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Feds To Ban Import/Export Of Captive Deer?

June 12, 2014

I’ve been following several developments around the captive deer breeding industry of late, and things are getting interesting (to say the least).

In Missouri, there’s an effort to transfer the management of captive deer and elk to the Department of Agriculture, and take away the authority of the state’s wildlife agency.  This is in response, apparently, to recent proposed legislation by the wildlife agency that would impose strict limitations on the farms, including import restrictions and tougher rules about containment fences.  I don’t have all the details here, and I don’t even know what kind of impact the farmers would be looking at, but the conflict definitely illustrates some of the challenges facing the deer breeding industry overall… as well as the challenges to the states to manage the health of native, wild populations.

And, on the federal level, several state representatives, led by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, have submitted a letter (click here to download and read the letter) to the Secretary of Agriculture requesting a federal-level ban on interstate import of captive cervids.

While I’ve got some personally mixed feelings about the industry, particularly the inconsistent regulation around health inspections and management of captive herds; I also find some of the justifications behind the proposed bans and management questionable.

For example, in the letter to the USDA, an entire paragraph is couched in loaded, negatively-charged language aimed at the emotional arguments against high-fence hunting.  Just take a look at the way this thing is worded:

Interstate commerce in captive cervids has exploded in recent decades, as canned-hunting facilities seek to increase their profits by breeding deer and elk with abnormally-large antlers and stocking large herds so they can guarantee a kill. Animals raised at canned-hunting facilities often are accustomed to human presence and therefore do not flee at the sight of trophy hunters. The lack of fair-chase in these operations has led hunting groups like Boone Crockett, Pope Young, and the Izaak Walton League to oppose such unsporting activities.

Because I know that the folks who craft these communications are professional spin-managers, I also know that it is no accident that this emotionally-driven, non-scientific claptrap is delivered before any factual or scientific arguments are made.  The obvious intent is to prejudice the reader (because not only did this go to Secretary Vilsack, it was meant to find its way to the general public as well).  It’s a tactic heavily used by anti-hunting organizations such as HSUS and PETA, and its use in this letter makes me question the real agenda behind the effort.

What’s even more critical here, is that the paragraph that purports to address the scientific justifications for the ban appears to entirely draw its conclusions based on a series of articles from the Indianapolis newspaper, the Indy Star.

According to a recent series of investigative reports by the Indianapolis Star, and supported by multiple scientifc studies, deer and elk kept in these confined breeding operations are particularly susceptible to chronic wasting disease (CWD), a prion infection related to Mad Cow disease that is always fatal to deer and elk (whether wild or captive) and has been found in 22 states. Further, Bovine Tuberculosis has been found in at least 50 captive deer and elk herds across the country, having spread from captive-bred deer to cattle in four states already. Captive-bred cervids are kept in close quarters and thus are particularly susceptible to acquiring and transmitting these infectious diseases, which are known to affect wild cervids and livestock and which could evolve to infect humans that consume venison from CWD infected animals.

Now I read this “investigative series” a little while back, and even commented on it here on the Hog Blog.  As I said then, I found the piece interesting, particularly in regards to the history of the deer farming industry.  I also thought some of the questions it raised about disease were compelling, and certainly worth review.  At the same time, I questioned the general slant of the piece as a pretty obvious bias became clear about halfway through the four-part series.  But whatever else it did, it raised more questions than it answered, and it sure as hell doesn’t serve as any sort of factual basis for federal, regulatory action.

The overarching conflict here is no surprise to me, and it certainly shouldn’t come as a shock to the deer farming and high-fence hunting industries.  It’s been boiling up for a while, particularly as the arguments about CWD have raged back and forth.  Unfortunately, as always happens with this kind of topic, the discussion has become overly politicized and emotional.  The issue has become a rallying flag for agenda-driven organizations, whether Boone and Crockett or HSUS (and in this debate, I think the lines between the two get blurry… there, I said it) and the conversation becomes a matter of public opinion rather than science and logic.

There is no question that captive deer breeding facilities and high-fence ranches have the potential to negatively impact both the wild environment and agriculture… whether they’re raising deer, elk, or wild boar.  It stands to reason that these risks need to be mitigated, and that mitigation requires consistent regulation.  Some regulation is already in place, but it is not as consistent as it needs to be.  Both the states and the federal government should be working on this, with industry input.  The traditional livestock industry already lives with this model.  Why should the deer or exotic game industry be any different?

At the same time, the risks need to be realistically gauged, and regulation should be commensurate with the science… not with the panic generated by people and organizations who have an agenda to push.

 

There’s Blood On My Hands… Finally

May 19, 2014

When I’m not hunting, I’m thinking about hunting.

I’m sure that sentiment isn’t unique to me.  But the truth is that over the past several months, I’ve done a lot of thinking about hunting.

This weekend, I was finally able to put all that thinking into action.  I got together at the nearby Boiling Springs Ranch for an exotics hunt with a great group of guys I’d guided and hunted with back in CA.  There were four of us in our bloodthirsty little gang, Kent, John, Mike, and myself… and when Friday evening rolled around, the excitement practically boiled over.  Think Christmas morning in a household of six year-olds.

While I set up in a tripod stand with my bow, the other guys went safari-style and tooled over a big chunk of the 10,000 acre property in search of axis deer, aoudad, and any wild pigs that should be unlucky enough to wander into the firing line.  Based on game camera evidence, there was a large group of hogs feeding at this particular stand.  Several axis had also been showing up from time to time.  I was assured that this would be a productive spot, especially for a bow hunter.  I relaxed through several peaceful hours, uninterrupted by anything legal to shoot.  As the last light waned, a healthy little whitetail buck wandered in.  His stubby new antlers were already out to about three or four inches, and forking well even at that early stage.  He’ll be no giant this year, but he obviously has great genetics.

