Tony Dean Outdoors
Where George Bush Gets Those Wierd Ideas About Conservation
Texans, especially rich ones who own ranches, often have strange ideas about wildlife. They believe they own it, and the "it" refers to every critter that someone will pay a fee to shoot. And ever since we remembered Alamo, and even before the Texas Rangers were something other than a baseball team, the Lone Star state has been the leader in turning recreational hunting into a financial benefit for private landowners. In fact, they say hunting is so expensive in Texas that only oilmen, sports franchise-owners and perhaps the individual members of the Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers and Spurs, can afford it. Overall, the Texas attitude is, if you can't afford it, don't do it.
Lewie Moore, an old fishing and hunting pal who lived in Pierre in the 1970's and 80's, has lived in Fort Worth, TX for over a decade. And he can tell you how much it costs to hunt in Texas. Though he makes a good living as a supervisor for a big construction company, he says hunting Texas costs a lot more than he's got. In fact, he has pretty much given up most of his hunting, with the exception of an occasional duck hunt on a nearby public reservoir where the state charges a $35 daily boat launch fee. Can you imagine how people in the midwest would react to a government agency charging a $35 daily launch fee?
But, by Texas standards, that's a bargain.
History shows that if you give an inch, recipients want a mile and private landowners in Texas personify that belief. They've long sought private control over seasons, bag limits, and even the ability to control genetics and breeding of the public's wildlife. Maybe that's the inevitable result of ranches so big that the Ford Motor Company names a Club Cab pickup after one of them. Yes, these are big spreads, larger than some states or countries. What they have learned in Texas is that if you have a big ranch that holds enough deer with big antlers, there are lots of fat cats willing to pay more to kill one of them than some people earn in an entire year. And few of them care about how they do it. Some have also learned that if you don't have deer with big antlers, anything with horns will do. That might explain why it's possible to hunt kudos in Texas. Besides, with the exotic species, you don't have to deal with those guys from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
According to the Wildlife Management Institute, big Texas landowner groups have produced a pair of bills for the Texas Legislature that, if approved, will wipe away any pretense of public ownership of wildlife and grant full privatization of white-tailed deer to a select few. Some say that in the Texas legislature, that's just good "bidness."
My friend, Joel Vance, a Missouri-based outdoor writer, suffers no fools when it comes to writing about lawmakers with a desire to go beyond their agencies and do their own fish, wildlife and environment management. He has taken to calling such legislation, "stupid bills" in reference to the SB that precedes each Senate bill number. I'll add my own definition on House Bills, which usually precede the legislation with HB followed by the bill number. I'll call'em "Hoo Boy," bills, as in "Hoo Boy, that sure was dumb."
So it is the Texas "leg", as described by columnist Molly Ivins for their pro-"bidness" views, that is now considering a measure that's been introduced concurrently in the "Stupid Bill" Senate and "Hoo-Boy House." This legislation would establish a high fence deer management permit, that would facilitate intensive commercial management of deer on those properties. Presumably, high-fences, which now surround several million Texas acres, also keeps freeloaders out. That means anyone who foolishly thinks that deer belong to the public. And since some real trophy hunters get their trophies on these ranches, I will assume that the "fair chase" aspect regarding shooting critters inside an enclosed area, shall be discarded. These Texas ranchers have figured out how to build a wall around themselves and keep any unwanted guests out.
So why worry about such schemes? After all, they're saying it's going to keep ranchers on the land, but then so do oil depletion allowances. But this legislation also lowers requirements for management plans. It eliminates state agency rulemaking authority, state-sanctioned bag limits and tagging requirements, and allows for unconstrained trapping and translocation of deer between properties. It also enables them to avoid recently enacted testing requirements for chronic wasting disease and other diseases. After all, what's a little disease between friends, even if it's chronic?
It is, what a member in good standing of the Texas legislature calls, "a simple little bill. That's what happens when a public agency stands in the way of "bidness.?"
"Bidness" goes on as usual.
