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A Half-Century of Service

TPWD celebrates 50 years of caring for Texas’ wild places and creatures.

By Louie Bond

An agency is born

While we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as we know it today, the mission of protecting the state’s natural resources actually began in 1895 with the creation of the Fish and Oyster Commission. A Game Department was added in 1907, and a State Parks Board was created as a separate entity in 1923. In 1963, all interests were merged to form the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

For two decades after that, county governments could veto TPWD regulations, but passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1983 gave the agency authority to manage fish and wildlife resources for all counties in Texas.

Texas parks began to bloom before 1963, of course. The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s laid the foundation for the park system we have today. So many years later, park visitors are still moved by the nostalgic beauty of the Bastrop State Park cabins, the iconic Indian Lodge and Palo Duro Canyon’s rugged rock buildings.

Through challenges and triumphs, the philosophy behind the agency’s mission — “to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations” — has been its guiding force throughout the past five decades.

Big Bend Ranch

Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Crown jewels of parkland

The Texas Legislature began acquiring land tracts for preservation as early as 1883, and by 1963, there were 58 parks, designated back then as recreational, scenic and historical parks and state historic sites. Big changes came in 1967, with the first-ever bond issue for a $75 million state park acquisition and development program.

With these funds, parks like prehistoric Dinosaur Valley and the urban oasis of McKinney Falls were birthed. The soothing waters in parks like Pedernales Falls, Galveston Island, Lake Livingston and Guadalupe River give Texans respite from summer’s heat. Enchanted Rock draws climbers to its mystical summit, and each fall, scores make the pilgrimage to Lost Maples to see the riotous display of color. Natural wonders like Devil’s Sinkhole and historical treasures like Seminole Canyon have been protected and preserved during the past half-century. In 1988, Big Bend Ranch State Park became the largest tract ever acquired. Its 215,000 acres doubled state parkland.

In 2012, more than 8 million people visited the state’s 95 parks, historic sites and natural areas.

Enhancing the park experience

Interpretation efforts got a jumpstart in 1965, with the development of an interpretive master plan for each state park. Interpretation is really anything that helps visitors enjoy and appreciate their state park experiences. It ranges from simple rustic signage along trails to accurate, detailed historical re-creations. The Texas Outdoor Family Program was created in 2008. It’s an inexpensive opportunity for families to learn to camp with experts to guide them and gear provided.

A quick look at the state park website events page shows that park programs offer myriad ways to have inexpensive fun in the most beautiful settings, no matter what your age or interest. Did you know that fishing is free in state parks and that some parks even provide loaner gear? Crystal skies out west invite stargazing parties; wildlife watching programs offer a look at creatures that crawl, swim, fly and slither. Need to burn off energy? Try horseback riding, mountain biking, road racing or rock climbing.

TPWD’s work to preserve cultural resources can be seen at exhibits like LBJ State Park’s Sauer-Beckmann Farm, where visitors can imagine themselves living in 1918 Texas. What better way to experience the times and efforts of the state’s founding fathers than to immerse yourself in their world through historical re-enactments at Washington-on-the-Brazos? View the San Jacinto Battleground from the deck of the nearby Battleship Texas, which has a rich history of its own. Buffalo Soldiers remind us not only of the lives of those historic soldiers, but also of the rich cultural diversity that makes Texas great. Even the earliest settlers were inspired by the flora and fauna of this land, as you can see in the pictographs at Hueco Tanks. History comes to life for all of us, thanks to the efforts of TPWD through the past 50 years.

Helping animals survive and thrive

From the most obscure endangered species of salamander to the most sought-after game species of deer, TPWD biologists work to ensure that Texas’ diverse creatures survive and thrive. Before TPWD’s creation in 1963, state wildlife biologists dealt primarily with game harvest recommendations and restocking. While these duties remain critical today, the Wildlife Division now oversees 49 wildlife management areas and conducts a multitude of tasks critical to conserving the state’s fauna, both game and nongame.

Texans don’t love just the animals they hunt and eat, and TPWD biologists work hard to protect nongame species that are part of the great diversity of wildlife here. Texas is home to thousands of native animal and plant species. The first state list of endangered species was published in 1974, with five mammals, nine birds, two reptiles, five amphibians and five fish. Today, TPWD biologists maintain the Texas Natural Diversity Database and implement the Texas Conservation Action Plan. They work not only to protect endangered species like ocelots, golden-cheeked warblers and the Houston toad, but also to prevent other native species from becoming rare.

