The booming exotics business has led to a population explosion of species such as sika and axis deer.
By Rusty Middleton
Across the top of the huge metal front gate of the historic YO Ranch west of Kerrville, ornamental iron depicts a cowboy on one side and a stately giraffe on the other. My, how things have changed out on the Texas range.
Founded as a huge cattle and sheep operation in 1880, the ranch that once raised thousands of cows now has only about 500. In their place are 10,000 deer, antelope, sheep and goats from all over the world. Driving around the ranch these days can be a surreal experience. The YO has become a 40,000-acre menagerie of domestic livestock, native wildlife and more than 50 exotic (also known as Texotics) species. There are dama gazelle, scimitar-horned oryx and wildebeest from Africa, blackbuck from Pakistan, sika deer from Japan and axis deer from India to name only a few. With the exception of the giraffe and a few other species, the exotics and native white-tailed deer are hunted for fees that vary considerably from species to species. The ranch also sells animals to breeders and companies that specialize in providing exotic game to restaurants.
“We can’t make enough on cattle to survive anymore,” says Eric White, hunting manager for the YO. “If not for exotics, this ranch would not be in existence today.”
In fact, exotics have become hugely popular with a lot of landowners in Texas. Charlie Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association based in Ingram, reports that there are now more than 5,000 ranches/landowners in Texas with exotics, and Texas has more exotics than any other state by far.
“It’s a $300 million a year industry in Texas and growing fast,” says Seale.
With that much popularity, exotics are obviously providing a lot of hunting opportunities and additional income to a growing number of people in Texas.
But if you want to own exotics, or even if you already have some of your own, the consensus among wildlife professionals is clear: You should study up on the animals and be ready for intensive management.
For many rural landowners, ranching in Texas has become something that would have been unimaginable in the 19th century. Whiteface steers have been replaced by the likes of barasingha deer and lechwe antelope, each with a unique set of biological and legal requirements ranging from disease issues and compatibility with other species to restrictions related to endangered-species regulations. It is a strange new world out there, with not much in the way of a rulebook to go by. Exotics ranchers often find themselves winging it through unfamiliar behavior and range management problems.
What happens, for example, when two separate species in the same pasture interbreed? And if that happens, what do you do with the offspring? They have little or no market value and could become a liability because they can add pressure to limited habitat.
Exotics owners frequently find themselves learning as they go and sometimes learning the hard way. Just ask Bobby Girling.
Girling, a longtime hunter, got interested in exotics a few years ago and decided to produce exotic stock with high-quality bloodlines. His Eight Points Ranch now has a well-developed breeding program with 20 species, but starting out was bumpy. He learned first-hand just how different the behavior of exotics can be from familiar domesticated stock.
Some exotics don’t understand fences and can be extremely unpredictable. Girling brought an axis deer onto a confined area on his property and, even after handling axis many times, the animal surprised him by promptly running straight into a fence and badly wounding its face. After a trip to the vet, Girling released the animal again; it ran into a fence corner and injured itself so badly it had to be put down. He soon learned how to use hoods over the eyes to calm them down at critical times. Even though almost all exotics in Texas today are born in this country, that does not mean they’ve lost their wild instincts.
“They may seem tame, but don’t press your luck. These are still wild animals,” says Girling.
And the fact that they move in herds doesn’t mean they can be easily herded. They weigh hundreds of pounds each, and their instinct is to scatter the instant they feel threatened. To be transported, exotics often have to be drugged, then loaded into a trailer.
“There’s always risk involved in transport and the use of tranquilizers,” says Doug Smith of Bear Creek Ranch in Kerrville. Exotics are often wary of people, so if he can’t get close enough to shoot from the window of his pickup, Smith will hide in a blind and wait until the target gets close enough to be darted with a tranquilizer gun. But tranquilizing wild animals is an inexact science, even for the professionals. Some animals will even die because they are more sensitive to drugs than others. Some will die simply from the stress of being moved.
Confinement is another problem. While cows and sheep will placidly graze behind a low, even poorly maintained field fence, most exotics can be confined only with an 8-foot fence, temporarily at least. It is commonly accepted that exotics will eventually get out of any fence. Or get in. One of the biggest problems exotics owners have is feral hogs breaking through a fence to get in, which, of course, allows animals to get out. For people interested in having exotics on their property, Girling strongly recommends investing in proper fencing with accompanying predator wire to keep out coyotes and feral hogs.
