How a corporate mandate works to keep 40,000 acres of coastal prairie wild
On crisp winter mornings, massive flocks of water birds gather on the big ponds at Hall’s Bayou Ranch. In the throng are resident black and white ibis, agile, darting cormorants and blue herons that come swooshing in on huge, kite-like wings, oddly delicate and powerful all at once. Also present in the cold months are some important visitors — ducks of all sorts and sometimes geese down from Canada.
The birds grub among and feed on lush water plants; they bob and dive for fingerling bass that swarm below the pond’s surface. The din of their morning feedings alerts raptors living in stands of trees scattered all over the ranch’s 40,000 acres of wetland, coastal prairie and pond.
There are hawks, osprey and eagles — sometimes even bald eagles so big that, seen at a distance standing in the short prairie grass, they might be mistaken for white-haired people.
The predator birds come in low over the tallow trees ringing the pond. They come in fast and deadly like war planes on strafing runs and their arrival puts some of the flock birds on the wing in search of refuge at smaller ponds set off like satellites around the big ones.
On some mornings, other hunters wait with pump-guns and autoloaders in blinds on the small ponds for the ducks and geese to arrive. If the hunters aim quick and pull true, they may, like the hawks and eagles, take a few birds.
And so the water in the ponds sustains the plants and fish that attract and feed the flock birds that attract and sustain the raptors that harry the flocks and put the ducks and geese in the air for the hunters in the blinds.
And the hunters in the blinds write checks that sustain the whole thing.
This cycle is one of several playing out day and night at Hall’s Bayou Ranch. The cycles aren’t all purely natural, perhaps, but they are necessary to fulfill a mandate to keep the land as close as possible to its original state, said Todd Krampota, 52, manager of Hall’s Bayou Ranch near Santa Fe.
Counterintuitive, perhaps, but keeping a big piece of land wild when it’s removed from its natural context, surrounded by development, beset by invasive species of plant and animal and isolated from the vast, subtly integrated systems that make up the natural world takes work, and money to pay for the work.
“If you don’t work it, pretty soon the tallow trees and McCartney hedge take over,” Krampota said. “Pretty soon, it’s not fit for birds or anything else but rats.”
Krampota is conductor and choreographer of the endless work required to keep the ranch at least headed toward the natural mix of grassy, coastal prairie and wetland that existed there long ago, before man intervened.
He’s constantly moving water and earth. He builds berms to flood the land and kill the tallows and other invaders. He cuts berms open to drain the land so the prairie grass can return. He moves from plot to plot fighting the bad and coaxing the good. When he gets to the land’s end, he goes back to where he started and does it all again.
“It’s a constant fight,” Krampota said. “And it’s somewhat of a losing battle. You get one spot about right and move on to the next. In five years, the place where you started is right back where it was.”
Krampota got to know and came to love this piece of land as a child when it was operated as a day-hunting area.
“You could come in, put $5 in a can by the gate, and hunt for the day,” he said.
Over the years, he watched the land devolve into thickets of tallow and hedge so thick even the coyotes shunned it, and his understanding of things began to evolve.
“Through my love of hunting, I became a sportsman,” he said. “And from a sportsman, I evolved into a conservationist. I went from hunter to tree-hugger.”
Hall’s Bayou Ranch Inc. was founded April 7, 1943, when friends and business associates R. T. “Bob” Briscoe, Virgil McGinnes and Phil Davant bought the property, according to the ranch’s website.
The founders are long dead now but the corporation is still held by their relatives and still owns about 15,000 acres of the ranch and controls another 20,000 through leases.
Back then and still today the land was a working ranch, earning its keep with rice fields and grazing pastors, along with some of the oil and gas activity mostly inevitable along the coast.
Until about the 1950s, rice farming was enough to keep the ranch working.
By the 1990s, though, with encroachment of suburban sprawl and the general demise of family farming, a new plan was needed.
