The article is featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
Yeah, but nothing’s ever gonna top that crazy mule deer of David’s back in 2001,” one hunter tells the others gathered around the post-hunt campfire, vainly attempting to use his fingers and some broken twigs to describe the nontypical antlers.
The young hunters in the flickering shadows marvel at such an accomplishment and try to imagine the crown on that fabled beast, while the old veterans of many seasons nod their heads and smile, remembering their own “one that got away.”
Those dreams of old bucks aren’t just the stuff of antler scoring, big numbers and bigger trophies. Those dreams also sit with us in a hunting stand at dawn, as the first rays illuminate the day and nearby birds burst into song, untroubled by their silent human visitors. The setting of those dreams is a land that has been blessed by nature and guided by our better instincts to preserve that blessing.
The hunt, it seems, is not just a story of hunter versus animal, not by a long shot. The rewards run deep for those who join in, and deeper yet for Texas conservation.
In 1991, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Wildlife Association partnered to create a new program to honor the season’s remarkable harvest. Much more than just a contest, the program would promote conservation education and celebrate the habitat management that helps foster quality wildlife.
Thirty years later, the Texas Big Game Awards continue to spotlight the state’s thriving wildlife population and hunting heritage.
Most of Texas—97 percent—is privately owned, so it’s vital that landowners actively work to manage the lands under their care, both for the general health of surrounding ecosystems and for the wildlife that inhabit them. Through proper habitat management, landowners can ensure that species will remain part of native Texas for generations to come.
For three decades, the awards program has set itself apart from “big buck contests” by showcasing the essential relationship between hunting and habitat. As the name suggests, the Texas Big Game Awards focus on our grandest species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorns and bighorn sheep.
Texas’ landowners often include hunting as part of their habitat and wildlife management plans, focusing conservation efforts on how everything on the land works together. The more deer on a property, the more plants they need to browse (eat) on. With heavy browsing, plant populations begin to dwindle. As plants decline, not only do the deer populations suffer, but so do the other wildlife species that rely on them. The land itself declines, as lack of herbaceous ground cover allows increasing and detrimental runoff.
Ultimately, “Hunting equals habitat” (the program motto) is the message we pass along to a younger generation to continue Texas’ hunting heritage.
“TBGA is unique because it acknowledges that a quality big game animal is much more than what is hanging on a wall,” says David Brimager, public relations director at the Texas Wildlife Association. “It’s a complete process that begins with a landowner’s decision to do the right things for habitat and ends with a hunter’s well-placed shot. Somewhere along the way, that hunter made a conscious decision to embrace our hunting heritage and become a responsible sportsman.”
When the awards first started, many hunters thought that the most impressive white-tailed deer were found only in South Texas. In 1991, the year the awards were conceived, Stephen Wayne O’Carroll’s white-tailed deer from Shackelford County in northwest Texas changed that perception. The buck’s score of 190-2/8 net Boone and Crockett points had everyone talking. Who knew there were huge bucks in the Rolling Plains?
Texans were beginning to realize that landowners throughout the state who were practicing sound habitat management techniques were also seeing higher-quality white-tailed deer. The healthier the deer, the healthier the other wildlife and ecosystems.
“Trophy-quality animals are not accidents,” Brimager says. “They are the results of someone’s planning, hard work and sacrifice. High-quality habitat that can produce TBGA-qualifying animals is good habitat for all wildlife species.”
How it All Began
The awards were started via a note from David Synatzske, former manager of the Chapparal Wildlife Management Area, to Horace Gore, former Big Game Program director at TPWD. They were seeking a way to recognize quality animals that were a result of developing management practices, as well as a method to track management progress statewide. With support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, particularly then-Chairman Chuck Nash, the awards started to come together, with organizers determining which species would be recognized and how landowners would be lauded, factoring in those Boone and Crockett scoring systems. The state was divided into eight regions; the top three scores from each region would be recognized at the yearly Texas Wildlife Association banquet.
“When the TBGA got its start, concerted wildlife management was just becoming an established practice in Texas,” Brimager says. “We needed to learn more about where the big deer live and what it takes to grow them.”
Starting Young, Forming Partnerships
It wasn’t enough just to learn from the data the program would amass. The goal was to spread the education throughout the state—to inspire new hunters and to encourage conservation measures. Focus was added to honoring youth and first-time hunters.
