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The King's Birthday

The King Ranch, founded by Captain Richard King in 1853, turns 150 this year.

By Larry D. Hodge

Anyone who has heard of Texas can probably name its most legendary ranch: the King Ranch. During its long and colorful history, this ranch pioneered in the development of hybrid cattle, improved the blood lines of the quarter horse and, until a few years ago, ran a Thoroughbred racing operation. But the ranch deserves to be better known as a major force for wildlife conservation. Its 825,000 acres probably comprise the largest block of wildlife habitat in the state.

Conservation of the land has been deliberately pursued throughout the ranch’s 150-year history. “Every manager in the past has been resource-oriented,” says Paul Genho, general manager of livestock and ranch operations. “At times they sacrificed short-term profit for the protection of the resource, and that has left us a good resource to take care of.”

That’s an understatement. The ranch sprawls across most of Kleberg County and parts of three others. It fronts about 50 miles of the Laguna Madre and perhaps twice that of Baffin and Alazan bays. Towering sand dunes and 100,000 acres of live oak mottes along the coast share the ranch with 12,000 acres of wetlands and hundreds of thousands of acres of native prairies and mixed brush. White-tailed deer, quail and Rio Grande turkeys thrive alongside nongame species such as tropical parulas and green jays. Unfragmented and unspoiled, the King Ranch is a wildlife paradise.

Bucks scoring 150 to 180 Boone and Crockett points draw hunters to the ranch, but far more visitors — some 50,000 a year — come to learn about its history and view its wildlife through binoculars rather than rifle scopes. “Nature tourism fills an important need for the ranch,” Genho says. “People need to see and be in contact with nature, and to know that there is somebody preserving the wildlife.”

Wildlife biologist Thomas Langschied coordinates the ranch’s nature tours, which range from leisurely half-day jaunts targeting a variety of birds and mammals to 12-hour marathons aimed at spotting as many species of birds as possible. Tours can be arranged to cover every part of the ranch to take advantage of the varied habitat types. Birders spot as many as 95 species on the half-day tours, more than 125 on daylong excursions. Many of the birds spotted swell birders’ life lists. The ranch has the nation’s largest known population of ferruginous pygmy owls and tropical parulas, and the ranch’s 347-bird checklist includes shorebirds, hummingbirds, flycatchers, swallows, wrens, kinglets, warblers, sparrows and orioles.

“We tend to focus on the rarer species of birds,” Langschied says, but a bird common to the area draws the biggest reaction from visitors. “It seems odd to me because they are so common here, but many people gasp the first time they see a green jay.” The brilliant green-and-yellow birds often are spotted on any nature tour on the ranch.

New tours begun in 2003 target butterflies (66 species known to occur on the ranch) and dragonflies (30 species). Two of the rarest U.S. dragonflies, the blue-faced darner and the roseate skimmer, dart along a creek not far from ranch headquarters. Langschied expects more species to be recorded in the future.

A Ranch is Born

So legendary is the King Ranch that its story might well begin: “Once upon a time in a land far, far away….” Founder Richard King, the son of poor Irish immigrants, lived a rags-to-riches life, beginning as an indentured servant to a New York City jeweler, then stowing away on a ship bound for Alabama. Discovered and taken in tow by the ship’s captain, King went on to become a licensed steamboat pilot. He moved to the Rio Grande during the Mexican War, and there he and his partners dominated the riverboat business. During the Civil War, operating out of Matamoros, Mexico, King earned huge profits in the shipping trade between the Confederacy and Europe — and wisely required payment in gold rather than Confederate dollars. President Andrew Johnson pardoned King for his Civil War activities in 1865.

King used his riverboat profits to buy land southwest of Corpus Christi beginning in 1853. Needing workers, he convinced the entire population of a Mexican village to move to the King Ranch, promising them and their descendants work for life in a mirror image of the hacienda system common in Mexico. Kineños, or “King’s men,” still make up about half of King Ranch employees, though lifetime employment is guaranteed no longer. By the time of his death in 1885, King controlled more than 600,000 acres.

