Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Blocks Private Turkey Reintroductions in Far-West Texas

January 17, 2013

 

Philip Dickerson Via email: phdickers@suddenlinkmail.com

Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept.

4500 W. Illinois, Ste. 203

Midland, TX  79703

Dear Philip: 

Thank you for your letter dated January 3, 2012 which arrived by e-mail January 8:

 

Dear Chris,

I hope this letter will summarize our conversion that took place on January 2, 2013, on the Circle Ranch.   The purpose of the visit was to discuss your Trap, Transport, and Transplant permit (TTT) request for Rio Grande turkeys.  Misty Sumner, TPWD District Wildlife Biologist for Hudspeth County was present during these discussions.

Please allow me to expand on a few points that are the basis for declining your request for Rio Grande Turkeys.  I believe the following to be limiting factors for the survival of Rio Grande turkeys on the Circle Ranch and the reasons I declined your request:

Over what I acknowledge to have been the objections of West Texas field staff, TPWD-Austin approved this project, on which we have spent $50,000 to date.  

Our biggest problems: (1) Transport mortality, and (2) dispersion upon release.  We were told to move birds several to a box.  Birds arrived pecked almost to death.  We lost 50%.  We were told no soft release.  Birds which were terrorized, disoriented and exhausted, fled 360° from the release site, many running for days.  Some wound up 20-miles away.  Because of both perhaps 25% of our birds survived 30 days.  

However, those few survived three or four years.  This proves it is untrue that there is inadequate nutrition for birds.

Jason Hardin says hard releases work since his experience is in places where there is consistent habitat for miles in all directions.  There, a turkey will find decent habitat wherever it stops running.  But our mountains in far-West Texas are isolated, like oasis in a desert.  To survive, birds must stay where released.  

In my opinion, which is based on working experience in far-West Texas, this project cannot succeed unless we create large, soft-sided pens into which birds can be released, settled down and from which they can then be soft-released.  A second question has to do with whether the right bird is a Rio Grande.  I believe that we should experiment with at least some Merriams.  We never got around to innovation and improvement, because you turned this down without discussion.  But, here is a place for experimentation to develop better practices.

Circle was offered approval for another release shortly after Vernon Bevill retired.  I said at that time we had given this a sufficient chance to “See what nature does.”  We had a surviving population of 30 birds, and had always raised babies even during the drought.  I had an expectation that drought would not persist.  That’s where I was prepared to leave it.  But then Rio Grande Electric (RGE) set fire to two miles of the draw in which we had virtually the entire nesting flock: This wiped out our animals.  Obviously a man-made fire is not a natural episode.

With TPWD concurrence, we have started an experiment and spent over $50-thousand on it.  We should continue, given that the current problem with which we are dealing was artificial and man-made

I am interlining my responses with your comments.

  • The guidelines for TTT for turkeys dictate that release sites must be within suitable range of the species.  I can find no evidence that there have ever been wild turkeys in the Sierra Diablo Mountains.  The lack of a previously established population of wild turkeys may be related to climatic conditions and limited useable acres of turkey habitat.

2

“I disagree:  Please share the research on which you base your conclusion that no turkeys have ever been, or can live, in our mountains.   

Is this ‘research’ new information? 

There are turkey populations immediately north, south and east; I have seen turkeys on IH-10 15-miles away, in habitat inferior to ours.  

Our weather is no different than the weather all around us where there are turkey; we raised chicks in the worst drought ever recorded. 

We have proved our habitat will support turkey: They have lived and reproduced for years at Circle after release!” 

TTT guidelines specify that the release site must have suitable natural habitat capable of supporting the stocked birds.  In my opinion, your habitat for turkeys is very limited in acres and arrangement on the landscape.

3

“Seventeen Draw, from Interstate 10 to the top of the Diablo escarpment is over 20-miles long.  What grows in it depends on where one looks.  You were drawing a conclusion from a one-mile strip.”  

“Your opinion that sacaton is not useful is widely-shared, and inaccurate.”

5

“In the desert there is mixed brush (shrubs and trees) with many grasses and forbs.  On south of Circle, there is a different habitat altogether.”  

6

“From the Garden up there are actually four draws not one.  One goes east and contains the mixed brush and trees that you evaluated when you did your browse survey.  It continues miles past that.” 

7

The main draw shifts back from giant sacaton to mixed plants.  Up towards the escarpment, it becomes juniper and pinyon with some oak.” 