Through the years, TPWD has released desert bighorn sheep at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, Sierra Diablo WMA, Elephant Mountain WMA and other areas, resulting in seven thriving herds. Another success story is the agency role in the recovery of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, accomplished in partnership with Mexico, offering greater protection of nesting females and their eggs from predators and requiring the use of turtle excluder devices in shrimp trawls. The Texas state bison herd, the last pure Southern Plains wild bison, roams Caprock Canyons State Park. Pelicans, quail, prairie-chickens and other species have been the focus of agency efforts throughout the past half-century.

Hunting legacy

It starts in late summer, when that unexpected cool evening breeze reminds us of campfires and chili. We make trips to the sporting goods store to try out the newest gear, dreaming about and planning for that fall day when we can head to the woods to assuage our whitetail fever. Nearly 700,000 hunters participate in the sport each year.

Hunting

Managing a herd of millions of deer in a state the size of Texas takes a great deal of research and effort. Funded by an excise tax on guns and ammunition, restocking efforts for white-tailed deer continued until 1994. That program was almost too successful, leading to overpopulation of deer in some areas. As a result, antlerless deer harvesting began in certain areas, as well as a lengthened season and an either-sex system of bag limits.

Responsible hunting practices began with the first bag limits on whitetails and turkeys in 1907, and the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 ensured funding for wildlife management and research for decades to follow. The Texas Migratory Game Bird Stamp program, started in 1982, has been one of the most financially successful state programs in the nation, with revenue helping TPWD to acquire and manage habitat and fund research. In the 1980s, recognizing that there was not enough public land available to satisfy needs, TPWD began to lease large tracts of land for public hunting. The program was an instant success, growing to nearly one million acres of land now available to Texas hunters.

State hunter education programs, mandatory since 1988, ensure that every hunter goes out into the field prepared to shoot safely. Home-study materials became available in 1999.

The Texas Youth Hunting Program was formed with the Texas Wildlife Association to provide hunting opportunities for young people, including those with special needs.

Getting kids outdoors

TPWD has been dedicated to educating and inspiring Texas youth to enjoy and protect the state’s natural treasures. As early as 1963, kids enjoyed a traveling wildlife exhibit at fairs and community events, a tractor-trailer rig filled with various wild native animals that wardens jokingly called “The Possum Show.” Project Wild launched in 1985 to provide public school curriculum about natural resources. Many students remember with a smile the day the TPWD “touch tanks” came to school, thrilling them with the experience of putting their hands in the water with fish and other fascinating sea creatures. Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine published a three-year program of fun-filled nature features starting in 2008. Keep Texas Wild used eye-popping photography and fun facts to engage kids in the world outdoors, with accompanying teacher’s plans. Check them out at www.tpwmagazine.com/ktw.

Urban families flocked by the thousands to Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo, a festival of outdoor fun that was held at the Austin headquarters from 1992 to 2008. Expo was the largest free, family-oriented festival of the outdoors in the nation, inspiring a host of similar events in other states. Kids learned to kayak and cast for fish, marveled as they examined a raptor’s talons, climbed rock walls and had their first taste of exotic game. TPWD now sends a traveling version of Expo to regional fairs and events, spreading the message “Life’s Better Outside” to people across the state.

Enforcing the law

More than 500 game wardens protect Texas’ wildlife, the environment and other natural resources. Back in 1963, a game warden made only $300 a month; they had to buy their own firearms until 1965. By 1971, wardens could enforce all Texas laws.

Today’s wardens use technology to apprehend violators and have assisted in the recovery of the space shuttle Columbia and in Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts, the first out-of-state use of TPWD law enforcement personnel. It’s tougher than ever to get away with breaking fish and wildlife laws, thanks to the cash rewards that Operation Game Thief has offered to tipsters since 1981. A new game warden academy opened in 2008 in Hamilton.

But sometimes the simple methods proved most effective. Take the deer decoy, first used in 1989, producing nearly 700 convictions in the first three years. In Montgomery County, one decoy resulted in 51 arrests the first day and 51 the next day as well.

The deaths of two game wardens (Justin Hurst and Ty Patterson) in 2007 served as a grim reminder of the perilous duty of these dedicated peace officers.

