Longhorns may be next animal on state’s chopping block at Big Bend Ranch State Park
By EMILY JO CURETON
PRESIDIO COUNTY – A small herd of purebred, free-ranging Texas Longhorns still wanders Big Bend Ranch State Park, throwbacks from a time when the land was privately owned. Now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is assessing the management of these token cattle in light of today’s challenges: terrible drought, near non-existent infrastructure, dropping visitor-generated revenue and a budget slashed to the tune of $9 million.
TPWD recently put out a call for recommendations as to how to handle management issues with the herd and hopes to have some fresh ideas this month.
The last minute cancellation of this weekend’s annual fall round up held at the park prompted rumors that the Longhorns would be completely removed and auctioned.
This is not the case, according to TPWD’s Deputy Executive Director for Operations Scott Boruff. The round up was scrapped due to a lack of participation – only four people signed up – and it’s return next year will depend in part on the recommendations put forth by TPWD specialists in the coming weeks.
For now, the jury is still out as to what, if anything different will happen to the park’s 50+ Longhorns, which are periodically gathered and sold in order to maintain the population and in theory, generate cost-covering revenue.
“We are going through a process of looking at Big Bend State Ranch to see if we need to do something different now with the situation that’s out there,” Boruff said, “It’s just an effort to be responsive and responsible… We are not interested in getting rid of the Longhorn herd; in fact we are trying to do just the opposite. We are trying to make this work for everybody’s benefit”.
Park management and natural resource specialists are assessing the cattle to figure out exactly how many Longhorns are out there and how they might be managed to better fit the mission of TPWD, which keeps the animals solely to “provide a demonstration herd to interpret the ranching heritage in the Big Bend area” and aims to “micro-manage,” and fence them in so as to preserve genetic integrity.
The mission statement goes on to crystalize the terms of the cattle’s existence on public land: “The retention of a cattle herd at Big Bend Ranch State Park will be as an adjunct only to the park’s interpretive program”.
“That’s what we are supposed to be doing with them, but we certainly haven’t done that,” Boruff admitted.
“In order to get people to see them there are going to be significant costs. Hopefully what will come back are recommendations that will balance our lack of significant funding with a way to manage the herd,” he added.
Options include building fences and providing supplemental feed in order to keep the animals gentle and accessible to the public. Fencing areas on the 300,000+-acre ranch is no simple consideration: it’s not only cost prohibitive in the rough terrain, but could also have unintended ecological impacts.
“One of the things that we will need to do as we move forward is figure out how we protect rare and unique water features. We are working hard to keep all kinds of feral animals away from those,” Boruff said.
One such animal is the burro. More than 50 burros have been shot on sight at TPWD’s behest. In a statement released last week the agency stuck to its guns about this policy, claiming lethal force is the only realistic solution to a feral population that contaminates water sources and competes with native species, like Desert Big Horn Sheep.
John L. Guldemann was the first superintendent of Big Bend Ranch State Park in 1988, and the last foreman of the spread when it was privately owned. He lived on the property for 13 years and has cowboyed all his life.
“We didn’t have any feral burros out there when I ran that ranch. We kept those cleaned out. We roped many a burro and sold them. We gathered them and sold them,” he said.
“It’s not impossible to gather them if you know how to do it. I don’t think the state has the capabilities. It is a difficult task”.
Guldemann said that the Longhorns have been virtually unmanaged for many years now. Moreover, each time they round up the easier to catch of the cattle, the wilder ones remain – meaning the cows left are likely to be full on feral.
Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry Registrar and past President Debbie Davis agreed, “What’s left are the ones that they can’t pen”.
She worried that the trend is against the cattle on state land, regardless of the rhetoric.
“As it is right now they are not actively seeking comments. They are just quietly getting rid of cattle,” she said.
TPWD Commission first officially decided to remove the herd in 1995. This decision was met with staunch opposition and was reversed that same year by legislative action that obligates Big Bend Ranch State Park to keep the Longhorns with the exception of yearly calf crops and older stock to be replaced.
Boruff reiterated TPWD’s commitment to keeping cattle: “The main thing is that this agency has for a long time been supportive of Longhorn cattle and cattle in Texas. We see it as an important part of the cultural history of the state and we value it as an important part of conservation”.