8

“A mile past the headquarters is another draw that branches off to the north.  It is grassland with lots of shrubs like Agarita and Little-Leaf Sumac.  On north, it shifts to juniper and pinyon.” 

9

“The fourth major tributary of Seventeen Draw is the series of draws that feed together at the West Pasture.  These drain the McAdoo-Elder country northwest of Circle.  This is grassland with shrubs and some juniper.  Its highest portion is lower than the other parts of the draws.  It is not sacaton-dominated.”

10

“These four draws (upper section of east tributary is pictured) contain perhaps 50-miles.  However there are dozens more tributary draws and canyons that feed them.  Because of the concentration of water in those draws, all contain mixed plants.  Plant composition also depends on whether slopes face north or south.  Usage varies according to season: the birds disappear for months at a time.”

  • Seventeen Draw consists primarily of dense giant sacaton. This certainly provides a unique feature on the ranch but falls short of the necessary benefits provided by a draw with mixed native grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. 

No, this is incorrect.  Please see the preceding series of photos and comments.

  • While the ranch is large, its available turkey habitat is limited to the linear habitats associated with the draws.  It lacks suitable upland habitat and any corridors or linkages of habitat that would allow birds to move into additional areas capable of supporting them.

11

“Miles and miles of canyons link the entire ranch and it to the Sierra Diablos, via pinch-points on ridge tops, merger points where draws and canyons (“corridors and linkages”) join; everything comes together somewhere high, low and in-between.”

  • The primary roosting habitat in Seventeen Draw is limited to a few scattered large elm trees all within a mile of the headquarters.  I feel that adequate roosting habitat is an important component that is missing.

12

“While elms are the preferred roosts at the Bunkhouse, but why do you think those are the only trees on Circle that a turkey would use?!”

13

“As shown above, Circle is full of areas with pinyon, juniper and other potential roosts. In our meeting you told Laura and me that you did not consider roost to be a problem.  The statement that roosts are limited to the a few Siberian Elms is wrong.”

14

“Establishing a small breeding population around Headquarters, where we can protect them from predators, observe them, and provide supplemental feeding seasonally to increase numbers to expand outwards, is common-sense animal husbandry, not proof of habitat-weaknesses.”

I believe you mentioned that the artificial roost structures had never been used.

15

“I built artificial roosts because TPWD staff suggested it.  If you were a turkey would you roost on one of these when trees like these are nearby?”  

  • Another important factor in my decision is the fact it is normally dry in the spring when hens require increased nutrition for nesting.  This nutrition is provided in the form on green plants, and insects.  Additionally, chicks require a diet of insects (high protein diet) during the first 3 weeks for survival.   The Van Horn area is in an 11-12 inch rainfall zone, with historically dry conditions in the spring.

16

Because of water concentrations in our draws and canyons, of which there are at least 100 miles throughout the ranch and surrounding areas, the effective rainfall is multiples of 11 inches per year.  Often effective rainfall is better-measured in cubic feet per minute.  Frankly, I worry that early rains will wash-away nests.”

17

“You stated twice during our conversation that you agree we can establish a small population of turkeys.  You also stated once that we may have already done so.”

18

“We have raised baby turkeys in each of the last three years.  Two of those were the worst drought in the history of the state.  Last year a fire wiped out virtually the whole nesting population.  Even so, birds hatched last summer survive as you were told by Circle staff.” 

  • In summary, the useable turkey habitat on the ranch is limited and does not provide opportunities for expansion; it’s very linear without a good upland habitat component; there is a lack of suitable roosting habitat; the Circle Ranch is located in a low rainfall zone and dry spring conditions that do not support the needed nutritional requirements for hens and chicks. 

19

“These turkey seem unaware that they will starve on our mountain flanks.  Food is not a weak link.  We have always hatched and raised birds: this speaks for itself, and to your summary.” 

The guidelines of the TTT program state that release sites shall have suitable habitat capable of sustaining the released birds.  It is my opinion, based on 28 years of combined experience of working with Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriam’s turkey habitats that the Circle Ranch is lacking important habitat components and is located geographically in a low rainfall zone making it very difficult for released birds to survive.

20

I understood that you have not worked with Texas turkey and never done a Texas or West Texas trap & release.  That makes me the only person in this conversation with hands-on experience with far-West Texas turkey and their trapping and transplanting (three releases).  Unlike you or any member of West Texas field staff, Circle staff and I have studied these birds.  While I acknowledge we may yet fail, I also say that we have the very same chance to succeed as when we began, better in the sense that we now know we will hatch and raise chicks. 