Kent drew first blood, rolling an 80 lb. (or so) hog during the evening hunt.  If I remember correctly, I heard that someone else took a shot… but where it went, nobody knows.  When I got back into camp, I heard that the lack of carcasses did not denote a lack of game.  The animals were unusually skittish… a problem that plagued the weekend (but we made the best of it).

As so often happens, the first night revelry got the upper hand.  There was much irresponsibility.  When morning dawned, some of us were only just slipping off to sleep, while others were like the dead.  Somehow, I managed to sleep through my alarm, and only rolled out when Blaise, the camp boss, came in and let me know it was already 06:00!  I shuffled into the kitchen to start the planned breakfast, but I’d barely got the sausage browned when I realized the sun was already rising.  No time!  I woke the rest of the gang and we proceeded to prepare for the hunt.

Despite heavy-lidded eyes and some plodding, all but one of us was relatively healthy and ready for the day.  Since we’d slept in, there’d be no time to get into the blinds, so we opted to roll out for more safari-style hunting in the truck.  We saw a good number of animals, but they were not so happy to see us and sprinted into the thick cover before anyone could raise a rifle.  When a shot was finally fired, by someone who will remain nameless (for now), it went awry.

Blaise had to go do some work with the landowner, so we went back to camp to switch up the crew.  Blaise’s wife, Cheryl, would drive, while top-dawg guide, Chris, took over the shot calling.  At this point, a zombie departed the shooting deck and retired to the cool and quiet darkness of his bed.  It appears that some of us can withstand a little more irresponsibility than others.

After a break, some coffee, and a snack, those of us still standing rolled back out to the truck for another round.  Once again, the skittish game made it impossible to line up or connect on a shot until, finally, we spotted movement in a clump of cedar.  A single axis was slinking through the brush and heading for the safety of the hills.  I caught a glimpse of one sweeping antler, and motioned to Kent to step up, since he’s the only one in the group hoping to shoot a trophy animal.  I told him this one looked good, and I reached for my binoculars to get a better read.  From where he stood, Chris was unable to see clearly, so he hadn’t Kent's Axishad a chance to judge the buck.  Apparently though, Kent wasn’t concerned about judging or scoring, because even as I lifted my glass to my eyes, his .300 Win Mag roared and the buck jumped, staggered, and disappeared into the thicket.  One thing I’ve learned about Kent over the years is that you shouldn’t say, “shoot,” when you really mean, “wait.”

Fortunately, the buck was a pretty good one, with 30.5 inches on one side and a shade over 31 inches on the other.  He also had some unique character in the form of extra brow tines, making him an eight-point (axis typically only have three points on a side).  Kent was, as you may expect, pretty elated.  With a hog and an axis buck, he’d achieved the goals of his hunt.

With the day heating up, and the wildlife headed for cover, we decided to call it for the time being and head in.

For the evening hunt, I chose to take a stand again.  Safari-style is fun and social, but I also enjoy the quiet of a stand.  Chris took me out to as perfect a spot as I could imagine.  A spring-fed creek held cool, clear water.  A steep cliff formed a natural wall on one side, while a thick, brushy draw provided cover and food for game.  As I walked across the clearing to find a place to set up, I saw fresh sign of deer, aoudad, and hogs.  I chose to take a stand in a little clump of brush that stood out a few yards from the cliff face.  The thick growth formed a canopy, and it looked cool and shady.  When I pushed through the limbs, I saw that I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good place to chill out… it was littered with hog beds.

Chris hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when the first animals showed up.  I heard rustling in the grass, and suddenly a small hog face popped out about ten yards from my seat.  Totally oblivious to me, he turned and trotted down the rocky creek bank, followed by seven or eight more.  They ranged in size from six or seven pounds down to a couple of little guys that probably didn’t top a pound.  They must have been barely weaned.  I held my breath, my hand tight around the grip of the Savage and my thumb caressing the safety.  There had to be at least one big hog following this group, if not more.  I knew they’d come out any minute… any minute… but nothing else showed.

The little pigs splashed and rolled in the creek for a few minutes, and then trotted, single file over to the feeder.  I still held hope that the big ones were just waiting, but nothing showed up.  After about a half-hour, the little sounder wandered off into the trees.

Things got quiet for about another half hour, when suddenly I was jolted by the sound of rocks rolling down the cliff behind me.  I turned my head slowly, just in time to see a Corsican ewe hopping down onto a tiny trail, just out of arm’s reach.  Without even looking my way, she crept to the edge of the thicket, and after a cautious scan, stepped out onto the creek bank.  As she did, two tiny kids clambered down the cliff and ran out to join her.  A moment later, a yearling ram hopped down and wandered out as well.  All of this happened less than three yards away.  I was stunned.

The sheep went down to drink, but then something startled the matron.  She hopped up onto the rocks and gazed hard across the pasture, past the feeder.  I followed her gaze to see three pigs, each about 10 pounds, come trotting out of cover and heading toward the creek.  The ewe gathered her young and the whole group charged right back past me, and disappeared up the sheer cliff.

The three pigs didn’t even seem to notice, but made a beeline for the water.  They dropped down the bank, out of my sight, but I enjoyed the splashing and grunting as they were apparently making the best of the cool stream.  A few minutes later, they popped up right where the sheep had been and started walking directly toward me.  The wind was perfectly in my favor, but at that close distance I couldn’t believe they didn’t even seem to register my presence.  They came just beside my chair, and then turned on a trail that led into some thick grass.  The last pig stopped and rubbed against a rock, and then shook himself off… so close the water spattered on my pants.

