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Sale of Longhorns Sparks Debate on Breed's Future

The recent sale of about 100 longhorns by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has triggered a debate on how to best protect the future of a breed that has stood as a symbol of the state.

A longhorn stops at a water source on the 311,000-acre Big Bend State Park Ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has recently sold off about two-thirds of the herd to build a smaller pasture to display the remaining animals.

The resilient longhorn, able to survive on sparse foliage and water, has endured in Texas for more than 100 years. But the recent sale of about 100 longhorns by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has spurred debate about the breed’s future in the state.

Texas Parks and Wildlife sold roughly two-thirds of the herd in West Texas’ 311,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park at public auction so the park could institute a plan to make its remaining longhorns easier for visitors to see, said Brent Leisure, the department’s director of state parks. The park wants to reduce its herd to 10 animals and keep them on a newly constructed 3,000-acre exhibit pasture. Leisure said there are an estimated 150 to 200 longhorns currently in state parks.

But state Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, said longhorns are an important part of the state’s ecosystem, and should remain protected in state parks.

“Folks come from all over the nation to see longhorns,” he said. “It is not parks and arts; it is parks and wildlife.”

Anderson filed House Bill 3037, which would prohibit Texas Parks and Wildlife from further reducing the size of the Big Bend herd. The bill would allow for the sale of calves and heifers if the number of breeding stock were not reduced. The measure is awaiting a vote by the House.

Supporters say that maintaining the herd is vital to preserving Texas’ ranching heritage. But opponents say longhorns strain natural resources, and are difficult and costly to maintain.

Leisure said Big Bend is not the only state facility where visitors can see longhorns. He singled out the official state herd at the Fort Griffin State Historic Site and San Angelo State Park, home to a herd of about 100.

“We don’t feel like we need a large number of animals at each of these parks to tell the ranching story,” he said.

Environmental groups say that maintaining a large herd in Big Bend can have detrimental effects on water sources. Evelyn Merz, the conservation chairwoman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that during droughts, longhorns are especially harsh on the landscape because they seek out water and “make everything into mush.”

Her organization supports a pasture with fewer longhorns.

The Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, which supports Anderson’s measure, says the longhorn is unique, surviving for hundreds of years in harsh conditions. Mike Coston, president of the organization, said the animals should not be “fenced up.” “We are all in a drought, but the longhorn didn’t cause that drought,” he said. “How can they hurt the environment when they are part of the environment?” 

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