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November 2009

Big Bucks for Big Bucks

Interest in deer hunting remains strong. But for some Texans, finding a place to hunt means traveling a lot further than in previous decades.

Millions of deer attract billions of dollars.

by Gerard MacCrossan

Each year, more than 1.1 million hunters take aim at Texas game. Ninety percent are state residents, and while hunting is more popular among rural Texans, more than 600,000 hunters trade urban sprawl for the great outdoors.

Hunting is worth $2.2 billion annually to the Texas economy, according to the 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. On average, each hunter spends $1,984 to hunt for 13 days each year.

Who Hunts in Texas?

In 2006 –

  • 62 percent of adults hunting in Texas lived in urban areas.
  • 8 percent of adult hunters were female.
  • 11 percent of adult hunters were 65 or older; 45 percent were aged 25 to 44.
  • Deer were their most popular quarry; 890,000 hunters accounted for 10.65 million days of hunting deer.
  • 123,000 of Texas’ 1.1 million hunters came from out of state.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Spending for Hunting

In 2006, hunters in Texas accounted for almost 10 percent of all hunting-related expenditures in the U.S.

ItemTexas
(Millions)
U.S.
(Millions)
Travel, Food, Lodging, Fees, etc.$873.9$6,678.6
Hunting Equipment$445.5$5,366.4
Other Equipment$340.0$5,635.1
Other$563.1$5,483.0
TOTAL*$2,222.5$22,893.1

*Totals reflect rounding

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

And deer are the most popular quarry.

From big spenders who pay thousands for a guided trophy hunt to weekend hunters looking for a fat doe for the freezer, two-thirds of hunters in Texas stalk native white-tailed deer. And the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) estimates 63 percent of those hunters found their target last winter, culminating in a white-tailed harvest of almost 620,000 deer – 20 percent more than the 2007-08 deer season.

Better Management, Better Deer

The 2008-09 hunting season was the most successful for white-tailed deer hunters in this decade, and the busiest in terms of hunters taking to the field, according to TPWD. The quality of Texas deer is improving, too, thanks to wildlife management efforts that have intensified during the past 20 years. These have improved the animals’ health and antler quality, particularly on high-fenced properties that maintain deer for commercial hunting.

Hunting is worth $2.2 billion annually to the Texas economy.

“The most successful managers plan for drought years,” says Mitch Lockwood, TPWD’s white-tailed deer program leader. “The number-one question for the better managers is ‘how many deer can my land support under the worst conditions?’

“The fawn crop this year is better than it would have been 20 years ago, when landowners weren’t managing wildlife,” he says.

Ranch breeding programs have changed the dynamics of trophy deer hunting by making large white-tailed bucks far more common.

Dr. Mickey Hellickson, chief wildlife biologist on the famed King Ranch, says the market for trophy buck hunts remains strong. But he cautions that the forces of supply and demand – and the faltering economy – are catching up with the hunting industry.

“Generally speaking, the demand for commercial packaged hunts has dropped off a little bit, and management buck hunts [which thin the herds of less desirable deer] to a lesser degree,” Hellickson says. “We still have a waiting list for the more exclusive high-end deer hunts.”

While the King Ranch has a large commercial hunting operation, many ranch owners allow hunting on their lands not so much to turn a profit as to offset their taxes and other operational costs.

For those who maintain herds for hunting, feed costs can be huge, Lockwood says. “Tens of thousands of dollars [in annual feeding costs] is the norm for ranches of a couple of thousand acres,” he says. And hunting fees rarely recoup the cost of the high fences many ranchers build to contain deer herds.

“To net the most money, a landowner needs the least overhead – no feed, no high fence,” Lockwood says. “But netting the most money and consistently raising the biggest deer may be conflicting goals. For some, it’s a question of bragging rights – who has the biggest deer.”

Maintaining Habitat

Interest in deer hunting remains strong. But for some Texans, finding a place to hunt means traveling a lot further than in previous decades. Subdividing ranches for housing developments is a common occurrence in bedroom communities such as Bandera County near San Antonio.

“[Hunting] is still a very important part of the Bandera County economy, but it has changed,” says Johnny Boyle, owner of Bandera True Value, which sells hunting supplies and equipment. “It used to be [all about] that eight-week rush of the white-tailed season. Now there are not as many leases available as there once were, but there is more year-round hunting for hogs, axis deer and other exotics.” (Non-native “exotic” deer such as axis deer are not subject to restricted hunting seasons.)

And hunters seeking their own land are heading further west than Bandera, Boyle says.

“Instead of buying 400 acres in the Hill Country, they go to Rocksprings [in Edwards County] and buy 1,500 acres,” he says.

Even so, hunting remains highly important to rural Texas, says David K. Langford, a member of TPWD’s White Tailed Deer Advisory Committee and vice president emeritus of the Texas Wild-life Association, which lobbies on behalf of ranch owners and outdoors enthusiasts.

“Without income from hunting, most of rural Texas would have a lot more asphalt than it already does,” he says. “In those areas in the Texas Hill Country and South Texas without minerals, income from hunting and general recreational income is a major factor in holding ranches together against development.

“Landowners who want to keep their ranches intact are looking to diversify their income,” he says. “If you don’t have oil and gas, nature-related income is the next best thing.”

Langford and his wife Myrna live on more than 300 acres that was once part of a Kendall County ranch settled by his great-grandfather Alfred Giles. The Langfords and a neighboring ranch market their lands together as the Block Creek Natural Area, welcoming visitors for wildlife and nature photography excursions.

“If we are going to remain relevant, whether people want to go mountain biking or hunting, we need to welcome them,” he says.

Adapting to Survive

Hunting isn’t immune to tough economic times. Businesses that rely on hunting have to adapt, says taxidermist and animal processor Gary Broach, owner of Rhodes Bros. Taxidermy in Kerrville.

“Guys like us in Kerrville are fortunate to have year-round hunting with the axis herds and sika and fallow deer,” Broach says. “A lot of small taxidermists out there, rural guys, are really hurting,” he says. “I’ve talked to them about where they need to put advertising dollars and where to get in with ranches. I like the fact they aren’t giving up. They just need to regroup.”

This winter, “I expect processing to be up and taxidermy down,” Broach says. “Processing is going to put meat in the freezer.

“There is an oversupply of deer in 2009,” he says. “The bountiful harvest has hit at the same time as the bad economy. The positive is guys who can’t afford a $7,000 or $8,000 deer, but have $3,000 or $4,000 might be able to find some bargains on trophy hunts.”

Broach says ranchers who are managing herds still need to keep herd numbers in check. He also is confident that even if spending slows this year, the hunting economy will rebound.

“I watched everybody’s booked hunts disappear after 9/11,” he says. “We rebounded from that. I think we are going to rebound fine.” FN

Read more about the economic contributions of hunting and fishing in Texas and the U.S. in the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. (PDF, 4.1M)

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