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Welcome, Hunters!

Hunters may leave Llano in a few months, but the money they spend with Hill Country ranchers and businesses stays year-round.

By Larry D. Hodge

They crawl up Texas 71 and 29 and 16 into the heart of the Hill Country like a horde of ants in four-wheel-drive vehicles, laden with ice chests and grub boxes and enough camouflage clothing and guns to outfit the army of a middle-sized European nation. In their heads they carry images of the big bucks they hope to see through telescopic sights on opening morning of deer season. In their wallets they carry big bucks of another sort, the money local landowners and merchants depend on to carry them through the year.

It’s opening weekend of deer season in Llano, and in towns all over the Hill Country, pickup trucks smother grocery-store parking lots, the lines swell outside barbecue joints and bankers welcome ranchers making deposits instead of asking for loans.

In a little more than two months the hunters will be gone, but the cash they pump into the local economy circulates around town for the rest of the year. “We see about a 30 percent increase in our business during hunting season,” says Joel Griffith, manager of the Llano Super S grocery store. Otto Rusche, who owns the local Fina station, estimates his business makes 60 to 70 percent of its income for the entire year during deer season.

“I’d hate to try to make it without the hunters,” says Terry Wootan, a real estate broker who also owns Cooper’s Barbecue. Cooper’s — whose barbecue is nationally renowned — sells 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of meat a week during hunting season, a 40 percent increase over preceding months. In recent years, business during the spring wildflower season has come to equal that of hunting season, and Wootan gives the credit to hunters. “A lot of our business is generated by word of mouth,” says Wootan, “and was built from the base of deer hunters.”

Ranchers Lugenia (Gene) and Bill Miller keep cattle partly because they eat grass down to a level that allows weeds to grow. Deer eat weeds and brush that cattle can’t use, so the two complement each other. But deer hunting pays the bills. “We figure our hunting operation furnishes close to 70 percent of our disposable income,” says Bill. Gayle Parsons, who teaches school and operates a family ranch, puts the importance of hunting in more specific terms. “The hunting operation pays for taxes, cattle feed, upkeep of fences, windmill repair and drilling wells,” she says. “If we had no hunting income, both my husband and I would probably have to take second jobs.”

Hunters put about $2.5 billion annually into the Texas economy, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2001 survey of hunting, fishing and wildlife-related recreation. A 2003 study put the total value of hunting in Texas at $3.6 billion.

A 1993 study, the most recent available with county-level data, estimated that hunting injected $3.5 million into Llano County, or $5.81 for every acre of land in the county. A lease allowing access for the entire hunting season usually costs from $750 to $1,500 per hunter in the Hill Country. Day leases typically cost about $125 per day. Given that Llano County typically hosts about 15,000 hunters annually, lease income could easily top $1 million. Surveys conducted by the Texas Cooperative Extension Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest the statewide total for hunting leases is more than $100 million.

Motels, restaurants, service stations, hardware stores, deer storage and processing facilities, grocery stores — all kinds of businesses — also pocket a share of the money spent by hunters. “Hunters are a lot like summer business — they buy lots of ice, charcoal, lighter fluid, steaks,” says Griffith. “The thicker cut the steak is, the better they like it. I won’t say money is no object to them, but they are the most free with their money of any customers we have.”

It’s not just people who benefit from the money hunters leave behind. Income from hunting allows ranchers such as the Millers to manage their land for the benefit of wildlife. The Millers hire a professional wildlife manager and feed deer from September until the spring green-up. “We don’t cut the feeders off when the hunting season ends, because that’s tough on the deer,” Bill Miller says. “We have a pretty good feed bill; hunting allows us to maintain and manage the deer on the ranch.” The result is a healthier deer herd. Shortly after I visited with the Millers, a hunter took a 14-point buck that topped out their 165-pound scale.

While the chance to bag a good buck is the obvious reason hunters are willing to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars, that’s not what they value most. “The fun, the pleasure of being with friends, some of whom I see only once a year — that’s the biggest part of it,” says James Tracy of Bonham. “This is prime time with my son,” adds James Bruce of Randolph. “I enjoy the hunting, sure, but the important thing is the time I get to spend with him.”

Like many Hill Country towns, Llano greets hunters with banners reading “WelCOME HUNTers” strung over city streets, and the welcome is sincere. “The best thing about hunting here is the hospitality shown by the store and restaurant people and landowners,” says Rick Dickson of Bonham. “There’s no price gouging. Somebody has to be doing something right or we wouldn’t drive 347 miles to come here to hunt.”