As I read about this, I think of all of those mediocre to poor television hunting shows that fill the Outdoor Channel's time slots. Most of those I categorize as "mediocre, " are really lousy shows and the word "poor" speaks for itself. They all feature fat-bellied guys who talk like their mouth is full of either marbles or chaw and too many feature "hunts" on big Texas ranches where they try to make it look real. But it is hard to make this look real because the deer are coming to commercial feeders. It's kinda like going to a pro wrestling match, and believing it's real. Each show also features commercials with Ray Scott of BASS fame hawking products to feed to deer to make their antlers grow bigger. That and commercials for those horrible-looking tower deer stands and massive feeders that make you wonder what's happened to the "one bullet, one buck, and travel light" philosophy that once characterized deer hunting.
I grew up reading the Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, as well as Saga, True and Argosy and those magazines featured hunting stories that pictured hunters as real outdoorsmen. Today, the latter magazines are no longer in print and the big three has relegated hunting to the process of hiring the right guides and hunting places beyond the financial reach of the average guy. That includes nearly all ofTexas.
Well, I've been there a number of times, mostly to attend fishing tackle and SHOT shows, but enough to form a few impressions. Back then, all I knew was in Texas you could drive as fast as you wanted while sipping your beer and listening to country music on the radio. I've eaten some great Mexican food in Dallas, and spent a spooky Sunday morning wandering around Dealey Plaza where Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. I remember walking downstairs in the Dallas Convention Center and seeing a portion of the SHOT show that, thankfully, no longer exists. There were people in turbans, face paint and camouflage and every booth featured fully automatic weapons. I figured that every soldier of fortune and third world country did their arms buying there. Anyway, I knew I wasn't in the upland game section when a booth operator called me behind his booth to show me a diagram of the trilateral commission, the new world order, and told me of plots involving UN plans to take over the world. Worse, he said, George H.W. Bush (Dubbya's father) not only knew about it, he was in on it, along with McArthur, Eisenhower and a bunch of others. I mention this anecdote because in Texas, such thinking is, if not normal, not discarded either. Let's face it, this is a state that's famous for producing, shall we say, "out of the box" people? General Ed Walker, H.L. Hunt, Jack Ruby and Ross Perot come to mind.
I hunted Texas once, at the invitation of a well-heeled friend I met at a Ducks Unlimited banquet in Sioux Falls. He came to South Dakota and hunted ducks with me the following fall and then invited me to Texas to hunt geese on his place in Texas. After several years of phone calls, I relented and as I recall, arrived in Houston on a flight that was so late, I checked into my hotel in time to unpack my bags and dress for the morning hunt.
My pal picked me up at 4:30 AM in the most customized of custom Suburbans and we drove some 45 minutes out of Houston. Since I was sleep-deprived, I set my share of the front seat into nearly the full reclining position and the next thing I recall was the feeling we were driving over a rough stubble field. It woke me up and then I realized we were driving over a rough rice stubble field. Suddenly, we plunged downward…into an underground garage…and three steps later, into an underground lodge. Maynard Reece originals graced the rich, paneled walls and I wolfed down a southern breakfast complete with grits and red-eyed ham gravy cooked by a black chef, who came adorned with the tall white hat that trademarks that profession. If the quality of the food we ate that morning was any measurement, he was the real thing.
My host glanced at his Rolex, grabbed his Purdey and said, "It's about time. Follow me."
I checked my Timex and agreed, grabbing my Remington and following him into the smoking room, a room large enough to hold a full-sized pool table, more waterfowl art originals, overstuffed leather recliners, a fully stocked bar and a large humidor I was told contained nothing but Havana's best.
We walked up three steps and through a another door into a concrete-lined pit, complete with upholstered seat pads and a mahogany gun rack. A pot of fresh coffee perked on a gas stove. In front of me, I found two unopened boxes of Federal steel #1's. I looked up and gazed over the largest goose decoy spread I've ever seen. If I said there were 2,000 decoys out there, I wouldn't miss by much. They were expensive white, full-body decoys and we would be hunting snow geese. The pit was shaped like a cross and had a swivel top, so that regardless of wind direction, you could face any direction you wanted. It was, as they say, an engineering marvel, not to be confused with goose hunting comfort overkill. I'll admit it took a while to get used to laying on the cold ground after that trip. A dog handler sat in another much smaller pit to the right along with a big lab that would retrieve any birds we killed. We weren't introduced and I would later learn his vocabulary was limited to, "Fetch Bo."