Regional awards ceremonies garnered involvement from local 4-H clubs and multiple university chapters of The Wildlife Society. With the participation of budding conservationists, former TPWD biologist Bryan Richards cultivated both the youth and “first harvest” categories. The first harvest category honors a first-time hunter’s harvest, regardless of the hunter’s age and the animal’s score. Possibly one of the most memorable entrants was during the early years when a 79-year-old gentleman who had harvested his first big-game animal was elated to take home the title.
Eventually, the TBGA provided scholarships to high school and college students seeking a degree in an agriculture or natural resources-related major. Nine scholarships are presented annually, eight for $1,500 each and awarded per TBGA region: Trans-Pecos, Panhandle, Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau, Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods, Coastal Prairies and South Texas. A $3,000 scholarship is awarded to one statewide winner.
As displayed by the partnership between TPWD and TWA, the awards also foster cooperation among stakeholders and agencies to ensure Texas’ wildlife habitat is conserved forever. From biologists to educators, each plays a role in assisting landowners to create management plans and teaching the next generation of outdoors people about safe and ethical hunting.
“By bringing attention to the positive impacts of hunting, whether they’re ecological or economic, the Texas Big Game Awards strengthens our hunting community, encourages ethics, recruits new participants both young and old, makes business better for those enterprises connected to hunting and champions natural resources education,” Brimager says. “It is a win for hunting, hunters and habitat.”
Success Breeds Success
TPWD and TWA followed the success of the Texas Big Game Awards with new programs to honor conservation and encourage youth hunting. The Lone Star Land Steward Awards, established in 1996, recognize and honor private landowners for their accomplishments in habitat management and wildlife conservation.
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold calls for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” The awards celebrate landowners in Texas ecological regions each year, while also recognizing one statewide Leopold Conservation Award Winner. The Leopold award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to the land, water and wildlife habitat resources in their care.
The Texas Youth Hunting Program, also established in 1996, seeks to provide opportunities for youth to participate in hunting activities safely, legally and ethically, while learning about the valuable role landowners and hunters play in wildlife conservation.
TYHP sponsors introductory, instructive hunts for deer, turkey, hogs, javelina, exotics, dove, small game, waterfowl, varmints and other species. The program offers both firearm and archery hunts and hosts more than 200 hunts each year, mostly on private properties to which owners donate access. Parents or guardians are required to attend TYHP hunts and regardless of whether or not they’ve hunted themselves, a TYHP hunt is a learning opportunity and adventure for the entire family. Some TYHP hunts offer a chance for youth to tent camp or enjoy indoor accommodations depending upon the host property, providing a true hunt camp experience. TYHP participants don’t need to own their own gear, or spend a lot of money, to join in the fun as firearms, bows, optics and some camping gear are available.
On The Hunting Horizon
Brimager says that since the TBGA’s inception, the awards have garnered more than 40,000 entries, not counting landowners. On average, he says, there are 1,200 entries each year. In the next 30 years, Brimager hopes to see more first-time hunters and youth become involved, not just in the TBGA, but in the tradition of hunting.
Brimager wants to make it easier for hunters to enter their harvests in the coming years by working with partners like the Boone and Crockett Club. He hopes that technology and digital entries can become more of the norm over the coming years. Currently, hunters entering the “scored entry” category must find a certified scorer across the state and meet with the scorer after the harvest. Certified TBGA scorers are unpaid volunteers and serve at the discretion of the TBGA Scoring Committee. All scorers are trained and certified by the TBGA Scoring Committee. Scoring follows all Boone and Crockett Club guidelines. A list of scorers can be found on the TBGA website, along with official entry forms, program rules and scholarship information.
The TBGA is open to any hunter who has a valid Texas hunting license and lawfully harvests a white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, javelina or bighorn sheep in Texas during the current year’s hunting season. The animal harvested must be native to the state of Texas and must have been wild raised. Low- and high-fence categories are available for white-tailed deer entries.
Exceptionally driven hunters can enter the Texas Slam. The Texas Slam is an award given to any hunter who harvests a TBGA-qualifying white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and javelina in one season. Hunters who meet those requirements receive special recognition at the TWA banquet, held each year in San Antonio.
Attendees celebrated the 30th anniversary at the annual TWA conference, and continue to reminisce through social media and 30th anniversary merchandise. Ultimately, the Texas Big Game Awards crew looks forward to even more quality wildlife and habitat management in years ahead.
“It all boils down to habitat—that’s the reason that TPWD came to us to help them establish this program,” Brimager says. “We all want to help landowners learn more about how to manage their properties because as you manage your land for big game, you’re creating healthy habitat for many other wildlife species.”
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Reprinted with permission.