I turned my head to see where they’d gone and suddenly heard a “huff!” A fourth pig I hadn’t seen had come up from the creek and saw me moving.  In a clatter of stones and a splash, he was gone back the way he came.  I held the rifle ready, in case any large pigs blew out from his panic… but there was nothing more.

The evening wore on and the sun began to set.  More small pigs came out to the feeder, but again, no adults were in sight.  How small were the pigs?  Three tom turkeys glided down from the cliff to the feeder, and they dwarfed the little hogs.

As light dimmed, I could hear splashing in the creek again.  I settled the rifle in my lap and waited.  A whitetail doe and yearling popped up on the opposite bank and went to join the growing menagerie around the feeder.  As they wandered off, I heard more splashing, and then a deer’s snort.  Several more deer blew out of the end of the creek drainage and ran off across the pasture.  With the wind blowing hard and steady in my face, I wondered what had panicked them… until I heard more splashing and grunting, and then yet another group of small hogs poured out of the creek and headed to the feeder.

Finally, I heard the sound of something much larger coming down the creek bank toward me.  I tried to crane my neck without moving too much, hoping this was finally a shoot-able hog.  I peeked around the trunk of an oak tree and looked right into the eyes of a young, axis buck.  I wasn’t going to shoot an axis buck at any rate, but at this distance there was no way I could have raised the gun anyway.  He glared at me, trying to figure out what I was, as I froze and did my best imitation of a caliche rock.

The stand-off continued as the sun sank lower and lower.  The pigs continued to mill around the feeder, and in the lowering light I thought some might look bigger.  (I didn’t need a trophy, but I wasn’t going to shoot a five pounder with the 30-06 on a paid hunt.) I gently raised the Leicas, and at the movement the axis buck finally had enough.  He turned and trotted away, stiff-legged but apparently not panicked.

John's aoudad eweIt was finally dark enough that I couldn’t really make out individual pigs through my scope.  I settled back and waited for the truck to come pick me up.  When it did, I saw a big aoudad ewe in the back.  The zombie had awakened from his torpor, re-joined the hunt, and killed… not only an aoudad, but also a big axis doe.  Not bad for someone who was so thoroughly over-served the night before (bad bartender!).

On the drive back to camp, I learned that they’d seen several animals, but had few chances at a shot.  Mike redeemed his earlier shooting with a good kill on a sow.  She was emaciated and apparently sick, so Blaise decided not to keep her for meat.  I know that’s a hard call, especially for empty-handed Mike, but it sounds like it was probably the right choice.

Everyone was pretty whipped by the time we rolled back into camp.  I’d left a pot of venison chili to cook all day, and Cheryl made up a batch of delicious, cracklin’ cornbread.  Dinner was excellent, but significantly subdued in comparison to the previous night.  The witching hour came to a house full of snores.

On Sunday, Mike and Kent had a fairly early flight and had to leave early.  We made a short safari drive around while John went and sat in a blind.  We had barely loaded the rifles when we came up on an axis doe and a monster of a buck.  Under ordinary circumstances, I had enough time to shoot the both of them… but whether the shock of seeing them so early, or because my brain just wasn’t engaged… I don’t know why, but I never even got the rifle up.  The doe spun and ran, and the buck gave a belligerent glare and turned to follow her.

That was it for easy opportunities on that drive.  We got Mike back to camp so he could leave.  John had also returned, empty-handed.  But the day was overcast and cool, so once Mike and Kent packed out, we headed back out on the road in hope of more opportunities.  Chris drove and spotted, and we covered a lot of the same ground.  As we headed back toward the camp again, an aoudad stood out on a hillside.  I don’t really know much about aoudad, and don’t have a clue how to tell a ewe from a young ram.  I leveled the crosshairs on the animal’s throat and waited for the go-ahead from Chris.  “It’s a ewe,” he whispered.

“I can kill it,” I asked?

“Yes.”

Bang.

When we walked up to it, Chris shook his head.  “Damn.  This is a ram.”

He called it in to Blaise and took responsibility.  It seemed, to me, like a pretty easy mistake to make.  I felt bad for him, because as a guide I’ve been in similar circumstances… having directed a client to shoot a “meat hog” that turned out to have trophy tusks.  Accidents and mistakes are part of being human.  As long as we learn from them…

At any rate, I had my first animal for the weekend.  We took the aoudad back to the house as the day was starting to heat up.  John had to start packing anyway, and had to head back to the airport in a few hours.  We passed the time, and soon after he left Chris asked if I wanted to go out and make one more round.  Blaise had generously offered to let me stay and hunt until dark if I wanted, but I felt like it would be nice to get home at a reasonable hour.  All I needed to do was shoot an axis doe.  And maybe a pig.  But definitely an axis.

Chris and I headed out and checked some likely spots.  After a couple of close opportunities, we were heading back to camp when I spotted a bunch of ears sticking out of the grass in a persimmon thicket.  A closer look showed what we were looking for.  Even better, the whole bunch didn’t bolt instantly.  I had time to pick an animal, a fat doe, and then my hunt was over.

I have to give kudos to Blaise and the gang at Boiling Springs Ranch.  It’s a well-run place.  The lodge is very comfortable and homey, which it should be, because Blaise, Cheryl, and their son, Roy live there year-round.  The game is plentiful, and although it was pretty spooky on this trip, the opportunities are there.  Besides axis, aoudad, and hogs, they’ve got some incredible whitetail with the south Texas genetics (BIG antlers… if that’s your thing).  They also have some high-fence sections with other options, including scimitar-horned oryx.

