Critics to state parks officials: Don’t mess with Texas’ longhorns

Posted Thursday, May. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Tough, tenacious and resilient, the Texas longhorn has been embedded in Fort Worth’s culture since the massive cattle drives of the late 1800s gave the city its enduring nickname — Cowtown.

Today, silver longhorns grace the lapels of city officials. Live ones tromp down Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards twice a day, seven days a week. And more than a dozen businesses include longhorns in their logos.

The unbreakable bond between the iconic bovine and Fort Worth — now the nation’s 16th-largest city, with gleaming skyscrapers and a 21st-century economy — also helps explain why Mike Coston has a deep interest in a small herd of longhorns nearly 600 miles away, in far West Texas.

As president and CEO of the Fort Worth-based Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, Coston has come down on the side of a Central Texas legislator who opposes state plans to depopulate a herd of reclusive longhorns at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages the ranch, says free-roaming wild cattle threaten the park’s delicate ecological balance and has sold off two-thirds of the herd, leaving about 40 or 50. The department plans to maintain 10 display longhorns in a managed 3,000-acre section of the park that will be accessible to visitors.

Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, a veterinarian from Waco, wants to halt any further sales, saying the cattle are part of the state’s heritage. “These cattle don’t belong to the Parks and Wildlife Department,” he says. “These cattle belong to the people of Texas.”

Coston shares those sentiments and says he hopes to use his group’s influence to keep the herd at the ranch, which sprawls over 316,000 acres of mountainous terrain in the Chihuahuan Desert. The ranch, acquired by the state in the 1960s, is near the better-known Big Bend National Park.

“Most of them have never seen humans,” Coston said. “They are as much a part of the landscape as the rock and the cactus.”

A sharply different viewpoint comes from Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, whom Gov. Rick Perry reappointed this week to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, which sets policy for the Parks and Wildlife Department.

“We’re not trying to denigrate the longhorn,” Duggins said. “With a park that size, it is unwise stewardship to have a bunch of feral longhorns roaming throughout the park, where we just don’t have the infrastructure to control and manage a cattle herd.”

Duggins said the department is sensitive to the longhorn’s rich contributions to Texas and hopes to “tell the history of the longhorns and ranching” in the 3,000-acre exhibit area.

Department officials also point out that Texas has an official longhorn herd at the Fort Griffin State Historic Site, in addition to longhorns at nearly a half-dozen other state parks.

Anderson said he filed legislation to halt the sell-off after learning of the plans from a constituent. Although his bill appears virtually certain to die with the approach of a key deadline at midnight tonight, the 67-year-old lawmaker said he is considering other alternatives.

One option, he said, would be to work with the Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee, which oversees the parks agency, to find an interim solution after lawmakers adjourn May 27.

“It’s an important issue for the state of Texas,” Anderson said Wednesday. “We’re still trying to pursue the issue for sure.”

One thing that isn’t in dispute is the longhorn’s almost mythical stature in Texas history.

With a heritage dating to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, the longhorn is as much a part of Texas lore as the Comanche warrior, the gun-toting cowboy and the flamboyant wildcatters of the oil boom.

Longhorns descended as feral cattle from the strays that wandered off from herds brought into the country by Spanish settlers. Then, as well as now, they proved to be highly adaptable, capable of confronting any hostile condition that Texas could throw at them.

“They’re a very efficient foraging animal,” said Roger Hutton, president of the International Texas Longhorn Association in Glen Rose. “Any place you have marginal land, longhorns will flourish.”

They made their reputation — and formed the storyline for hundreds of Westerns, from Red River to Lonesome Dove — in the days after the Civil War, when trail drives pushed them eastward and northward to help feed the postwar population’s demand for meat.

“They’re a fascinating breed of animal,” Hutton said. “Their real significance in this country is that there would have been a lot of people that would have starved to death after the Civil War if they hadn’t been here.”

Hundreds of thousands of longhorns thundered into the dusty streets of early Fort Worth in the latter half of the 19th century, pushed along by drovers who also took time to enjoy the saloons and brothels in the red-light district known as Hell’s Half Acre.

“These are the animals that put Texas back on the map after the Civil War and gave people in Texas a chance to rebuild themselves,” former Fort Worth Councilman Jim Lane said.

“No matter what color you were or where you came from, if you could ride a horse and weren’t afraid of moving cattle, you participated in the cattle drives.”

Big draw in Cowtown

Lane, who served on the council from 1993 to 2005 and is seeking a return to his old district in Saturday’s election, helped found the Fort Worth Herd — at least 15 longhorns that run along Exchange Avenue at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day.

The tradition, which started in 1999, has attracted more than 700,000 visitors, according to Fort Worth Trail Boss Kristin Jaworski. One of the original herd — Sancho — now resides on Lane’s ranch in Parker County.

“We get visitors from all over the world who come to Fort Worth and the first question they ask us is, ‘Where are the longhorns?’” Jaworski said. “It’s such an icon of Texas. We’re very proud to be able to represent that breed.”

Thousands of breeders worldwide raise longhorns for everything from novelty and recreation to specialty meat sales.

Hutton said longhorn meat is the second-healthiest, next to salmon, and is low in fat and high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.

In contrast to the much-photographed longhorns that parade through the Stockyards, the cattle on the Big Bend Ranch State Park seldom interact with humans as they wander about searching for food and water.

Rugged country

State Parks Director Brent Leisure said the herd came with the ranch property, which was largely used for sheep and goat ranching, when the state bought it in the 1960s.

“So these cattle for a number of years have just been in a free-ranging condition all over that 300,000-plus-acres state park,” said Leisure, adding that cattle often wander into “rather sensitive areas” such as springs and riverbeds.

“Plus they’re not very accessible to the public,” he said. “It’s very unlikely you can go out there and see one.”

Leisure said that the property lacks infrastructure necessary to maintain the cattle, such as fencing and water pipelines, and that the cost to install such equipment would be prohibitive.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sold 107 head at auction last fall, leaving 40 or 50 in “rugged mountainous country,” Leisure said.

Parks officials developed the 3,000-acre pasture just south of the ranger station and park headquarters to display 10 selectively chosen longhorns and provide manageable conditions for them. “People can appreciate the role that longhorns played in the ranching areas of Texas,” he said.

Leisure said stopping the department from selling the free-ranging livestock would undercut the department’s longhorn management plan and threaten its efforts to protect ecologically sensitive areas in the ranch.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed the department’s strategy.

The department also works with the Texas Historical Commission to manage the official Texas Longhorn Herd at Fort Griffin, which Leisure said is designed to ensure that “the integrity of the breed is sustained over time.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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