Land and water conservation

Perhaps not everyone can afford to buy a ranch, even the “worst ranch in Texas,” and turn it into a conservation showcase as J. David Bamberger has. But through the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program, started in 1995, the lessons learned by landowners can be shared throughout the state. Forty years ago, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department initiated a technical guidance program that utilized TPWD staff to directly assist private landowners in wildlife and habitat management. Today, more than 8,000 landowners on nearly 30 million acres benefit from wildlife management plans for their properties. Landowners can attend workshops and get information on how to conserve and manage the native flora and fauna on their property. With 95 percent of the land in Texas owned privately, the agency plays an important role in working as a partner to improve wildlife habitat.

The first Land and Water Plan was adopted by the TPW Commission in 2002, with subsequent revisions in later years. The plan is a tactical approach to guide conservation of natural and cultural resources.

Water conservation is always on our minds, and agency teams work on freshwater inflows, coastal conditions and river studies at various locations. One landmark achievement of the TPWD communications team was a 10-year focus on Texas water issues (2002-2011). Ten July issues of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine were dedicated to the State of Water, with five documentary films rounding out the package. A State of Water Symposium in 2011, with a panel discussion between top state water experts, was held at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to cap the decade-long effort.

Nature tourism

Nature tourism has grown in economic importance in recent times. Efforts began in earnest 20 years ago to entice tourists to locales based on wildlife viewing and other nature-related activities. Funded with a $500,000 federal highways grant in 1995 to promote nature tourism as well as habitat conservation, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail linked more than 200 sites along 500 miles of coastal highways from Beaumont to Brownsville. The trail became a national model duplicated in other states. Three years later, the World Birding Center, a series of nine facilities including three state parks, opened in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Teams from across the state now compete each spring in the Great Texas Birding Classic in a variety of categories and challenges.

Paddling

Lighthouse Lakes Paddling Trail.

The first inland state paddling trail opened on the San Marcos River near Luling in 2006, joining seven coastal paddling trails. This ushered in a boom era of dozens of new freshwater paddling trails across Texas, creating more lake and river access for canoes and kayaks. More than 50 official Texas paddling trails are open today, most in partnership with local community groups. New trails are being developed throughout the state.

Saltwater success

In response to steady declines in red drum populations, TPWD opened the state’s first saltwater red drum hatchery in 1983 — the John Wilson Marine Fish Hatchery, a cooperative effort between the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, Central Power and Light of Corpus Christi and TPWD. More than 20 million red drum and 6 million spotted seatrout fingerlings are now stocked annually into our bays from the CCA Marine Development Center in Corpus Christi and Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, built in 1996. Without this effort, red tide invasions and deep freezes in subsequent winters could have wiped out the redfish population in Texas bays.

In 1979, Texas became the first state to prohibit the use of single-strand monofilament gill nets to protect sea life from undue harm. In 1981, House Bill 1000 (the Redfish Bill) passed, designating red drum and spotted seatrout as game fish, off-limits to commer­cial harvest.

For once, it’s a good idea to leave things behind — at least when you’re talking about oil company platforms in the Gulf. Since the Artificial Reef Program began in 1990, more than 100 oil and gas platforms have been donated and turned into reefs. In addition, several vessels, hundreds of large rocks, concrete culverts and other materials have also been used for reefs. All this provides new habitat for a wide range of reef-dwelling species, plus enhanced opportunities for fishing and diving.

“Being able to hover in and around the wildlife in the ocean is unlike anything else I've experienced,” says TPWD diver and marine biologist Chris Ledford. “The artificial reefs offer a wonderful density of life that make the experience that much better.”

Go fish

Fishing would be a lot less fun if we waited all day and nothing took the bait. That could happen if not for the efforts of TPWD biologists and five freshwater hatcheries. Love rainbow trout? The first rainbow trout stocking in the Guadalupe River happened in 1966, creating the southernmost year-round trout fishery in the United States. Today, experienced anglers will tell you to keep an eye on the TPWD website to find out when rainbow trout will be stocked at about 100 locations each winter. Small city park lakes are stocked with popular sport fish. Altogether, TPWD stocks about 15 million fish into fresh water annually.

Fishing

Rainbow trout on the Guadalupe River.

The ShareLunker program began in 1986 when a largemouth bass from Lake Fork, weighing 17.65 pounds, a new state record at the time, was caught and donated for breeding purposes. Since then, more than 500 bass have been donated, none more famous than Ethel. The ShareLunker program has been instrumental in illustrating the importance of catch-and-release fishing in the development of trophy largemouth bass fisheries. Today, Inland Fisheries biologists are working on a similar program for catfish.

 


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Related links

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See more TPWD achievements over the past 50 years