In a state in which habitat fragmentation is the No. 1 problem facing wildlife, the King Ranch stands out as an exception, and most of the credit goes to two women: Henrietta King, wife of Richard, and their daughter, Alice. Richard and Henrietta King did not want the ranch to be split up after their deaths. She survived him, and in her will she put the ranch into a 10-year trust upon her death. This gave Alice, with the help of her husband, Robert Justus Kleberg, time to carry out her parents’ wishes. She set up a corporation, King Ranch, Inc., and deeded to it all the property she inherited as well as land she purchased from other heirs. She sold all the stock in King Ranch, Inc., to her five children, and their descendants still own the corporation today.

The sons of Robert Justus and Alice Kleberg, Richard Mifflin (Dick Sr.) and Robert J. (Bob) Kleberg, oversaw the transformation of the King Ranch into a multinational operation with more than a million acres in Texas, Cuba, Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain and Morocco. In 1940 the Santa Gertrudis breed, developed on the ranch by blending 3⁄8 Brahman and 5⁄8 Shorthorn, was recognized as the first breed of cattle developed in America. The following year one of the ranch’s quarter horses, Wimpy, earned the top spot in the American Quarter Horse Association Stud Book by virtue of being named grand champion stallion of the Fort Worth Exposition and Fat Stock Show. Wimpy’s descendants still work cattle on the ranch today. The ranch also expanded into Thoroughbred breeding and racing, producing a Triple Crown winner, Assault, in 1946 before bowing out of the business in 1998.

Pioneers in Wildlife Management

The King Ranch attacked every aspect of ranching with determination, developing new methods of brush control, better grasses, better corrals, better fences. By the 1970s the ranch controlled 11.5 million acres worldwide and was engaged in real estate development, oil and gas production and several other businesses.

Oil and gas production began in 1939 and increased in importance over time. The billion dollars in royalties the ranch earned during the 50 years following World War II made it possible to keep the ranch together and enhance wildlife habitat. Caesar Kleberg (Robert’s nephew) laid the foundation for future conservation work while working on the ranch from 1900 to 1946. His game management rules concentrated on limiting harvest. Turkeys had to be shot in the head with a rifle (resulting in either a clean kill or a clean miss), and hens were not hunted. Quail could not be fired on at the initial covey rise. Deer had to be shot in the neck or head, and hunting was suspended during the rut. Game could not be hunted at watering sites or other places of concentration. Few does were taken. Members of the Kleberg family did almost all the hunting.

With Mother Nature managing the wildlife, population levels experienced wide swings, and ranch managers recognized the need for science-based management. King Ranch hired its first wildlife biologist, Val Lehmann, in 1945. The science of wildlife management was still in its infancy; Aldo Leopold’s textbook, Game Management, the first of its kind, was published in 1933. Lehmann schooled himself on bobwhite quail and became a leading authority on the species; his book Bobwhites in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas is still a valuable tool.

“Caesar Kleberg was a great brain who thought that wildlife ought to be taken care of,” says Genho. “Years ago there was no economic value to wildlife. It’s amazing to me that even then King Ranch hired wildlife biologists and managed the wildlife.”

The King Ranch today employs five full-time wildlife biologists, leases more than 500,000 acres to corporations, conducts guided hunts on about 80,000 acres and reserves about 210,000 acres for family members and the employee hunting club. Each leaseholder is required to have a full-time or consulting biologist. Lessees report game harvest weekly during the season for entry into a custom computer program that allows the ranch to monitor harvest constantly. The ranch holds a field day each year before hunting season for lease holders and their biologists to preview the upcoming season and explain changes in harvest requirements and cosponsors a deer management short course each fall using nationally recognized experts.

“Our overall goal is to ensure that King Ranch always has a thriving wildlife population,” says Mickey Hellickson, chief wildlife biologist. “Most herd managers worry about next year or five years down the road; we are looking decades ahead.”

The importance of wildlife to the ranch’s economic well-being is a fairly recent development, one shared by smaller ranches from Dalhart to Brownsville. “In 1978, King Ranch leased its first property for hunting,” says wildlife manager Butch Thompson. “Large-scale commercial hunting started in 1988.” The need to generate income from wildlife came at a fortuitous time, when demand for hunting was increasing and income from oil was falling.