Blaise said they don’t usually hunt safari-style, but the animals have been so scattered that it seemed like the best option for the weekend.  Since our group of friends rarely gets together, this method allowed us to spend some social time… which isn’t often the case on a big game hunt where you spend the bulk of the day alone, sitting in a stand.  If you’ve never done this kind of hunting, I liken it to trolling for big game fish out in the ocean.  It’s hours of cruising around, interspersed with brief periods of excitement.  Certainly not to everyone’s tastes, but it can be a lot of fun if you go into with the right attitude.

I did enjoy the stands, and the blind set-ups are first rate. They’re well hidden and well-positioned for the feeders and game approaches, and there are options for any kind of wind or weather.   There are no dangling death traps here, and even the tripod stands are solid and reasonably comfortable.

If you’re interested in this kind of opportunity for some Hill Country exotics hunting, I think you could do much worse than giving Blaise a call.

Disclosure:  I received no consideration for writing this review.  I paid full-price for my hunt, as did my companions.  The comments I’ve made here are my honest evaluation of the operation.

 

A Tradition Askew

April 3, 2014

That title is a fancy way of saying, “whoops!  I missed my annual April Fool’s Day post.”

It’s not that I had anything particularly solid to work with this year, due to varying factors (day job) and limited inspiration.  But it’s tradition, dammit.

My brother and I were off hunting Tuesday and Wednesday, and while the lodge advertised wifi, the mere wisp of a signal I found when I logged in Tuesday evening would hardly have carried a full post with images.  What’s worse, the signal was security-protected, and since it was approaching midnight and the guide had gone home to bed, I didn’t dare go knock on the door and ask for a password.  So I guess the April Fool’s joke was on me.

The hunt?

Well, that was fun.  It’s an archery-only hunting ranch about an hour from here, called Crystal Creek Bowhunting.  The plan was to hunt for axis and hogs, and while the package offered the option of shooting sheep (ramboulet, mouflon, aoudad, and some hybrids) and turkeys, I was pretty much narrow-mindedly fixed on axis.  Thus, I passed up a couple of opportunities in return for… well, I did see some axis yesterday afternoon.  From the truck.  On the way to the stand.  But I never even had one come past my stand, much less pose for a shot.

I did get a shot at a hog during the hog-a-palooza on Tuesday night.  The damned things came out of everywhere, and all six hunters had shot opportunities.  At the end of it all, six hogs were dead.  Unfortunately, most of the pigs were of the football-size.  One of the hunters managed to skewer three with one arrow.  A few bigger (50-60lbs) showed up as well, but the real heavies held up in the thick stuff until after dark.  One of the other hunters took two of these meat hogs, including a really cool looking blond boar.  My own shot went a shade high over a little boar at 22 yards.  I’d been holding out for an orange and black spotted boar, probably about 60 pounds or so, but it just wouldn’t come into my shooting lane long enough.  As it was almost too dark to really see my pins (time for a new sight), I switched over to the black boar and promptly jerked my shot.

My only redemption was that my brother, typically an absolute dead-eye with the bow, missed his pig too.

As dusk settled into night yesterday, I had one more close call.  A good-sized, 125 or 140lb pig was coming right to my stand.  Unfortunately, he stopped to snack in the thicket as full darkness fell.  I heard Mr. Scrofa rooting rocks out of the way, and then after a sudden grunt, he was tearing and chomping at something. I’m pretty sure he was eating the 5′ buzz worm I’d seen earlier, which had disappeared in that same general vicinity.

Whatever it was, it occupied him for the final moments of shooting light.  When I couldn’t take it any longer, I hit the Surefire and tried to light him up, but he was screened by a thicket of persimmon and mesquite.  I heard him grunt and bolt, but only a few yards.  Then he stood there and popped his teeth at the intrusion.

After a few minutes, I climbed down out of the stand and went out to wait for the guide to swing by and pick me up.  As I stood in the darkness, I heard the pig return to his feast, less than 40 yards from where I stood.

Bowhunting is hard.

 

 

 

“Three Amigos” Provision Frees Up Exotics Ranchers

January 22, 2014

High fence hunting… preserve hunting… “canned” hunting…

Whatever you want to call it, it’s a hot topic with a lot of detractors.  However, when it comes to the opportunity to hunt exotic species in the U.S., high fence is the pretty much the only game in town (with a couple of notable exceptions).  As a result of the exotics hunting industry in the U.S., several species of african and asian wildlife are well-preserved in this country, even though they’re endangered (or even extinct) in their native lands.  In Texas, for example, there are more blackbuck antelope than there are in India.  And in some cases, such as the scimitar-horned oryx which is considered extinct in the wild, Texas hosts the only significant populations outside of zoological parks.  A key reason for the successful management of these animals is that hunters are willing to pay big money for the opportunity to hunt them.

Back in April of 2012, I posted about a legal decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which set some pretty tough restrictions on exotics ranchers.  The regulation change impacted ranches where dama gazelle, addax, or scimitar-horned oryx were being raised, managed, and hunted.  It required the ranchers to file detailed plans for any hunting, breeding, or culling activities and provided a 30 day time period for anti-hunting organizations to challenge the planned hunts.  At least one such organization publicly stated that they would challenge every single application.

At the time, there was a pretty big outcry from the wildlife ranchers and organizations such as Safari Club International (SCI) and Dallas Safari Club saying that these restrictions would be a setback to the conservation successes these ranchers had achieved.  If it were too difficult to run hunts, then the money raised by the hunts would dry up.  Without that money, the incentive to continue cultivating these species would decrease to the point where some ranchers simply wouldn’t bother any longer.  They argued that many ranchers would simply liquidate their herds.  Others would stop their breeding and culling operations and just let the herds decline naturally.