In 1993, Krampota approached the ranch’s owners with a way to help pay for reclamation and conservation efforts. The idea was to sell memberships to serious hunters — people interested in the art, science and Zen of the sport — who were willing and able to put pretty serious money into a sustainable management plan for the ranch.
The shareholders agreed, and the Hall’s Bayou Ranch Hunting Club was formed.
Krampota has been working since to maintain a fluid balance among things good for the birds and other wildlife, good for the larger connected environments such as Galveston Bay, good for the hunters and good for the land as a business enterprise.
Hall’s Bayou is still a working ranch with cattle grazing and cultivated fields of rice, corn, milo and soybeans and it still makes money from the oil and gas industries.
These days, however, the members provide about 70 percent of the money going into habitat restoration and conservation, Krampota said.
“The club is two things,” he said. “It’s an alternative to public hunting and a way to pay for conservation and land management without having to rely on public money.”
“This is a place where you can go hunting and not have to worry about who else is out there,” Krampota said. “Don’t get me wrong, about 95 percent of hunters on public land are good, but that 5 percent can cause a lot of trouble.”
The idea is to grant controlled access to a select group of serious hunters who share the fundamental values of the ranch’s management and support the game and land management practices in place there, Krampota said.
“We look for a specific clientele; we look for sportsmen,” he said.
“If you’re the kind of guy who wants to have a beer in one hand all the time and kill everything, kill all the birds and shoot the raccoons and anything else you see, you’re not going to be welcome here.”
A big part of Krampota’s work is building ponds, which can cost as much as $100,000 each. There are about 400 of them on the ranch, which sprawls generally from Hall’s Bayou northeast to a diversionary canal running parallel to state Highway 6, and southeast from FM 2004 to West Galveston Bay.
The ponds are essential to waterfowl hunting — no ponds, no ducks or geese. But for every hunting pond on the ranch, there are at least two on which hunters are never allowed, Krampota said.
“We’re not interested in lining up guns barrel to barrel and hunting every bird until it’s dead,” he said. “We’re set up to allow the birds to have an escape, a refuge; hunting is never allowed on some of the large ponds.”
The members agree with that philosophy, said Kourtney Krampota, 27, Todd’s daughter and understudy who does marketing for the club.
This year, there are 35 memberships, each with up to five cardholders. But the memberships can’t split up when the cardholders hunt, which means a single membership can’t schedule more than one hunting spot a day, Kourtney Krampota said
A membership costs $16,000 a year, she said.
“Included is a full year of ranch access, waterfowl hunting, crane hunting, pig hunting, predator hunting, dove hunting, lodge usage for private or company functions, as well as fresh and saltwater fishing,” she said.
“Our clients are people who want to get out of their corporate offices for awhile and spend some time in nature with their families or some of their clients.
“They don’t measure their success by the number of birds they kill but by the whole experience.
“They might shoot only three birds and come back to the lodge for breakfast and to hang out with the guys.”
The refuge is not restricted to the high-value game birds. The ranch crews don’t burn brush, for example. They pile it up and let it decay and the piles are havens for opossums and raccoons. Hedgerows along the dirt roads and around some of the ponds are full of rabbits. Even a big cottonmouth water moccasin that likes to sun himself on the hard-packed dirt near the hunting lodge is a full citizen of the ranch.
“We just pick him up with a pitchfork and toss him back in the bushes,” Todd Krampota said.
The ranch also is careful about its effect on the connected environment, he said. Water drained from rice fields and runoff from grazing pastures is kept in catchment ponds so agricultural chemicals and manure can filter out and break down before the water gets into the systems that feed the bay.
Krampota, who does most of his own shooting with a camera these days, said he wished the public at large had a better understanding about the large role that hunting and hunters play in land conservation and wildlife management.
“We’re hunters, but we’re not killers,” he said. “It’s about care and respect for the environment, for the land and the wildlife. It’s not about soaking the ground with blood.”