King Ranch has a long and illustrious history in wildlife management. According to Aldo Leopold (1947), considered by many to be the Father of Wildlife Management, “King Ranch does one of the best jobs of wildlife restoration on the continent, and has unparalleled opportunities for both management and research.”
Mr. Leopold went on to say “…still more important, it is a gem among natural areas and must be kept intact.” Val Lehmann, King Ranch’s first staff wildlife biologist, added “Wild game has perhaps received more attention on the King Ranch than on any other private ownership in North America.”
Habitat management practices on King Ranch for the benefit of wildlife date back to the early 1900s when brush shelters were first constructed for bobwhite quail. Wildlife habitat improvements pioneered by King Ranch include:
- The installation of windmills at two-mile intervals across all four ranch divisions
- The creation of earthen tanks at windmill sites, many of which were fenced to exclude cattle, to provide overflow water to wildlife
- Half-cutting shrubs to provide shelter for quail
- Construction of “living fences” of prickly pear cactus in open areas to increase wildlife security cover
- Strip disking to cause soil disturbance thereby promoting early successional plant species important for a variety of wildlife
Additional wildlife habitat improvement projects conducted on King Ranch during the mid-to-late 20th century included transplanting sacahuista grass to different areas of the ranch to establish loafing and nesting cover for quail; installing nesting boxes for ferruginous pygmy owls, black-bellied whistling ducks, and eastern bluebirds; and the establishment of deer census lines as early as 1967 to obtain estimates of deer densities.
Hunting regulations on King Ranch date back to 1912 when Caesar Kleberg implemented a hunting code to increase sport and reduce crippling losses. In 1925, over 400,000 acres of King Ranch was closed to hunting to allow deer and turkey populations to rebuild. Also in 1925, an organized predator control program was implemented with the hiring of a full-time trapper. By 1928, deer and turkey populations were of sufficient densities to allow restocking to other divisions of the ranch. Subsequently, deer and turkey from King Ranch have been released onto many other parts of Texas, as well as other states around the nation.
As early as 1940, Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. and King Ranch recognized the potential economic value in managing wildlife. One result of this philosophical change in wildlife attitudes was the hiring of Val W. Lehmann in 1945, likely making King Ranch the first privately-owned ranch in the U.S. to add a professional wildlife biologist to its full-time staff. Mr. Lehmann developed census techniques for monitoring wildlife populations and implemented a research program on the ranch that resulted in the completion of several noteworthy scientific studies on a variety of wildlife species. In addition, Mr. Lehmann, who is best known for his landmark book Bobwhites in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas, was hired to examine different avenues for developing an economic return from wildlife on the ranch. According to Lehmann (1984), King Ranch had the “desire to do everything possible to increase wildlife as long as practices did not interfere with normal livestock operations.” Lehmann went on to say that King Ranch “blazed a trail for other ranches, many of whom now consider a wildlife manager as essential as a livestock foreman.”
King Ranch has also been at the forefront in wildlife research and conservation for decades. As an example, King Ranch, Inc. and the late Caesar Kleberg were instrumental in the establishment of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI), created by the Caesar Kleberg Foundation for Wildlife Conservation in 1981. At any given time, about 25 wildlife projects are being conducted on King Ranch. The ranch has long served as a virtual wildlife research laboratory. Additional wildlife species involved in scientific study on King Ranch within the past several years have included Rio Grande turkeys (5 projects), redhead ducks (2 projects), northern pintails (1 project), blue-winged teal (1 project), snow geese (1 project), white-fronted geese (1 project), sandhill cranes (1 project), loggerhead shrikes (1 project), raptors (2 projects), and Botteri’s sparrows (1 project).
In addition to the scientific wildlife research being conducted on King Ranch, the ranch’s own Wildlife Department annually conducts a variety of wildlife surveys and “in-house” research projects to better manage the ranch’s natural resources. Annual surveys conducted on the ranch include:
- An aerial helicopter game survey, consisting of nearly 3,000 miles of transects, to estimate trends in deer sex and age ratios and abundance (quail coveys, feral hogs, collared peccaries, coyotes, nilgai, and bobcats are counted and indexed as well)
- Numerous spotlight deer surveys, currently involving nine routes totaling nearly 150 miles, to estimate trends in deer and nilgai abundance
- Quail whistle counts, involving eight routes totaling over 200 miles, to estimate relative abundance and trends in nesting activity
- Quail windshield counts, involving eight routes totaling nearly 175 miles, to estimate relative abundance and production
- Hen-poult turkey counts across each division to estimate poult production and trends in abundance