In my post, I challenged the most alarmist arguments.  I also pointed out that the ruling did not actually ban hunting operations.  Hunting was still available, although the opportunities to do so were limited and more expensive.  However, I agreed then (and now) that the restrictions would definitely have a negative impact on the overall numbers of these three, endangered antelope.  Since 2012, I’ve spoken to several exotics guides and operators and learned that they have definitely felt the economic pinch and indeed, several ranches have dropped the scimitar-horned oryx and addax from their listed offerings.

Dallas Safari Club claims in a press release issued yesterday that, since the rule changes in 2012, scimitar-horned oryx populations have dropped to almost half of what they were in 2010.  That’s pretty significant, especially considering that, according to the USFWS the scimitar-horned oryx went from a low of about 36 animals in 1979 to over 11,000 in 2012.  Now I know these numbers can be a little sketchy, and I’ll admit that my own research was relatively cursory, so no doubt there was probably more to the population surge than hunting ranches alone.  But there is no question that these ranches are contributing a big chunk to the conservation and restoration of these species… including projects to send animals from Texas to re-stock the native herds in India and Africa.

But the real reason for yesterday’s press releases (I got one from SCI and one from Dallas Safari Club) was to herald the signing of the 2014 Omnibus Bill, which includes a provision that exempts exotics ranchers from the Endangered Species Act restrictions… essentially returning them to the status they had prior to 2012.  While I am certainly pragmatic enough to recognize that this is primarily a financial and business victory for the exotics ranching industry, there is no doubt that it’s a positive outcome for the future of the animals as well.

So if you’ve been putting off that oryx or addax hunt because you thought you’d missed your chance… well, here’s your chance again.  And let me say for the record, that scimitar-horned oryx doesn’t just make a great mount… they’re also damned fine on the table.

Finally… A Little Blood On My Hands

May 20, 2013

I haven’t really had much of an opportunity to get out and do any hunting lately. As I’ve mentioned a time or two, spring turkey season kind of came and went without a shot fired. But I’ve been kind of jonesing to get out and do something.

A little while back, my brother made plans to come out with his family for a visit.  He was going to arrive on the 18th (this past Saturday) and stay through the following weekend… making his drive back to NC over the Memorial Day weekend.  In preparation, I scheduled vacation days, and started calling around to set up some hunting opportunities.  My friend, Levi (he’s a real person… nevermind the April Fool’s post) has issued a standing invitation to come out to his lease and shoot axis deer, squirrels, or hogs (when they’re around).  I gave him a holler, and he said he would love to get out there with us.  I guess Levi hasn’t shot an axis in a while either, and was chomping at the bit to get after some.

Well, my brother bailed at the last minute (for good reasons), but I decided I’d take the vacation anyway.  I called Levi and we set a time to meet.

Axis in the daytimeAxis deer are generally pretty considerate animals, as they are often active during the daytime.  This means you don’t really need to rise in the dark of the wee hours to hunt them (unless you are planning to hunt from a stand).  We rolled out of Levi’s yard somewhere near a leisurely 08:30, stopped for some coffee and a couple bottles of water, and hit the ranch around 09:30.   We loaded up and started the slow roll around the ranch roads.

One of the things I’m still getting accustomed to here in Texas is the “Texas Safari”.  There’s not a lot of walking, but you drive around the ranch until you spot the herd of axis (or whatever exotic you’re after).  If they don’t take off at the sight of  you, you set up your shot and take the poke.  It’s not so much spot-and-stalk, as spot-and-shoot.  The truth is that hunting axis on foot is an exercise in frustration.  They are gregarious animals, which means they usually hang out in groups.  As a plains animal, they are extremely attuned to visual stimuli.  They are also gifted with excellent noses and ears.  They can be stalked (I’ve pulled it off a time or two), but when they’re in big herds, it’s quite a feat to close for a shot without sending the whole bunch off at a dead run.  This is a problem if you’re hunting a small, low-fenced place, such as Levi’s 200 acre lease.  You don’t get many second chances, and once you’ve pushed the herd off the property you’re kind of done.  May as well pack it up.

Hunting from the vehicle, however, doesn’t seem to push them as much (until  you start shooting).  They don’t seem to mind the vehicle as long as it’s moving.  The moment you let off the gas and come to a stop, though; they tend to head for cover.  If you drive on, then they’ll likely come back out eventually.  If you’re not too close when you stop, you might get a shot opportunity before they dive into the thickets.  It’s not like shooting animals in a park, but it’s certainly not hiking hill and dale through the wilderness either.

We ran into the first deer about a half hour after we’d arrived.  I rounded a bend and caught movement through the pecan trees.  A whitetail bounded off toward cover, and I almost kept going until Levi pointed and hissed, “there they are!”

I saw the spotted flank of a nice doe, followed by a yearling or two.  They slipped through the shadows and disappeared.  “Well, so much for those three,” I said.

Levi grinned and kept pointing.  What I saw was fairly amazing.  A veritable train of axis deer were running along the edge of the trees in a line that stretched at least a hundred yards.  And just when I thought the train had ended, more deer shot through the openings.  It was hard to get any sort of accurate count, but Levi had been telling me they were seeing over a hundred deer on the place lately.  I have no doubt that there were at least a hundred animals in this herd, if not twice that.

When the “train” finally ended, I put the Dodge back in gear and crept forward.  With luck, the animals would stay in the thick stuff and not leave the property.  We might catch them again up ahead.  And we did, once, briefly.  Then they headed for the river and the property line and that was that.

“Well,” Levi said.  “Maybe there’s another herd back on the other side of the property.  Let’s keep going.”

