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Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD

Chaparral WMA


Roughing It

Wildlife management areas offer few amenities but plenty of adventure.

by Russell Roe


When Larry Hodge set out to write the Official Guide to Texas Wildlife Management Areas, he borrowed an RV, brought along his aging cat and hit the road for six weeks.

The resulting tour gave Hodge, who visited almost all of the 50-plus wildlife management areas (WMAs), glimpses of some of the state’s wildest corners and best-preserved habitat, including coastal marsh, desert mountains and pine forests.

“I think WMAs are one of the most overlooked and underutilized recreational opportunities that people have in Texas,” Hodge says. “Most people think they’re just for hunting, and that’s far from the case. Most of the year, most of them are open for camping and hiking and bike riding. Some have equestrian trails. There are plenty of opportunities, and you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself, which is one of the great advantages.”

WMAs, owned and managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, serve primarily as places to preserve ecosystems, protect wildlife and restore habitat. They also provide spots for public hunting and offer invaluable guidance to landowners. University students and biologists from across the country use WMAs to study topics such as songbird recovery after a fire. And there’s more.

WMAs also provide Texans with dozens of places to camp, hike, bike, paddle and go bird watching. All for a $12 annual permit.

Adventures await! At WMAs, you can camp on a coastal island that was visited by pirates and explorers (Matagorda Island), search for bighorn sheep in the rugged mountains of West Texas (Elephant Mountain), participate in the Christmas Bird Count that consistently ranks No. 1 in the nation (Mad Island), and paddle through the cypress swamp of East Texas’ dense and diverse Forks of the River (Angelina-Neches/Dam B).

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Gus Engeling WMA


WMAs vs. STATE PARKS

It’s not as easy to visit a WMA as it is to visit a state park. State parks are managed for outdoor recreation and public visitation, and WMAs aren’t. You’ve got to work a little harder to visit a WMA — researching what’s available, checking on opening hours and current conditions and sometimes coordinating with WMA staff. WMA campsites usually don’t have water or electricity and sometimes are barely more than a cleared spot on the ground.

“They’re not for everybody,” Hodge says. “They’re not a park. They’re not maintained like a park.”

Hiking, biking and horseback riding usually occur on dirt roads, not trails.

Jeffrey Gunnels of Gus Engeling WMA points out that state parks and WMAs have different purposes.

“We don’t spend money on infrastructure as compared to a state park,” he says. “State parks serve a different role in the state of Texas — that role being recreation. Our overarching goal is sound habitat management. Most of the roads on our WMAs are dirt roads. We have primitive campsites only. Hunters seem to be fine with that. But it doesn’t attract other users who expect a lot of amenities.”

WMAs are natural treasures little known to most Texans. In many cases, they represent the particular ecosystem that surrounds them.

“All these WMAs were set aside because they have something rare and unique,” Gunnels says.

TPWD’s goal is to preserve all the iconic landscapes of Texas, from the Rolling Plains of the Panhandle to the Pineywoods of East Texas to the Brush Country of South Texas to the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas.

If you’ve ever wanted to see Texas habitat the way it was before settlement swept through, WMAs might provide your best opportunity to do so.

“It’s real. It’s real Texas,” Hodge says. “It’s not some landscaper’s idea of what Texas ought to be.”

Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD

Chaparral

Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD

Angelina-Neches/Dam B


VISITING WMAs

If you want to visit a WMA, you might start with some of the regional WMAs that have bigger staffs and are better suited to handling public visitation. Those include Chaparral WMA in South Texas, Matador WMA in the Rolling Plains, Black Gap WMA in West Texas, Kerr WMA in the Hill Country and Gus Engeling WMA in East Texas.

Potential visitors can also go to the WMA section of the TPWD website and use a search feature that sorts WMAs by the types of activities offered: biking, camping, driving, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, hunting and wildlife viewing. A search for camping, for example, produced a list of 21 WMAs across the state where camping is available. Searching for wildlife viewing brought up more than 40 suitable WMAs.

I had previously visited Kerr WMA to learn about deer and Elephant Mountain WMA to observe the capture and transfer of bighorn sheep. But in general, WMAs were a little-known quantity to me.

My visit to Chaparral WMA this past spring took me to the Brush Country that covers so much of South Texas. The “Chap” is one of the state’s premier public hunting sites, known for its big-bodied whitetail bucks.

