Four teens from Alabama got a chance this summer to compete in the National Wildlife Habitat Education Program on the legendary King Ranch located in South Texas. Maggie Moore, Josh Jones, Brad Gentle and Garrett Johnson from Morgan County represented Alabama in this year’s annual contest held in a different state each year.
WHEP is a 4-H and FFA competition in which 14- to 19-year-olds show off their wildlife knowledge and management skills. The emphasis is on knowing wildlife terms, judging quality of habitat, wildlife habitat management practices and wildlife damage management. The students are scored as a team and as individuals.
The Morgan County team earned the right to compete at the national level by winning the state competition in Auburn last June. They then went to work to raise the necessary funds to make the trip to Kingsville. Many individuals and organizations donated generously and the kids worked at a two-day dog show to help earn the money.
Dr. Jim Armstrong came up from Auburn to Hartselle for a day to help the team prepare for the competition. Ronald Britnell and Spencer Bradley, natural resource extension agents, worked with the team as well as Sharon Fischer, the 4-H coordinator for Morgan County.
Although the team had hoped to win the competition, they came in seventh as a team, and Maggie Moore placed seventh in the individual competition while Garrett Johnson placed fourth. Alabama and Tennessee teams have dominated the competition since it began in 1989 winning more first and second place trophies than any other state. Tennessee won first place this year and Texas placed second.
"If we couldn’t win, I am glad Tennessee won this year. They were really nice kids. In fact, there were a lot of nice people involved from all over the place," Garrett Johnson commented.
The competition lasted for two days and Head Coach Sara Gentle and Assistant Coach Melissa Johnson stayed with the students. The participants were housed at the Texas A&M University at the Kingsville campus. The Alabama team agreed, while it was a lot of work to prepare for the contest, they felt like it was well worth it, and they would highly recommend the competition to others who are interested in wildlife and their habitat.
The King Ranch is a mind-boggling 825,000 acres and is about as different ecologically from Alabama as any place could be. The area is much drier and the plant life was quite unique. This presented a challenge for the Alabama experts, but one that they enjoyed.
They were warned to wear leather boots and watch for rattlesnakes which were abundant to say the least. When the first railroad was being built into the area, so many workers were killed by rattlesnake bites that ranch matriarch Henrietta King placed a bounty of a nickel for each rattler killed. She called it off after paying for over 250,000 dead rattlers and still no noticeable dent in the population. Melissa Johnson said South Texas has gorgeous beaches, but also the only ones she was on had signs warning visitors to watch for rattlesnakes.
Before the railroads came to Texas, the nation’s first cattle drives started from this ranch as the cattle were driven from Kingsville to Kansas City to be shipped by rail to Chicago. The building of the rail system to Kingsville effectively doubled the profit margin on every head sold.
The ranch is larger than the state of Rhode Island and has over 2,000 miles of fencing and cross fencing. It is so large that it was not uncommon in the early days for a cowboy who lost his horse to die of thirst before reaching water. Today, the ranch has several crew members whose only job is to keep the water flowing from the wells around the ranch. Thirty thousand cattle drink a lot of water in the merciless South Texas heat.
The ranch developed the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle and the first American Quarter Horse ever registered came from there. An operation this size takes a lot of people to keep running. When the ranch was first established in 1853 virtually no one lived in the area, so founder Richard King travelled to Mexico and convinced an entire village to move with him to run the ranch. Their descendants were the people the team met who are still working the ranch today and Richard King’s descendants still own the ranch.
While cattle and oil are the main income producers for the ranch today, hunting and wildlife watching are coming on strong as businesses in and of themselves. The ranch is located in a birdwatcher’s paradise and Richard King would no doubt be shocked at what people from all over the world pay to come here and see the many species of birds. Huge herds of deer roam the area as well as the very elusive and quite large nilgai antelope from India which was introduced to the area over 80 years ago and quickly adapted. They are notoriously difficult to hunt and therefore are much sought after by hunters willing to pay the fees. There are estimated to be about 10,000 on the ranch today.
The ranch stretches all the way into the Rio Grande Valley where the subtropical climate makes the southern section of the ranch more suitable for crops. The students were surprised to find there were plenty of alligators here as well as birds common to tropical areas. Looking at this area makes it difficult to believe it is all part of the same operation.
The team certainly enjoyed the opportunity to see this ranch with its very unique ecology. South Texas has an unusual legacy and place in history and the trip opened their eyes to the variety of American geography and diversity of wildlife.
"It was a trip to be remembered for a lifetime," said Melissa Johnson.
Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Hartselle.