Updated 1:45 p.m. to correct information on red snapper harvest.
What do white-tailed deer, oysters in Galveston Bay and red snapper from Gulf of Mexico all have in common beyond being the main course for supper?
Normally the answer would be nothing, but very little is normal anymore.
The three are currently at the forefront of an effort to privatize some natural resources in Texas. This according to the Texas Foundation for Conservation, a newly-formed organization geared toward informing Texans about efforts to remove wildlife and fish from the public trust.
The TFC warns efforts have been made, or are in the process, to privatize the three. All are coming from different angles and by different groups. If successful, the result would mean that one or all of these would no longer be owned by the people of Texas.
“Our mission is we think it should remain in the public trust,” said Dr. Fred Bryant, president of TFC.
While there should be real concern by all Texans over the oysters and red snapper for what could be the beginning of a domino affect, the headline grabber in this debate is going to be white-tailed deer.
There was already an effort to privatize some white-tailed deer during the last session of the Texas Legislature, and with another session beginning in January, another try is expected.
The idea is being pushed by a group of landowners, many of whom are unhappy with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s rules on deer testing and transport, following the discovery of chronic wasting disease in the state. It is safe to say most if not all of those landowners have high fences.
Bryant, a wildlife biologist and director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, has worked with landowners with high fences for most of his professional career and is quick to note the fences are not the issue.
“High fences have been around since the 1950s as far as I know. The state allows them and the deer behind those fences belong to the public,” he explained.
Bryant said the idea of natural resources belonging to the people has never meant free access to the animals, but the ability to hunt the animals when access is granted.
The issue is what is inside the fences. Some of those landowners have spent fortunes eliminating native deer and bringing in deer from northern states or other ranches for their antler-growing abilities. With the use of scientific breeder permits, again through the approval of TPWD, these deer are bred to select sires much the way cattle are.
Because of CWD, the importation of deer from other states was stopped years ago. With the discovery of the disease in Texas, the trading of these deer between ranches has been made extremely difficult and expensive in regards to the cost of testing and the loss of animals required for testing.
That has led some landowners to ask if the rules regarding transportation of deer within the state can be transferred to the Texas Animal Health Commission, which also oversees cattle movement regulations. It is also expected to produce legislation that would give the landowners the same control over the deer they have with livestock.
Bryant said a discussion on deer privatization led to discovery of movements to privatize red snapper in the Gulf and oysters in Galveston. In the case of red snapper sportfishermen have already been throttled down to nine days of fishing a year. The commercial industry wants more.
“That resource is a public resource. Why would you want to privatize a public resource? At the bottom of the ocean we don’t know how many are there, and in a few years if you privatize it they won’t be there,” Bryant said.
The debate over oysters is localized to beds in Galveston Bay and is backed by businesses that again want their interests placed above that of the public good.
Bryant said ironically the first federal test of wildlife being in the public trust was in 1842 and it involved oysters in New Jersey.
“It is another species of a long list of those that can be privatized. Where does it stop? We think the line needs to be drawn now,” Bryant added.
Privatization at any level, but especially for deer, is going to make it more expensive and more restrictive for most hunters. If a small group of landowners are successful in locking down ownership of wildlife, more will follow. That leaves whatever land available for lease as a pricey commodity.
Maybe more important is it changes the dynamics of support for hunting. Take hunters and anti-hunters out of the equation because they will never waver from their stance one way or the other. That leaves the vast majority in the middle, non-hunters, that could swing more toward anti-hunting.
“It changes the optics for the non-hunter and anti-hunter. They could look differently at a privatized herd if it becomes a commodity and not in the public trust. In that case there would only be one purpose for deer and that is having antlers and the size of them,” Bryant said.
While being the spokesman for TFC, Bryant is far from being alone. Board members of the organization include Stephen “Tio” Kleberg of the King Ranch and honorary trustee Nolan Ryan.
Bryant added at least six board members own ranches under high fence.
The whole idea of wildlife and fisheries being in the public trust is probably something new to most hunters and fishermen. It is something they have never had to consider before.
The purpose of TFC is to create awareness and to help the public understand when they need to do react and how.
“Stay vigilant. There will be bills filed on this. We are doing everything we can to get the word out. We are talking about one issue and that is public trust doctrine. We are singularly focused because there are so many thorny issues with deer in this state. We want to keep wildlife and fisheries in the public trust and managed by scientific management,” Bryant said.
For more information on TFC, public trust or to learn how to help, go online to https://www.texasfoundationforconservation.org.
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