“Our primary purpose here at Chap is research and demonstration,” Whitney Gann, WMA manager, told me. “We collaborate with universities, facilitate access for research purposes and conduct our own long-term research for the purpose of demonstrating that to neighboring landowners.”

The 15,200-acre Chap also allows biking, camping, driving, hiking and wildlife viewing. The campground contains about 20 sites, with a separate area for RVs.

Gann drove me around the 8.5-mile Paisano Driving Trail, which features several stops that explain wildlife management techniques and other features. A roadrunner scurried ahead of us before jumping into a tree. Later, Gann spotted a crested caracara flying by. She pointed out the closed canopy brush that allows the deer to keep cool in summer heat.

A later drive around the loop produced a bobcat sighting, more birds and a group of white-tailed deer. I could hear bobwhite quail making their distinctive bob-white call but was unable to lay eyes on one.

The next morning, I took my mountain bike out on the loop and noticed things I hadn’t noticed in the car: rabbits scurrying into the brush and dung beetles pushing perfectly round balls of dung to their appropriate destination.

My trip to Matador WMA, in the Rolling Plains of the Panhandle, happened after a couple of tornadoes swept through the area the day before, and the wind was still pretty lively.

“A big focus here is grassland restoration,” says Matador manager Chip Ruthven. “We manage from an ecosystem approach. This ecosystem evolved with fire and grazing. The natural lightning strike fires and bison grazing would have influenced the plants and animals here in this ecosystem.”

Ruthven and his staff have been battling the encroaching brush with prescribed burning and rotational cattle grazing.

“We’re trying to show landowners you can do X-Y-Z to benefit wildlife, restore grassland and still have a productive livestock operation,” he says.

As Ruthven drove me around the WMA’s roads, the lush grasses waved in the wind, reflecting the decades of work done to restore the habitat. We scared up a badger that ran in front of the truck for a while until it veered off into the grass. I spotted several Mississippi kites, a great horned owl and a roadrunner. The 28,000-acre WMA is home to mule deer, horned lizards, bobcats, box turtles, bobwhite quail and numerous grassland birds.

The Middle Pease River runs the length of the WMA and creates what Ruthven calls “rough break country” with hills and bluffs. The campground has shaded picnic tables and a bathroom but no water or electricity.

At Gus Engeling WMA, it has taken years of work to restore the waist-high grasses and large scattered trees that defined the post oak savannah. The WMA also contains hundreds of acres of hardwood bottomlands, wetlands and sphagnum moss bogs.

“We are managing for native ecosystems — what was historically here — and don’t get bogged down in managing for one species,” Gunnels says. “We see the greatest diversity and abundance of species — whether birds, reptiles, amphibians or small mammals — when we manage for the native habitats. A lot of time the wildlife will take care of itself if you provide their native habitat.”

He says the WMA attracts bird watchers, botanists and herpetology groups in addition to school groups and hunters. Catfish Creek — one of 20 National Natural Landmarks in Texas — has campsites that can fill up in spring and fall.

The bog areas harbor carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants, providing a home to one of the rarest dragonflies in North America.

“We had people coming from out of state just to see a new species of dragonfly found near some of our sphagnum peat bogs,” Gunnels says. “That fits what we do here. We’re conserving some rare habitats, so there are some unique species that show up.”

At the Angelina-Neches/Dam B WMA, my paddling companions and I launched our canoe and kayak into the Angelina River and headed downstream to our campsite at the confluence of the Angelina and Neches rivers. We hung our hammocks and started a campfire at our secluded campsite, accessible only by boat. As dusk arrived, we were treated to a colorful sunset for the memory books with oranges, purples and pinks reflecting off the clouds and the water.

Public campsites along a river are a rarity in Texas; these paddle-up sites are located within the WMA and reservable through the Corps of Engineers.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Matador WMA



A $12 limited public use permit is required in most cases (except some driving tours) for visiting WMAs. It allows camping, hiking, birding and other non-hunting recreational activities for a year.


A $48 annual public hunting permit allows hunting in addition to the other activities.


WHERE THE BIRDS ARE

The rich habitat found at WMAs means wildlife watching can bring rewards. Birders are finding that WMAs can be great places to find sought-after species.

“WMAs have good habitat. By and large, they have some of the best habitat,” says Brent Ortego, former TPWD wildlife diversity biologist for South Texas. “Each of the units is a special place of Texas. Each of those units has been acquired because it has significant wildlife value.”