Like Dickson, many hunters return to the same ranch year after year and build close relationships with landowners. But few can equal the record of Bufford Willturner of Houston. Willturner has been hunting on the same Llano County ranch for 45 of his 79 years. “I’ve been hunting on this place since 1957,” he says. “At first it was $5 a day; now it’s $125. I got the name of the landowner from a man who brought a deer into the place I worked in Houston. I called and talked to her, and she told me as long as I treated her right and didn’t mess up, I would always have a place to hunt.” Passing on the heritage, Willturner puts together a group of friends each year to share the lease.

Willturner convinced his friend Anthony Gordon to take up hunting at age 50. “Bufford and I meet to drink coffee every Sunday before church, and he always talked about hunting,” Gordon says. “He told me it was good relaxation, and you were bound to get you a deer. That got me interested. Hunting does take your mind off your troubles, plus it’s beautiful country out here.”

Deer hunting works for everyone concerned. Landowners and businesses get the income they need to survive in the place they prefer to live. Hunters enjoy the outdoors and get some meat to put in the freezer. Money fuels the system, but for almost everyone involved, the benefits add up to a great deal more than the dollars that change hands.

A Countryside in Transition

On the Friday before opening weekend I’m part of the annual migration heading west on Texas 71, the deer hunter’s gray asphalt version of the yellow brick road. As I near Llano I overtake a pickup truck pulling a three-axle trailer loaded with Black Angus cattle. The right rear tire on the trailer is going flat, and during the next couple of miles I watch pieces of tire fly off. The driver plows on, oblivious to the growing problem, until he finally notices and pulls over to change the tire. That’s a pretty good simile for what happened to ranching in the Hill Country. As profits from ranching went flat, many landowners were forced to change their focus from cows and goats to deer hunting. As one old-timer explained: “It’s the only thing we have to sell that we can set the price on.”

Deer hunting influences the price of Hill Country land when ranches are sold, says Terry Wootan. “I’d say 70 to 80 percent of the ranches we sell are bought for recreational purposes,” he says. “People want a place of their own, and one of the reasons they buy is for deer hunting. There is much more demand for land because of the hunting, and that has driven the price up.”

The rising price of Hill Country acreage is bittersweet. “When it’s priced at $3,000 per acre, you can’t pay for land with the income from hunting and cattle ranching combined,” says Wootan. “Buyers have to be people with money.”

That fact is not lost on Gene Miller who, with her husband Bill, runs two ranches in Llanos County. Some of the land has been in her family since the Republic of Texas granted it to an ancestor for military service in the Battle of San Jacinto. “The time was when ranchers could use income from ranching to buy land, but that doesn’t make sense now,” Gene says. “There would not be any ranches up here owned by people who want to ranch if it was not for the hunting.”

The lease Bufford Willturner and Anthony Gordon share with friends on the outskirts of Kingsland is a good example of one of the major challenges facing both hunters and ranchers in the Hill Country. The lease fronts the Llano River, and homes line the opposite bank. Gesturing at the growing subdivision, Willturner says, “In another 20 years, there won’t be any hunting here.”

Escalating land prices and the division of ranches among heirs are fragmenting wildlife habitat in the Hill Country. “We have four children, and they will get less than 1,000 acres each,” says Gene Miller. “They can’t make a living on that. They can make more money by selling the land, but we have the monkey on our back that you just don’t sell land.”

While the Millers and many others like them want to remain on the land, they are bucking the trend. Taking Care of Texas, the 2000 report of the Governor’s Task Force on Conservation, identified the fragmentation of family-owned farms and ranches as a major threat to wildlife habitat and the long-term viability of agriculture in Texas. Between 1982 and 1997, 2.6 million acres of land were developed in Texas. Between 1987 and 1997, Llano County experienced less than a 3 percent increase in the number of landowners — an indication that few large landholdings were being broken up. But just to the east, Burnet County experienced a 10 to 25 percent increase. Llano County is next in line. A study completed in 2003 by American Farmland Trust and Texas Cooperative Extension ranked Llano County in the top 10 percent of Texas counties showing an increase in non-agricultural land values, an early indication that large landholdings are being cut up and sold for recreational uses. Other Hill Country counties ranking in the top 10 percent were Blanco, Kendall, Burnet, Gillespie, San Saba and Lampasas.

Hunting has been a major economic force in the Hill Country for the last half-century, enabling ranchers to stay on the land and supporting businesses in dozens of small towns. Whether it can do so in the next half-century is the plot of a drama in which all of us are playing a part.

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