Of Cows & Crawdads
Jess and Lou Womack, the 2002 Texas Lone Star Land Steward winners, envisioned taking their 8,500-acre ranch back to the way it might have looked at the turn of the century - with some decidedly 21st century scientific assistance.
By Larry D. Hodge
Sometimes the most significant changes affecting land management take place not on the ground but between the landowner's ears.
2002 Lone Star Land Steward statewide winners Jess and Lou Womack had such an epiphany as they were developing plans for managing their 8,500-acre family ranch in southern Victoria County. Crayfish kept swarming trotlines and crab traps they put out in a 1,700-acre freshwater wetland.
"The wheels inside Mr. Womack's head went to turning," says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Gary Homerstad. Homerstad and colleagues Brent Ortego and David Lobpries provide technical guidance for deer, waterfowl, quail, turkeys and nongame resources on the ranch. In 2001 the Womacks were harvesting up to 2,500 pounds of "crawdads" a day and generating income greater than the ranch's cattle brought in. "It's like they have received unforeseen rewards for putting money back into the ranch complex," Homerstad explains.
The crawdad business may have been serendipity, but the Womacks knew in general what they wanted to do with the property, which was partly inherited and partly purchased from a relative. Their land at the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers was once part of the historic, 34,000-acre McFaddin Ranch established about 1870 by one of Mr. Womack's ancestors. Cattle and cotton ruled then, and some 4,500 acres of wetlands were drained, leveed and cropped or grazed.
"When the ranch was partitioned, we took the part none of the other family members wanted," Jess Womack recalls. "It's at the end of the road eight miles from McFaddin, and floods had broken the levees along the Guadalupe. Much of the ranch was under water. Lou and I sat down with the family and talked about it, and we realized this part of the property would have mostly recreational use and less agricultural use, and that's why we decided to take it. The land was more productive when I was growing up, and I wanted to see if we could get it back to what it was like at the turn of the century."
Working with TPWD biologists and with other state and federal programs, the Womacks crafted plans for restoring the wetlands and managing aggressively for wildlife. Nearly 4,500 acres have been placed under a conservation easement in the Wetlands Reserve Program, and more than 1,800 acres are managed as part of a Texas Prairie Wetlands project. "These lands will never be built upon nor farmed," Jess Womack says proudly. "Through these easements and with financial participation by our family, we have been able to enhance the habitat quality of approximately 4,500 acres of wetlands." Homerstad puts that in perspective when he points out that the nearby Guadalupe Delta Wildlife Management Area has only 1,000 acres of freshwater wetland impoundments. The ranch contains some of the most important freshwater wetlands in the Guadalupe River drainage and is an important freshwater reservoir during droughts.
The wetlands attract more than 300 species of birds and support one of the largest colonial water bird rookeries in the Guadalupe and San Antonio floodplains. Managing water levels in the wetlands and another 2,000 acres of moist soil areas benefits wood storks, American white pelicans and a host of other species. Alligators thrive in the wetlands, and wild turkeys and white-tailed deer roam the uplands, which contain huge live oaks as well as extensive areas of brush typical of South Texas. "If I had to describe this place in one word, that word would be diversity," says Homerstad.
Diversity characterizes not only the habitat types on the ranch but also the way the Womacks manage the recreational uses of the land. "The land has got to support you," says Jess Womack. "We have fun here, but we have to make some money so we can afford to have the fun." The Womacks still run cattle on the ranch using a rotational grazing program. They also lease deer, waterfowl and feral hog hunting and sell alligator tags to hunters. The main waterfowl impoundment is licensed as a fish farm and produces crayfish, catfish, alligator gar and blue crabs. Youth hunts for deer and feral hogs help control populations.
The Womacks' future plans for the ranch include producing seed for restoration of native grasses such as Indian grass and eastern gamma grass. Through TPWD's Landowner Incentive Program, 2,000 acres of mesquite-infested uplands will be converted to open grasslands for possible future reintroduction of Attwater's prairie chickens. Another priority is the restoration of cleared river bottom into hardwood forests.
The Womacks' success is often the topic of conversation in the old McFaddin general store, which has been converted into a cafe popular with locals, many of whom are relatives. "My cousins all thought I was crazy to begin with, but they are beginning to come around to our point of view," Jess Womack says. "We have several cousins who are trying to tie together on the prairie chicken project, and some other cousins are beginning to do the same things with their property that we've done with ours. They see that it is the right thing to do."
Doing "the right thing" is important to the Womacks. "We have been given this land to take care of and be stewards of," says Lou Womack. "We think it is right to leave it better than we found it for our children and for future generations of Texans."
"I feel our greatest reward for doing this is that our children would rather be here than just about anywhere else," adds Jess Womack. "Every one of our four children has expressed an interest in keeping the ranch and maintaining it in the form we are putting it into now. We are looking forward to that fifth or sixth generation making a living off this land, and we hope we will be able to do it with these various programs and just a little luck from Mother Nature."