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.
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 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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 13, 2012
This may well mean war!
April 5, 2012
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!
April 2, 2012
Well, while I’m getting back into the grind here in the city, I have a feeling posts wll be a little slim. So, to keep you occupied, a friend of mine on Facebook posted up a link to this great find!
In Great Britain, researchers digging through the British Library archives found a cookbook. OK, interesting enough. Out of curiousity, I’ve read some of the old recipes and cooking techniques (but nothing like my friend, Hank Shaw). Those guys did some interesting stuff with food back in the days before refrigeration, when salt was a precious commodity, and most folks died before the age of 50.
But this cookbook is a little different. No chicken or pork here… no sir! This book includes recipes for such lovely treats as hedgehog, blackbird, and, best of all, unicorn!
Now I’ve hunted and shot a handful of exotics, from wild boar and axis deer to scimitar-horned oryx, and I’ve eaten them all with gusto. But unicorn? I’ve scanned all of the Texas exotics ranches I can find online, and not a single one of them offers hunts for this critter. I guess I’ll never get a chance to try out the recipe… which is good, because I expect it’ll be a while before this book makes it to the Amazon bookshelf.