A wildlife co-op is a group of adjacent landowners that manage wildlife together by pooling their acreage. These landowners treat their combined acreage as one giant ranch. The trendy word now is to call a co-op a wildlife management association (WMA).
Gonzales County was home to one of the earliest WMA’s. Another was between Brady and Mason in the Texas Hill Country. I am not sure if either of those still exist. The oldest WMA in what I call the “modern era” is the Harvey’s Creek WMA. I started it. Here is the story…………….
Back in the mid 1980’s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) tried to streamline their method of taking antlerless deer. TPWD wished to drop the hassle of paper permits. “Doe Days” were introduced. If someone owned property in an area of any county where there were Doe Days, you were allowed to kill doe without a permit any time during those days. In areas of the county where there was a low deer density, usually only one weekend was allocated. In areas of the county where there was a high density, sometimes up to 10 to 14 days were allocated. This method forced landowners to make a decision on how many doe were to be killed on their prospective properties.
The Doe Day experiment resulted in an uproar of protests from landowners and hunters. Everyone said they were going to do the right thing, but their neighbors were going to kill everything that walked. Blame was placed on neighbors. A lot of finger pointing was happening. Newspaper ads and letters to the editor of local newspapers were dripping with indignation. I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Save doe, kill Wildlife Biologists!”
I knew the problem was too many bucks being killed, not doe. It was the perfect time to try a new approach since deer management was a hot topic. I picked up the phone and called Mr. Dokus who managed the Hermes Ranch. I asked him if the Hermes Ranch would work with the Holman Ranch to do a deer census, and then cobble a harvest plan together that would assure that the doe harvest not get out of hand, and more importantly assure young bucks the chance to reach 4.5+ years of age. His reply was, “Yes we will but only if you can get the Kearney Ranch to do it and I know they will have no part in that!” I called John Kearney next. His response was, “Great idea Jack, but you will never get the Hermes Ranch to do it!”
I used the leap-frog method from then on, calling two properties away then backing up to get the property on board that I originally bypassed. In a single week, I put together 5,700 acres. The following year, the co-op grew to 10,200 acres and we were up and running. I think it is close to 35,000 acres now.
All of this was possible because the local TPWD Wildlife Biologist, Royce Jurries, was at my side giving advice and present when we had our first landowner meeting. He led the way, promoted the idea and was a huge factor in this concept getting off the ground. Each landowner was trained in how to determine the deer densities on their property. Each landowner counted bucks/doe/fawns to determine sex ratios and fawn crops. All of the data was pooled, and the combination’s average was used to determine a harvest plan that would slowly build a buck herd with older aged deer.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of doubt from the general public. The majority of landowners and hunters in the area literally laughed at our attempt. Plenty of snide remarks were made at local cafes, bars and barbershops. But that tone started to change in a few years. Guess what? My plan worked!
When landowners started bagging old trophy bucks three years later, other landowners wanted to participate. The Sandy Creek WMA was formed south of Weimar with the help of my old friend and high school classmate Edwin Anders. The Colorado County WMA was formed downstream from Columbus. Central Colorado County WMA started as did the Northeast Colorado County WMA. The neatest thing was a rural housing subdivision actually formed a very successful WMA called The Oakridge Ranch WMA.
This was not the end. The same blueprint Harvey’s Creek WMA used was copied in other counties. Gary Homerstad was the TPWD Technical Guidance Biologist in Victoria County and he help organize what eventually became The Texas Organization of Wildlife Management Associations (TOWMA). Through his encouragement, WMAs spread like wildfire across the State. At its peak, there were approximately 3.5 million acres, mostly in southeast and central Texas, that were a part of some type WMA. Gary Homerstad was the strongest voice the State had regarding promotion of WMA’s. He helped to literally change the way wildlife management was approached in areas with small acreage ownership.
This concept, which grew into a movement, all started with a simple phone call. As far as I know, that is always how these get started. There is always one individual that believes the idea will work, then that individual contacts one landowner, and another, and another, etc., until a sizeable chunk of land is put together to make managing wildlife more effective.
Fragmentation is the term used when a landowner wills his/her property to his/her heirs. Let’s start with 800 acres. Grandpa leaves this to his two sons. One son sells his portion but the other keeps his and wills it to his 4 children. Now instead of one 800 acre tract you end up with one 400 acre tract and 4 100 acre tracts. Each of these owners eventually produce children and they invite friends to the property to hunt. Now the 800 acres, as far as habitat and nature is concerned, is the same. But today you have dozens of more people roaming the ground whereas 50 years ago there was only one person using it.
The example maps are happening all across Texas and other states as well. The map with red boundaries is the landowners of the original Harvey’s Creek WMA in 1990. The green and red boundary map is the current map of landowners in 2016. Acreage is the same for that section of the WMA but there is much more pressure being exerted on the wildlife due to fragmentation. WMA’s are an outstanding tool to keep the harvest rates manageable. Treat the area as one ranch. No matter how many landowners eventually own that section of the county and no matter how many partition fences are erected, manage the harvest as if there are no fences. People simply have to take turns
Keep this in mind—there are three choices on how to manage land:
1. Do nothing. Keep doing what you have always done. This will guarantee fragmentation will eventually swarm you under
2. Construct a game fence