Thompson became wildlife manager for the ranch in 1988. He enlisted the help of the late Sam Beasom of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute near Sinton and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Randy Fugate to design a wildlife management program that would support commercial hunting. Annual censuses of the deer herd began, along with the collection of biological data on every animal harvested. Lessees must harvest a minimum number of does, along with a maximum number of high-quality bucks. Lessees may also take an unlimited number of older bucks with inferior antlers. The intent of the regulations is to leave plenty of trophy bucks in the herd to pass on their genes. On average, hunters take 1,200 bucks and 2,500 does off the ranch each year.

The ranch hosts 75 to 100 youth hunts for does and cull bucks each year as a way of helping manage the wildlife. Hunts are organized by a variety of organizations, including the Texas Wildlife Association and local high school Future Farmers of America programs. TPWD game wardens also conduct youth hunts on the ranch.

Nothing better illustrates the ranch’s commitment to wildlife than its management of bobwhite quail. On the King Ranch, a six-ounce quail is as important as an 1,100-pound heifer. Quail are a major drawing card for hunters, attracting more interest than deer. Cattle and quail vie for top revenue-generating honors. Most years quail rank first, cattle second. Deer take third place, followed by horses, though the rankings can change from year to year depending on range conditions. “Incomes from wildlife and cattle are roughly equivalent,” says Genho. “Some years cattle blow wildlife away; other years it’s more wildlife. Neither wildlife alone nor cattle alone will pay enough to operate a ranch.”

Quail numbers on the ranch fluctuate wildly depending on rainfall. “Add water in the spring and you will have quail,” Thompson says. “Our best harvest year was 80,000 birds; the average is around 14,000.” Since quail usually are the No. 1 revenue generator for the ranch, range management practices are geared toward quail first, then cattle, then deer. So valued is quail hunting that there is no need for harvest quotas.

“We have very enthusiastic quail hunters, and they do a very good job of controlling their harvest, because they want to take care of their quail as badly as King Ranch does,” says Hellickson. “In years of poor quail numbers some lessees will not hunt quail at all, and they are paying a substantial amount of money for those leases.”

Cattle ranching and hunting operations are highly integrated. “The King Ranch is unique in that most people see cattle and wildlife as opposing entities,” says Hellickson. “Here, both wildlife managers and cattle managers compromise.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the brush management practices of the ranch. Bulldozers sculpt pastures to contain 65 percent open grassland and 35 percent brush arranged for the benefit of quail and deer. Range manager Verl Cash maps the brush in each pasture using a GIS (Geographic Information System) database and downloads the information onto computers aboard the bulldozers. GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites guide the machines as they clank and roar through the pastures, taking out only designated areas of brush.

Valuing the Land

All management practices on the ranch begin and end with taking care of the land. Some 60,000 cattle roam the ranch; a four-pasture, three-herd grazing system designed to reduce grazing pressure quickly during droughts is used in the pastures that are still in native bunch grasses. “Everything we do goes back to dirt,” says Thompson. “If you have good dirt and take care of it, you have what it takes to grow good deer.”

Long-range planning and innovation have been keys to the ranch’s success since its inception. Currently the ranch is conducting genetic research on white-tailed deer and is evaluating the effectiveness of different methods of censusing quail. In addition, many students at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute use the ranch as a research laboratory.

A hundred years ago the list of King Ranch products included only cattle, horses and leather goods. Today King Ranch is a highly diversified agricultural and energy operation, producing not only the same 19th century products but also cotton, milo, lawn sod, orange juice, oil and natural gas. It welcomes visitors interested in nature and ranch history as well as hunting.

In celebration of its 150th birthday, the ranch established the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management in cooperation with Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The Institute aims to provide future ranch managers a broad-based education in wildlife, cattle and range management principles.

Richard and Henrietta King’s dream for their ranch has been realized. Caesar Kleberg’s vision of the importance of wildlife has been sustained and developed. And all of Texas is the better for sharing the King Ranch heritage.

Larry D. Hodge, formerly wildlife editor of this magazine, now works at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens.

For More Information

Visit www.kingranch.com for an overview of ranch history and operations and detailed information on hunting, visitation and guided tours. The King Ranch Visitor Center, open daily, is just inside the ranch entrance on Texas 141 on Kingsville’s western edge. Call (361) 592-8055 for hours, fees and reservations.

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