21

“Your water rule-of-thumb is not the whole story. Circle represents only a small part of a large area: the Sierra Diablo Mountains. Water concentrations are normal throughout the range and effective rainfall varies with elevation, topography, and which way country faces relative to the sun.  Turkeys like all desert animals use it all, but at different times according to season and rainfall.  These deserts support great animal diversity, but the animals are always moving and their numbers are small.  We will never have as many deer or turkey as South Texas or the states where you were trained, but that does not mean we can’t have any.”  

Chris, you have always been a gracious host and knowledgeable resource manager.  I fully understand your disappointment with my decision but hope you will respect my experience and knowledge in this matter.  

On many occasions during our conversation you said that you were expressing “a Humble Opinion.”  Now you ask me to respect your “Experience and Knowledge”.  I do respect your opinion Philip.  But your opinion does not become fact (knowledge) simply because you wear a TPWD shirt, or are in a position to force it.  Respectfully, you appear to me to have not done your homework. 

Some years ago the sheep program appeared to have been a failure because of poor animal husbandry techniques at the pens at the SDWMA.  Did the Department abandon the effort?  Of course not: Everybody pulled together, figured out how to get it done better and today look at the success that everybody can take pride in.

Earlier this year TPWD spent $250-thousand attempting to move 200 pronghorn to the Big Bend.  Eighty percent died for sure and probably most of the rest are dead by now.  This effort killed 200 animals that were not surplus.  Do you intend to abandon the efforts for pronghorn or do you intend to try again? 

Our turkey chances are better than either example above for the simple reason that our turkey were making it until RGE set fire to their nesting and bugging area.

With respect to me as gracious host I thank you for your kind words.  I like you too.  

As to whether I am a knowledgeable resource manager, thank you for saying so: Please treat me that way. 

The Circle Ranch is a very beautiful ranch with diverse wildlife resources and I hope we can continue to assist you in your management efforts in the future.

Me too.  My expectation is that you will help private landowners restore wildlife, and wildlife habitat by making reasonable decisions intended to move both in the right direction.

Respectfully,

Philip Dickerson

District Leader – Trans Pecos

4500 W. Illinois Ste 203

Midland, TX  79703

432-520-1581

Philip.dickerson@tpwd.state.tx.us

  

I have illustrated, point-by-point why I disagree.  This is an experiment on which you have offered no new facts that are negative to the original assumptions.  Notwithstanding that you and your West Texas colleagues wanted to stop this project, it was approved.  That being the case, I expect that the Department will support the effort in good faith for long enough to determine the physiological outcomes.  

The RGE fire is simply an unforeseen problem.  There are two decisions: (1) Is it economically feasible to proceed?  (2) Is there any thing different about the biology?  

#1 Money is my call and notwithstanding disruption of our insurance claim by TPWD field staff,  RGE has now paid $30-thousand, much of this for this effort. 

#2 Rio Grande Electric set fire to our birds. How does that prove turkey can’t live at Circle? We know that there were 17-25 nesting hens, acclimated to Circle Ranch.  We had a decent spring.  We know at least one full clutch of eggs hatched before the fire and at least four chicks from some clutch survived: We saw those at the Bunkhouse on the Wednesday before your visit.

All we’re trying to do is overcome a technical difficulty, a man-made fire, to get back to where we were and complete the experiment. 

Here is a chance for you to support a reasonable effort that costs the public nothing, uses surplus birds which if properly introduced will at worst not make as many babies as they need to establish a self-supporting population.  At best we will be breaking new ground for far-West Texas wildlife, landowners and the public.

Instead, you are treating this as if it is a new idea to be independently evaluated by you alone, as if from scratch.  $50-thousand and years into an effort that was succeeding, we are left with too few turkey for a viable population or diverse genetics.  There is no new information you have offered that wasn’t known to everybody when we started this project, nor have you sought information about our results.  Because of such arbitrary actions, Texas Parks & Wildlife has a bad reputation among many far-West Texas landowners, and public.

I ask only that you to do what TPWD is supposed to do: help my family increase wildlife diversity as means to restore habitat; and thereby conserve natural resources and opportunities for public recreation including wildlife hunting and viewing. 

Will you please reconsider? 

Sincerely,

Christopher Gill 

CG:sp

C: Carter Smith

 

Posted by Chris Gill

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

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