As the gray of morning turned lighter, the birds began arriving. I won't bore you other than to say what we were doing resembled hunting, at least superficially, though it was more like pass shooting over decoys. No scouting, no arranging the spread. I felt like a cross between a guy who stumbled into a carnival shooting gallery and a first timer at a bordello. Because of the sheer numbers of geese, we were done in less than an hour. I mention the bordello connection because this experience was much like that minus the romance. Five birds each and when we came back the following morning for the second and final day of the hunt, they'd have them cleaned, frozen and ready to take home. I later thought I'd have been more comfortable in a business suit with the tie loosened slightly, camo coveralls over the top, of course. But I guess you have to experience shooting to understand what separates it from hunting. Course, when you start worrying about things like this, there'll be enough others to tell you to forget that weepy ethics crap.
On our way back to Houston, my pal asked me what I thought of "our little place," this south Texas hunting lodge he shared with five other businessmen.
"It's pretty impressive," is all I could think to say.
A few miles later, I asked him, "If you don't mind telling me, what does it cost down here to have a hunting deal like that?"
"Well, we each put in $50,000 to start, and then we pay the landowner $10,000 per year after that," he said. "We've been there about ten years and we'd like to get a longer term lease but the longest he'll go is three years. And if we backed out, there's a big waiting list for a place like that."
I thought about that. In 10 years, five guys plunked down $660,000 bucks to hunt snow geese. I wonder today if they'd have done that had they known that in less than another decade, northern state biologists would let you kill all the snows you wanted for free, and even let you take out the plug, use an electronic call and hunt them in the spring. But truthfully, if you plunk down that kind of money to hunt geese, who could blame you for thinking you are damn well entitled to great shooting and even a claim on wildlife ownership. At least now, I know what that big sucking sound is all about.
I did have one more question, one to which I guessed I already knew the answer.
"Where does the average guy…the mechanic…the guy who works at a plant…hunt down here?
"He don't," came the reply. Not mean either, more like, well everyone knows ordinary guys don't hunt. Not a great explanation but one that does make it easier to understand why guys like Tom Delay and Phil Gramm think like they do. It also makes you realize that George W. Bush doesn't just dream up his ideas on how to take care of conservation and the environment.
Texas A&M University researchers have demonstrated clearly that the changing dynamics of Texas do not bode well for the future of hunting there, especially as the public perceives that access to hunt is restricted, exclusive, expensive and trophy-centered. And all of that, says the Wildlife Management Institute, is manifested in those two pieces of "Hoo-Boy" legislation. They note that with millions of acres of high-fenced land in Texas at present, if the legislature passes this stuff, it will send a clear message to the Texas public as to how they see the future of hunting.
Here in the midwest, we see Texas thinking springing up in a lot of places. Some from Texas ranchers, others from those who know them. And in the end, there's only one way to deal with their demands.
Don't give another inch, not even a fraction of an inch. Some landowners want the authority to buy licenses and resell them. Some are already thinking of stocking exotic game, which is considered normal in Texas. Don't laugh. Former Dallas Cowboy tight end, Jay Novacek, now has a ranch stocked fully with exotic game in his home state, Nebraska. He might have dropped some passes in his day, but he did more than play football in Texas. And in South Dakota, we even have a game commissioner dropping hints she'd like to do the same thing on their ranch. They're relative newcomers, having moved to South Dakota…from Texas.
Myself, I shot 10 Texas snow geese for the cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room. As for deer, well, I imagine shooting one of those genetically-engineered, antler-growing feedbags from a tall tower in front of the feeder would be just one helluva lot like knocking one out of Yankee Stadium…with a corked bat.