About a half hour later, I saw an unusually rounded “stump” through the cedars.  I stopped the truck and put the glasses on it, actually sort of hoping it was a bedded hog.  Instead, it was a nice-sized axis doe.  As I glassed, I started spotting more animals.  Unfortunately, before I could get the rifle out and set up, they got nervous and started moving off.  I leveled the rifle on a big doe as she hesitated in a tiny opening, probably 100 yards or so out.  I decided to try a shot on her neck, so as not to ruin much meat (as well as in hopes of avoiding a long tracking job).  I couldn’t get a solid rest, but I felt pretty confident.  The crosshairs aligned, and I touched the trigger.  Even as the sear broke over and the gun went off, I could feel the rifle drifting.  The shot went just over the doe’s head and the race was on.  A stream of deer burst across the road ahead of us and flowed into the thick cedars and mesquite at the edge of the property.  Adding insult to the injury, near the end of the herd was a true, trophy buck.  We could only watch.

I apologized to Levi for blowing the opportunity.  At 100 yards, I know I can make a neck shot, but I probably should have gone for the bigger target on her shoulder.  This was the first animal I’d shot at with the rifle in months.  Thus followed much second-guessing and hindsight, but in the end, the reality was that I’d probably blown our last chance at an axis for this day.  With one herd run off the property, and now this one frightened by gunfire, our odds of finding another axis that would stand still for a shot were pretty slim.  We decided to cruise around a bit, and then head over to another area where the squirrels were plentiful.

We wandered around and shot a few squirrels as the day wore on.  The morning’s cloud cover and breeze cleared out, and with the sun came heat.  It was pushing 90 degrees when we got back to the truck at around noon.  Levi had been getting some text messages, and now his phone rang.  “I’ve got to be at a funeral at 3,” he told me.  “Do you want to make one more trip around the ranch before we take off?”

“It’s up to you,” I told him.  “What do you want to do?”

“We’ve got time,” he said.

We had barely gone a quarter mile when we spotted a group of axis through the cedars.  Levi tried to get his sights on one, but all he could see was the little yearlings.  We were meat hunting, but neither of us really wanted to shoot these little, bitty guys.  He moved the scope from one animal to another, evaluating and passing each one.  Finally, he lowered the rifle.  As he did, the big buck stepped into sight…and just as quickly passed back into the thickets.  Levi and I looked at each other.  Isn’t that the way it always goes?  The deer were gone, and we cruised on.

Axis meat deerAs we neared the area where we’d first seen the huge herd of deer, I saw movement and stopped the truck.  Four whitetail does were standing in the shade, about 50 yards off the road.  I watched them for a moment, and then started to pull ahead when I realized there were several more deer just behind the whitetails.  I’ve seen some big groups of whitetail deer, but I’d never seen that many in one place.  This couldn’t all be whitetail.  I put the glasses on them, and through the shade of the trees I could see the spotted coats of axis.  That big herd had returned!

Levi was in no position to get a shot off, so it would be up to me again.  I found a mostly-broadside animal through a break in the limbs and brush and got a bead high on the shoulder.  The shot was away, and I saw the white belly as the animal rolled.  The 180 grain eTip entered at the point of aim and angled back through the chest cavity and exited just behind the ribs.  I bolted another round into the chamber and held the scope on the animal until he stopped moving.  There was a mutual sigh of satisfied relief.  (I think both of us were thinking back to our last trip out here with my friend, John.  That tracking job, and the frustrating conclusion was still on both our minds.)

We field dressed the little buck and loaded him in the back of the Dodge.  “Have you got time to get one for yourself?” I asked Levi.

“Let’s finish the circle,” he said.  “But then I’ve got to get going.”

In the end, I managed to get Levi home in time for the funeral.

 

 

 

A Long Weekend In The Field – Axis Hunting With John

February 18, 2013

Just to the left of this sentence is where the photo should go. 

It’s a classic shot… His face, an admixture of weariness, excitement, happiness, and the subtle shadows of ambivalence at celebrating the death of such a beautiful living creature.  He kneels proudly, holding his rifle in an extended arm, butt down and muzzle up… the portrait of success.  Stretched on the ground in front of him is the sleek, spotted body of a mature axis buck.  The eyes are still black and glistening… still unglazed by death.  The velvet-covered antlers sweep back in a graceful arc over the animal’s back. 

At about 09:30, Saturday morning, I thought that was the picture I’d be posting today. 

The buck had been grazing on the far side of the pasture, oblivious to the three hunters discussing the shot opportunties, estimating the range (one of the hunters, an “experienced guide”, had forgotten to get his Leica binocular/rangefinders out of the truck), and debating whether we should try for more than one animal, or just focus on one shot at a time.  We decided that John, the shooter, would build up a rest with some handy bricks, and take the (approximately) 250 yard shot from a solid mount.  Our host, Levi, and I would spot the shot.  I wanted to run back to the truck and get my rangefinder, as well as the video camera, but instead I sat tight and watched the animals through my scope.  If the herd didn’t scatter at the first shot, there might be an opportunity for me to pick out a deer of my own and make it a double.

At the crack of the 7mm-08, the buck sprang straight up and kicked before sprinting into the pecan bottom.  He stopped, perfectly protected behind a downed tree branch.  All we could do was watch and see what he did.  If he gave the shooter another opportunity, that would be great, but the way the deer seemed to be sinking with his head down, we were all pretty sure the game was over.  It was only a matter of time before he collapsed.  Finally, he sank to his front knees and laid down.  Unfortunately, he was now almost completely hidden from my sight.  Was his head up or down?  Was he done, or just sick?  Should we chance loading up into the truck and hauling ass around the pasture  to get to him?

We all agreed that the shot looked good.  The buck’s reaction seemed fairly textbook.  He must be down for the count.

