oak.