But fencing and confinement also lead to issues more complicated than just keeping animals in or out. Depending on the size of the property, high fences can bring an end to a landowner’s white-tailed deer population. Studies by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have shown that some common exotics such as sika and axis deer have a competitive advantage over whitetails. That’s because both will eat whitetail food — forbs (weeds and herbaceous plants) and browse (leaves of woody plants) — but exotics can also survive on grasses. Thus, when all the usual whitetail food is gone within an enclosure, exotics can keep going on grasses while whitetails starve. A TPWD study in the 1970s found that whitetails were essentially eliminated from enclosed 96-acre tracts after eight or nine years. Texas State University wildlife ecologist John Baccus, who has spent much of his career studying native deer and exotics in Texas, has also found white-tailed deer absent from several larger (4,000-plus acre) high-fenced ranches that also contained exotics after about the same length of time.
While TPWD doesn’t, for the most part, regulate exotics, it does provide guidance to landowners who want to manage for both exotics and native wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. Department biologists are available to assist landowners in developing a management plan that helps them realize their goals and protect habitat.
“If a landowner is mainly interested in white-tailed [deer], then we recommend getting rid of the exotics entirely,” says TPWD biologist Mitch Lockwood. “But if they want both, then they really need to get together with us to develop a management plan that prescribes the right mix of animals that the land can support. There is no canned solution. You need to look at each individual situation. It’s all about keeping the habitat healthy and the population in check.”
In fact, overpopulation is probably the single greatest “negative” concerning exotics in Texas. They were first brought to South Texas and the Hill Country in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the emergence of the hunting industry in the ’50s that the exotics population began to climb rapidly. A TPWD survey in the 1960s counted 13 species and about 13,000 animals. The last survey in 1996 found about 190,000 animals and 76 species. Today, estimates range from about 275,000 to well beyond a million. They are spread across Texas, but the greatest concentration is in the Hill Country. Lockwood and Baccus agree that there could be over a million free-ranging exotics in the Hill Country alone. (Free-ranging in this context means escaped or intentionally released exotics that are roaming the countryside and owned by no one.) In fact, Baccus thinks there might be almost as many exotics in Central Texas as there are white-tailed deer. Most biologists now consider several species of common exotics so numerous and self-sustaining that they are an established, permanent part of the fauna of Texas. Common exotics, mostly deer species from Asia such as axis, sika and fallow deer make up the vast majority of the free-ranging animals. The far more valuable so-called “super exotics” — often antelope species from Africa such as the gemsbok, scimitar-horned oryx and sable — also occasionally escape their enclosures, but they are much less numerous and more likely to be hunted down by the owner. It is the loose herds of common exotics that pose the greatest potential threat to native wildlife and plants.
“At the rate of increase [of exotics] we have, I can certainly foresee a problem with them in the future,” says Baccus.
So the big question is: Are white-tailed deer numbers going down, and, if so, are they declining because of exotics?
“The problem is we just don’t have a good handle on the numbers [of exotics compared to white-tailed deer],” says Max Traweek, a TPWD biologist who conducts periodic censuses of white-tailed deer in central Texas. He has found lower numbers of whitetails in some areas and is concerned about too much pressure on available habitat, but the overall numbers are about the same. TPWD does not routinely count exotics.
Even if it were conclusively shown that the presence of exotics was harming whitetails, the prospect of getting rid of free-ranging exotics or even significantly reducing their numbers is daunting.
Mark Mitchell, manager of Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area, says that eliminating exotics would be extremely difficult.
“The common exotics have a high reproductive rate,” says Mitchell. “It’s very hard to control them. In some counties I could see it taking 50 years to completely get rid of them.”
Mitchell, like many wildlife biologists, has mixed feelings about exotics. He worries about the impact that overwhelming numbers could have on white-tailed deer and other native species but appreciates the economic benefits they bring and the real boost they have pro-vided to the sport of hunting. He is conducting studies to determine which exotic species are the least demanding on habitat.
“I think we all are going to have to accept the fact that the exotics are very likely here to stay,” says Mitchell.