Except he wasn’t.  Even as we stood discussing and congratulating John on a great shot, the deer staggered back to his feet.  The herd had trotted past him, headed to another part of the ranch, and he was going to try to join them.  The tangle of downed branches and pecan trees kept John from getting another clear shot as the deer slowly staggered off, out of sight.  Then Levi said he saw it fall again, and we should get the truck and head around there to collect him.

We were pretty sure there’d be a dead deer laying under the pecan trees when we arrived, but there wasn’t.  We cast about blindly for a little while before backtracking to the blood spoor, and starting over.  The trail, it turns out, went the opposite direction from where we’d last seen the buck moving. 

The tracking job was long, complicated, and very frustrating at times.  I’ll spare the extended description of the whole ordeal, but at the end of it, Levi jumped the deer in a cedar thicket, and it leapt a fence and crossed onto a neighboring property where we could not follow. 

Here is where I’d have inserted the second photo, aligned right, of John with his axis doe.  Her copper fur, spotted with white would be shining in the brilliant sunshine of a mild and beautiful, winter afternoon.  In the picture he strokes her slender neck with a look of somber admiration.  The rifle is placed, muzzle-up (and bolt open, thank you), across her haunches for the photo, carefully posed by the photographer for a classic “hero shot”. 

But it appears that this was not to be either.  A moment’s hesitation is a moment too long for a skittish creature like an axis deer.  And it never pays the marksman to second-guess his shot placement in the midst of making the shot. 

Were there lessons learned?  Absolutely.  Hindsight is always so very clear, and looking back over the weekend exposes all sorts of things that could’vewould’veshould’ve been done differently.  There were lessons of patience, waiting a little longer, taking a little more time on the trail, and paying closer attention. 

We were reminded of the need to stop regularly while blood trailing to take our eyes off the ground and look around us.   Levi was looking at the ground when the buck jumped up from a thicket very nearby.  It’s possible that, had he been scanning the brush as well as the ground, he might have seen it before it got away.   Or maybe not…

We were reminded that animals don’t necessarily stop where we expect them to, and you should never rush ahead without looking carefully around first.  John and I had seen a group of deer run across the road ahead of us, and cut across country to head them off.  I was rushing to get to the place I thought they’d be, and we practically walked right into them because they had turned and come toward us.  If I’d been a little more attentive on where I was, instead of focused on where I wanted to be, I’m pretty sure we could have had a shot at those deer. 

Other lessons?  After losing the buck, Levi and I both remarked on our fondness for neck shots and how they eliminated tracking jobs.  In the midst of the hunt, we convinced John to switch up his game and shoot for the neck instead of the shoulder shot he was generally quite comfortable with.  As a result, he hesitated at a crucial moment instead of going with what he knew and the deer ran off before he could shoot.  When presented with another opportunity where a shoulder shot would have been perfectly effective, he went for the neck and doubted himself just enough to miss the shot.  This is a lesson I should already have known well… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So there are no photos.  And John is going home without any meat. 

But it wasn’t a total loss, as I got the opportunity to spend some time in the field with a great guy.  We shared excellent conversations, some good food, and a drink or two after which we did our best to solve the problems of the world. 

Next time.  It may not be better, but it will almost certainly be different. 

 

Last Texas Hunt – The Lost Photos Discovered

May 29, 2012

So, in the rush and madness, I misplaced the pictures I took on my last hunt.  Not that there are any awesome hero shots or anything, but I have to say this shot of my brother’s grandson, Damien, is a trophy in itself.

At 5 years old, Damien has already taken a nice tom turkey, and I think he was hoping to kill himself an axis on this trip.  Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out and my brother had to take the only shot opportunity.  But optimism springs eternal in the young mind, so Damien decided to lay claim to any animal killed on this hunt.  As far as he was concerned, that axis doe was his and he may as well have shot it himself.

Well, when I shot my boar, Damien decided to lay claim to it as well.  That was OK with me, but I told him that there’s something that goes along with getting  your first hog.  My brother promptly took up one of the boar’s trotters, dipped it liberally in the pooled blood, and gave the youngster the hunter’s mark!  I believe he’d still be wearing it today, if Scott hadn’t considered the likely reaction of his wife (no sense of humor when it comes to covering her grandbaby in gore), and made the boy wash it off before going home.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much it for the killing on this trip.  I would have liked to add one more axis or fallow doe to the meat pole, but I’ll have to fill the freezer later.  The axis were as scarce as I’ve seen them…

Well, they were scarce until I headed back to the Manor.

A small part of the herd. Click to enlarge.

About a mile from the house, I realized that the herd of goats I was looking at wasn’t goats at all!

There must have been forty or fifty axis deer in the field, just loafing under the mesquites and oaks.  Of course, as soon as I slowed down to take a photo, they were off to the races.  I was still able to snap a couple of shots… just wish I had permission to shoot with something more powerful than the camera here!

The upshot is, these axis were all on a low-fence property.  There are several more ranches between this one and mine, but it definitely gave me hope that I’ll be seeing some polka-dotted deer on my place in the near future.

Here are a couple more photos before they cleared the pasture and disappeared into the woods.

They don't wait around long when a truck slows down. Click to enlarge.

Probably the nicest buck in the herd. Click to enlarge.

 

Hunting Trip Update

May 21, 2012

Well, seems like only yesterday I was in the sweltering Hill Country heat, and now I’m whisked away to the cold, gloom of a rainy Spokane morning.  Oh, well, I guess it was only yesterday…

Things are really hopping with the day job right now, so not a lot of time for updates and posts.  I did want to share a little about last week’s short hunts.  I got a ton of video and a few good photos, but they’re all back in Texas at the Hillside Manor, so all I have is this rough photo of my limited success. 

