Continued growth of urbanization provides an opportunity for ranches to increase income through wildlife based recreation offerings to the public. Some landowners are currently taking advantage of these opportunities; but there are still unmet market needs. The majority of our population has little opportunity to enjoy rural life, view nature or learn how their food is produced. Many yearn for the outdoors and are willing to pay for a chance to enjoy the opportunities that ranches can offer.
Customer expectations of their ranch visits vary considerably. Some clientele want posh accommodations, gourmet prepared food, a wet bar, and pampering by the ranch staff. Others want to be on their own, sleep in campers, and cook their meals. Then there are expectation gradients in between these two extremes. Differences in expectations allow a landowner to develop a successful wildlife based recreation business that fits available resources.
Craig Bowen of Plateau Land and Wildlife Management refers to wildlife based recreation as outdoor recreation. He says, “The three primary types are hunting, fishing and nature tourism. Hunting opportunities in Texas include white-tailed and mule deer, turkey, dove, quail, feral hogs and exotics. A fishing business requires lakes or ponds stocked with bass, perch, catfish and other popular species. Nature tourism is activities such as bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, guided nature tours, star gazing and geological (formation viewing and rock hunting).”
Wildlife and habitat management is usually required to provide customers with a good hunting experience. Help in establishment and execution of a wildlife management plan can be obtained from Texas Parks and Wildlife (TP&W) through their Private Lands program. Services are free to landowners upon their requests through a telephone call to a TP&W district office.
“Once the request is made, a TP&W biologist schedules a site visit with the landowner or manager to assess habitat potential and offer guidance on improvements for the wildlife species of interest,” says Linda Campbell Texas Parks & Wildlife Private Lands and Public Hunting Program Director. “Once the property’s potential has been determined, the biologist provides recommendations and, if requested, helps the landowner develop a written wildlife management plan (WMP). The WMP is a guide to achieve the landowner’s stated natural resource management goals. Components of the WMP include a description of habitats, current land uses and management practices, and specific habitat and population management recommendations. TP&W provides follow-up assistance as needed to help evaluate progress toward management goals and suggest additional actions.”
“After a property is ready for hunting, TP&W can provide the customers,” Campbell continues. “We lease land for hunting dove, waterfowl, pheasant, quail, feral hog, squirrel and rabbits. Length of the lease and price per acre are negotiable. To participate in this program, the landowner is required to make his property available to hunters, who have the Annual Public Hunting Permit for the agreed upon dates. A second requirement is to implement any habitat improvements that are identified in the lease agreement.
“TP&W also pays landowners a negotiated fee to provide a two-day public hunting opportunity for white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn and exotics. In this program, we draw the hunters and provide them with your ranch rules and information. Landowners run the hunt on the specific dates in the contract agreement.”
Like hunting, the first step in developing a fishing business is to inventory what you have to offer. How large are the lakes and are they currently stocked with fish? Are the lakes aesthetically pleasing? Can the lakes be reached by all-weather roads? The answer to these questions will show what you have to sell and what changes need to be made for public acceptance.
“Larger ponds and reservoirs offer more options for managing fish populations,” says Dr. Billy Higginbotham, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service Wildlife and Fisheries Specialist. “For example, landowners with 10-acre reservoirs are in a more favorable position to manage exclusively for largemouth bass than those with one-acre ponds. Even though a market may exist for a target species such as largemouth bass, landowners might consider other species such as channel and blue catfish, sunfish, crappie and even rainbow trout during the winter months. These alternative species may appeal to a broader range of anglers and offer more fishing opportunities.”
Value-added amenities such as shade, toilet facilities, cabins, a picnic area, camp sites, food and beverages, bait, tackle, rental equipment, ice and a fish cleaning service should be considered in the plan. Will some of these amenities attract more customers? Will the amenities generate enough additional revenue to pay their costs?
Would you rather not have to deal with the public in leasing your lakes for fishing? Will lake and fish management require time that you don’t have? If your answer to either of these questions is yes, you can consider other options for capturing income from sport fishing. An example of one option is to work through a company like Private Water Fishing.
“Private Water Fishing is a company organized to manage customer relations for landowners,” says Steve Alexander. “We have been in business for 14 years and have a clientele of 450 fisherman members. These members pay an annual fee for current access to 52 private lakes plus a daily fishing rate. The landowner receives the majority of the daily fishing rate.
“By leasing lakes through Private Water Fishing (PWF), the landowner does not have to solicit fishing customers nor act as their host when they fish the property. PWF carries liability insurance for each property and requires all members to sign a hold harmless clause. We have a strict set of rules and code of conduct that our members must follow. Our program is primarily used by hunting ranches and beef cattle operations.”
“We also assist landowners in fish and lake management through our consulting service,” Alexander continues. “Our services include monitoring fish populations and determining appropriate management practices.”
Type of nature tourism business selected for a property should depend upon its natural resources and the amount of time that the landowner or manager is willing to devote to the enterprise. Help in assessing natural resources can be obtained from the TP&W district biologist.
“Bird and wildlife viewing is one of the most popular types of nature tourism,” says Shelly Plante, Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism Manager. “In a 2006 survey, it was shown that wildlife watching contributed $2.9 billion to the Texas economy and since that time, it has continued to grow. Rich in diverse species, Texas is a perfect place for wildlife viewing. In addition, the Lone Star State is one of the top birding destinations in the world.”
“TP&W has created nine driving trail maps that direct people to the best spots in the state to observe wildlife such as birds, butterflies, bats or pronghorns,” explains Plante. “At some of the locations birds and wildlife are viewed from the road and at others, they are viewed from walking trails. The trails include sites on federal, state, county, community and private lands. If your property is close to one of the trails, you can install a walking trail and eventually be listed on the map, provided you have wildlife to view. You can charge for the use of your viewing paths as long as you have a way to collect the money.”
If your property is far enough from residential and commercial lights to have dark skies at night, astronomy might be a business opportunity. A cleared area unobstructed by hills or other natural features makes an ideal star gazing site.
“Wildlife photography is becoming very popular,” says Plante. “Requirements are blinds for the photographers near feeding areas and wildlife populations. Other targets for photographers can include wildflowers, healthy grasses, butterflies and insects. Aquatic bird viewing and photography can be facilitated with a shaded observation area overlooking a pond.”
Expectations of mountain bikers are described on a web page posted by X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat. It says: “X Bar Ranch offers riders of all levels 16 miles of trails in the middle of west-central Texas ranch country on both single track (85%) and jeep roads. The trails twist and turn through two dry river valleys, mesquite flats and cedar/oak-covered hills. Even with our fair share of rocks, these trails are fast and furious.”
Regardless of the type of wildlife based recreation business you choose, it can be started with the basic requirements. Amenities such as dinning, lodging, swimming and games can be added as the business gains momentum. Hunting ranches with lodges and other entertainment facilities often add fishing and nature tourism to their offerings to make better use of their capital investment. To be successful, the wildlife based recreation business has to match the natural resources on the property. In addition to the organizations mentioned, help in establishing wildlife based recreation business can be obtained from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, United States Department of Agricultural Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) and private consultants.