Quality habitat often means quality bird watching.

Mad Island WMA plays a major role in the Matagorda County–Mad Island Marsh Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s No. 1 bird count for several years running, with a typical tally of about 230 species.

“Yellow rail, black rail — very secretive, uncommon species — purple gallinule, cinnamon teal, Aplomado falcon. Those are some of the targets on the WMA,” says Ortego, who helps coordinate the count.

The Guadalupe River Delta Christmas Bird Count, which includes the Guadalupe Delta WMA, often comes in second or third in U.S. species diversity.

“Think about that,” Ortego says. “[Texas] Parks and Wildlife is managing those lands — the No. 1 and No. 3 Christmas bird counts in the nation.”

Richland Creek WMA, just down the road from Gus Engeling, contains a series of wetland ponds that prove popular with bird watchers — and birds. During migration, tremendous numbers of birds — ducks and other waterfowl — can be seen on the water. D.D. Currie has been watching birds there for years.

“The birding there is fantastic,” she says. “The constructed wetlands are a huge draw for birds. You can also find birds in the surrounding woodlands, so it’s a good combination of habitats.”

Ortego finds birding at WMAs rewarding but sometimes frustrating.

“People pretty much know what to expect at state parks,” he says. “There’s staffing; they’re open every day. WMAs have multiple types of public use depending on staffing, and they may not be open every day. Most of them are not. At Guadalupe Delta, the place has two people and 7,200 acres. There’s limitations about what they can provide.”


WILD PLACES

Texas has fewer and fewer wild places left as the years roll on. If you like solitude and wild places with unparalleled natural diversity and don’t mind roughing it, a visit to a wildlife management area might be in order. And it won’t break the bank. The $12 limited use permit gets you into dozens of WMAs for a whole year.

“Camp, hike, bike, bird, fish — this is one of the best bargains I know of in getting out in the Texas outdoors,” Hodge says. “Don’t go expecting to have a state park experience. You don’t have electricity and hookups and all that kind of stuff. But when you can camp multiple places for 12 bucks a year, what’s not to like.”


Managing Editor Russell Roe is a fan of state parks and wildlife management areas.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

WHAT'S WHAT

STATE PARK: An area of natural or scenic character developed to provide public recreational opportunities.


STATE NATURAL AREA: An area established for the stewardship of outstanding natural attributes and developed for appropriate public use.


STATE HISTORIC SITE: A site that is prominently identified with some important aspect of the history of the state.


WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA: An area established to represent habitats and wildlife populations of an ecological region of Texas, with the primary focus of wildlife research, sound resource management, and demonstration of proven habitat management techniques for landowners and others interested in managing for wildlife.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Richland Creek WMA


Larry Hodge's WMA Picks

Larry Hodge literally wrote the book on WMAs. Here are some of his recommendations:


West Texas: Black Gap has it all. It’s right next door to Big Bend National Park. It’s 103,000 acres of desert and mountains, and it’s absolutely so quiet out there. It has primitive camping, it’s got hiking, it’s got biking, and it has the Rio Grande for fishing along the boundary.


Panhandle: Another favorite is the Matador, with the Pease River running through it. That attracts a lot of wildlife. You’ll see deer, turkeys, hogs and whatever else. It’s in that red dirt country. It’s really pretty. It’s very hilly and rugged and offers lots of scenery. I like Gene Howe as well. It’s a really good place to see the kinds of things you wouldn’t see elsewhere, like prairie dogs.


South Texas: When I happened to be at the Chaparral, it had some of the most gorgeous wildflowers. When South Texas gets a rain, it puts on its Sunday clothes. It has a campground that has an RV section. Beats the hell out of a Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s a place you can see some really good deer.


East Texas: My No. 1 WMA in East Texas would have to be Caddo Lake (separate from the state park). Take a kayak, take a canoe — whatever you do, get on the water. Kayaking that place is just absolutely amazing.


Tips for Visiting WMAs

DON'T EXPECT THE AMENITIES of a state park such as trails, drinking water or bathrooms. CHECK BEFORE YOU GO for visitation times, limited hours and possible closures (especially during hunting season). OBTAIN PERMITS AHEAD OF TIME anywhere hunting licenses are sold; they are not available at the WMAs. A state parks pass is not valid for visiting a WMA.



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