He’s not a bad boar, but since we were hunting axis and fallow deer, he’s not exactly the prize I was planning for.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to get an axis doe in front of my rifle.  I had an opportunity at a beautiful axis buck, but I didn’t want to pay the tab for that one… this was, after all, a meat hunt. 

My little brother did get an axis doe, and while he was really hoping to carry two of them back to his freezer in NC, he was happy to take the majority of my hog with him as a consolation prize. 

All in all, a success, even if the freezer is still a little low.  There’ll be more hunts, and I’ll have more time to enjoy them. 

Later.

Oh. It’s on.

May 13, 2012

This may well mean war!


Speaking Of Exotics – Does New Rule Threaten The Future Of Some Exotic Antelope?

April 5, 2012

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be on hand when a rancher wanted to cull a couple of oryx that had broken off a horn. Under the new ruling, the rancher would have to apply for a federal permit to carry out this cull hunt.

Speaking of exotics… a new ruling by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has the exotics ranchers and hunters up in arms.  A ruling against the USFWS has removed the loophole that allowed unrestricted breeding and hunting of three endangered species… the scimitar-horned oryx, the dama gazelle, and the addax.

There have been several articles about the ruling, and they painted a pretty grim picture using comments such as “ban on hunting” and “threatens the survival of the species”.  The argument is that if the ranchers can no longer run hunts, then they won’t be able to afford to continue the management and breeding programs, and will let the herds die off until they’re gone.

That seemed pretty extreme, so I had to do a little digging to get the whole story.   This may get a little long, but I really think it’s worth reading.  If you don’t want to read what I’ve got to say, you can jump to the Federal Register to read the USFWS summary.

In 2005, the USFWS added three species of African antelope to the Endangered Species list.  These were the dama gazelle, the addax, and the scimitar-horned oryx.  At that point, the scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild, and the others were in dire straits.

At the same time, ranchers in Texas had been working to establish solid, huntable populations of these species on their properties with significant success… particularly with the oryx.  According to the reports I’ve been reading, the oryx numbers went from a low of less than three-dozen in 1979 to a current population in the neighborhood of 11,000.  Addax went from two in ’79 to around 5000 today.  That’s not bad for an endangered animal.

Due to the success of these breeding and management programs, the USFWS allowed an exclusion under the ESA so that the ranchers could continue to run hunts on the endangered species, and to continue breeding programs.  Hunters would pay pretty high-dollar for the opportunity to shoot one of these animals, and that money, in turn went into feeding, habitat, and breeding costs.  To all appearances, the arrangement was working very well, and everyone seemed to be pretty happy about it.

Of course, “everyone” wasn’t all that happy.  The animal rights organizations challenged the ESA exclusion over and over, and finally managed to push a lawsuit against the USFWS to fruition.  The Service was forced to drop the exclusion, effective on April 4, 2012.

So, what does this mean to the ranchers, and more importantly, to these endangered antelope?

Well, first of all, let’s be absolutely clear.  Dropping the exclusion does NOT equate to an outright ban on hunting the species or on breeding programs.  There is a permitting process in place which enables the ranchers to continue to do what they’ve been doing.  There are questions around the permits, and complaints that the process is too cumbersome and time consuming.  Since I’m obviously not in a position to apply for the permit, I can’t validate those complaints.  I have, however, gone over to the USFWS website to review the process and the rules.

If I’m reading the application correctly, it will take about four months to get an approved permit.  The site says to allow 90 days for processing, and then the application must run for 30 days in the Federal Register prior to approval.  That means that if a rancher wants to do management hunts, he needs to plan well in advance.  At the very least, that’s an inconvenience.  Exotics hunts are often planned on short notice.

It gets a little trickier, though, because the rancher/breeder must provide a justification for the application (e.g. management or cull hunt), and the approval process includes the opportunity for a challenge.  The Friends of Animals organization has vowed to challenge every permit application, which potentially means that the approval timeline may get drawn out even more… or may even be rejected if the argument finds a sympathetic ear.  The potential for subjectivity in the application process would worry me, if I were one of the ranchers impacted by all of this.

As you would expect, the exotics ranchers are pretty angry about this.  Particularly in Texas, these folks are pretty independent and don’t take kindly to what they see as government intrusion into their private property rights.  For most of them, they consider these animals to be their property and not subject to intervention by government agencies.  There have been many threats of liquidating entire herds, turning them loose into the wild, or simply selling out and dropping their programs.

Nevertheless, a handful of the owners are trying to follow the new rules.  There are complaints, but since the new rule only became official yesterday (April 4), it’s hard to say whether the complaints are valid, or if the new system will really have a negative impact on the overall longevity of the breeding and management programs.

In my opinion, it’s highly unlikely that the new ruling will have an extreme, negative impact on the survival of the three species, but I can see where some ranchers will choose to stop raising the endangered antelope.  I can absolutely see where it’s going to be a thorn in the side of ranchers who are used to being able to manage the herds on their own terms, and the permitting process will probably get pretty onerous.  Things are going to change, there’s no doubt, but I don’t think it means the end of the species… or even the end of hunting opportunities (although I’d bet the prices are going to go up).

For more direct information, take a look at the USFWS website.  Among other good information, you can find a summary of the ruling, the Federal Register discussion of the ruling and its impacts, and links to the permit application, as well as a “cheat sheet” for completing the application.

By the way…

The hunt for these antelope isn’t just about trophies, although they are definitely unique and beautiful.  By all accounts, the meat from all three species is sensational.  Personally, I haven’t tried dama gazelle or addax, but I can vouch for the oryx.  I found it similar to elk, although I think the flavor is better (most likely due to the oryx’s diet).   The animal is about the same size as an elk as well, which means it provides a freezer-full of great-tasting protein!

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