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Gillespie County rancher Gino Giannotti slows his green Kawasaki Mule on a rocky road and gazes toward a distant motte of live oaks. Braking to a stop, he says, “Look!” and points toward a blackish-brown antelope with white eye patches and V-shaped, corkscrew horns. Startled, the animal bounds away and disappears into the trees. “That was a male blackbuck antelope,” Giannotti says, revving the off-road vehicle. “The females are tan and don’t have horns.”
Within a few minutes, he spots chestnut and white-spotted axis deer along with a large-bodied, scimitar-horned oryx, with its distinctive back-swept horns. Native white-tailed deer graze nearby. These animals help ensure that Tillie’s Game Ranch, a member of Central Texas Electric Cooperative, won’t be broken up and sold any time soon.
Giannotti and his wife, Pamela, inherited the Hill Country land in the 1990s from Pamela’s great-aunt, Tillie Evers Durden, a descendant of Ludwig Evers, who founded the ranch near Doss in the 1850s. For the first 16 years, the couple, who live and work in Austin, ran cattle on the ranch. Then, an extended drought brought uncertainty. Commercial hunts for white-tailed deer generated extra income—but for only a few months out of the year.
Something had to give. With iffy cattle markets and notorious Texas weather, the couple did not see how they could continue to afford the land and pass it along intact to their children. In-depth research and lengthy discussions finally led Giannotti and his wife to a solution.
“We decided to stock and breed exotic game,” he says. “The animals can be hunted year-around, and we could create a revenue stream that would cover the ranch’s expenses, and the land would not be a financial burden down the road for our two daughters.”
The Gianottis are not alone. Across Texas, more than 3,300 property owners run exotic game species on their land, according to the Exotic Wildlife Association, based in Ingram. Generally, the term “exotic” refers to animals brought into the state from foreign countries. In Texas, the majority of exotic hoofed deer, antelope, goats and sheep originate in Africa. Most are contained in high-fenced property. Some roam more freely in Central and South Texas, where the climate and terrain resemble that of their savannah homelands.
Over the years, the number of “Texotics” (a term likely first coined as the title of a 1976 bulletin published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) has increased dramatically. In 1963, a TPWD census counted 13 exotic species totaling some 13,000 animals in 46 counties. In 1988, a department survey found 67 species totaling an estimated 164,257 animals in 137 counties. A TPWD survey in 1996 numbered 76 species and 190,000 animals. Today, the EWA estimates that more than 1 million exotics representing 135 species live in the state.
All exotic animals are regulated by the Texas Animal Health Commission, which oversees the state’s livestock industry. Exotics are listed along with cattle, horses and other domestic animals.
Under TPWD regulations, hunters may harvest exotic animals with no bag limits at any time of the year. However, a valid hunting license and landowner permission are required. Also, hunting is not permitted on public roads or rights-of-way.
The exotic game industry’s economic impact in rural America is substantial. Exotic wildlife operations and sports enthusiasts spend more than $822 million each year, according to a 2007 Texas A&M University study. The industry’s total impact amounts to $1.3 billion and generates more than 14,300 jobs annually, largely in rural areas where exotic wildlife owners operate.
The first exotic game in Texas came to the legendary King Ranch. Starting in the 1920s, nilgai antelopes, purchased from the San Diego Zoo, were released on the ranch’s Norias Division. Today, more than 12,000 nilgai, a large brown or gray antelope indigenous to India, draw hunters and visitors from around the world to King Ranch.
In the 1930s, Richard Friedrich fenced off 775 acres of his Kerr County ranch and released sambar, fallow, axis and sika deer that he acquired from the San Antonio Zoo, where he served as a board member. Now under different ownership, the Patio Ranch, which bills itself as the state’s oldest exotic game ranch, breeds 15 exotic game species for commercial hunts and live animal sales.
In 1953, the late Charles Schreiner III acquired blackbuck antelope for his family’s famed Y.O. Ranch, established in 1880 in Kerr County. In the 1960s, Schreiner added more game species to boost the ranch’s reputation as a tourist and hunting destination. In 1967, Schreiner helped found the EWA to support and promote the industry. Today, Byron and Sandra Sadler, members of Pedernales EC, own the original portion of the historic ranch, which they renamed Y.O. Headquarters. Hunting, horseback riding and exotic game tours are available for visitors.
“We know the Schreiner family, and we’re native Texans, so we want to preserve the ranch and keep its legacy intact,” Byron Sadler says.
Across the state, private landowners own exotic game for numerous reasons. Many ranchers offer hunting packages that can cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Others breed and sell animals as breeding stock, for new releases on game ranches or as meat to restaurants. In some cases, ranchers tend endangered species in partnership with conservation projects, such as the Species Survival Plan program administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Landowners should do their homework before venturing into exotics. “We advise people to consider the three C’s first,” says James Gallagher, a TPWD biologist at the 5,300-acre, high-fenced Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a Central Texas EC member. “Can they contain exotics on their land? Can they control their numbers? Will exotics compete with native species?”
Gallagher, who manages greater kudu, Thompson’s gazelle and three other exotic species for demonstrations at the Mason WMA, also cautions potential owners to become well-versed in the behaviors and feeding habits of specific species. “One lesson we’ve learned here is that some exotics only use metal shelters when they are about to die,” he says.
What about the exotics’ effect on nature? “It’s all about numbers,” says Mitch Lockwood, TPWD big game program director. “As long as animal numbers remain within the carrying capacity of your land, exotics can be part of an overall wildlife management plan that focuses on the management of native wildlife species and their habitat. When requested, we give landowners technical guidance in managing habitat and wildlife, including exotics, for the benefit of native species. But if not managed, then exotics can have a detrimental impact on native species and habitat.”
“We learned at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area that exotics can outcompete white-tailed deer, which eat only forbs and browse,” Lockwood says. “Most of the common exotics also like browse and forbs, but they do well on grass, too. Past studies showed that unmanaged exotics enclosed with white-tailed deer always increased in numbers while the natives went to zero. That’s because white-tailed deer will starve to death on grass alone.”
Balanced management is key, whether exotics are present or not. “We don’t like the idea, but we recognize the economic importance of private landowners making money off their land,” says biologist Romey Swanson, a conservation project manager with the Hill Country Conservancy. “And sometimes the best way to do that is to offer hunting opportunities. But we would hope that landowners manage animals so that range conditions aren’t depleted over time.”
Back at Tillie’s Game Ranch, Giannotti drives through a final gate and locks it. Then he steers the dusty ATV into a carport at the ranch’s tin-roofed rock lodge, which houses two upstairs bedrooms for hunters. On the front porch, he pauses to gaze at the distant hills.
“Sometimes I look at how rugged this land is and think back to German immigrants who settled here,” Giannotti reflects. “They had to be a strong people to survive. You can’t walk a foot on this land without kicking a rock. But they worked it and made a living. We are, too. Someday our daughters will own this land after us. But in the meantime, I’m having a ball raising exotics!”