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Texas Longhorns in Oklahoma

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Having eaten them, we wanted very much to see the "wild" Texas longhorns that roam Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Like the wild horses on the Theodore Roosevelt NWR in North Dakota, these cattle are introduced, and they're being maintained there to "save the breed." Cattle resembling longhorns were probably introduced to North America from Spain in 1493. By the 1600's, domestic breeds from the British Isles and Europe supplanted the longhorn. In 1927, as the Texas longhorn faced extinction as a breed, cattle enthusiasts from the U.S. Forest Service brought a herd to the Wichita Mountains NWR, where the animals thrived. Longhorns have a number of desirable traits, primary among them being intelligence, adaptability, great beauty, and low birth weight, which means they are easy calvers. Whether having a bunch of domestic cattle using rangeland that once belonged to the now-extinct Merriam's elk and the once-extirpated but now-replaced American bison is the thing to do is a bit of a question.
The Merriam's elk has been replaced on the 59,000-acre refuge by introduced Rocky Mountain elk, and the bison have been reintroduced as well.

Note the fenceline behind the bison. It was hard to get a photo without fencing here. A surpassingly beautiful place, but what's with all the fencing?

So all the hoofed stock here has the hand of man in its presence and its management. Maybe the whitetails have always been here. Or maybe they were reintroduced, too.

What to say about it all? That nothing's as it once was, that nothing's pristine? That cattle aren't wildlife and don't belong on a wildlife refuge? That all our wildlife refuges have been twiddled with and tweaked and manipulated in some way?

Yes, that's a fenceline behind the doe.

I was filled with conflicting feelings as I gazed on these undeniably beautiful cattle. Looking at them, I see something ancient, something that goes back to drawings on cave walls. This is a superbly adapted bovid, probably three times smarter than your average Angus: a survival machine. Tim Ryan told me they're even more dangerous than the bison. We stayed in the car.

Gorgeous things. Their colors and patterns enchanted me.

However you feel about longhorns as wildlife, however you split the hairs of what belongs and what doesn't on public land, the longhorns don't care. They're breeding and sparring and bossing each other around and they are beautiful.

This old blue bull saw us pull up next to one of his many wives and her calf, and decided to do something about it.

What are you doing so close to those tourists?

Move along, and take your little girl with you.

Mama, Daddy, and Baby makes pee.

What's wild? What's native? How long do you have to be here to be a native? Is nearly six centuries long enough?

Or should a wildlife refuge belong to wildlife?


You know we all love you. And we'll forgive OK for trying to mimic TX beef. But I hate to say this... those aren't quite... real... long... horns. I'm not sure if the legal definition includes "horns that barely fit on the front-end of a cadillac" but only one of those cows looks remotely close to me. And no long horn/longhorn/cow will EVER be as dangerous as a bison. Just sayin'

-your friendly local Texan

(also; give the place to the Bison, lest we "save the breed" and run pygmy goats everywhere... longhorns can find private interest groups)

Oh Texans - don't get me started. Living in Oklahoma and Santa Fe - I get a double dose. They really are from a whole other country...

The bulls and cows of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge longhorn herd born prior to 2002 are registered with the Texas Longhorn Breeder's Association of America (TLBAA), the International Texas Longhorn Association (ITLA), and the Cattlemen's Texas Longhorn Registry (CTLR). It doesn't get any more Texas then that.

See you in October, Texas!

Here's why they are worth saving:

The name "Texas Longhorn" is a bit of a misnomer, as the breed originated in Africa. The Moors took the breed to Spain over 500 years ago. The Longhorn came to the New World on Christopher Columbus' second trip to Santa Domingo in 1493. In 1521, the Spanish explorer Gregorio de Villalobos brought Longhorns to Mexico. Coronado drove 500 head of Longhorn to the northwestern regions of Nuevo Mexico in his search for "the Seven Cities of Gold."

Early Texas settlers were surprised to find what they thought were native cattle "wild as deer and more dangerous than a grizzly. They would attack man or beast without provocation. Wounded bulls were known to hunt down their enemies by scent alone."

In a short time the Texas Longhorn came closer to extinction than the buffalo and the whooping crane. In 1927 the federal government appropriated $3,000 to save this historic cattle breed. This was not an easy task. Two U.S. Forest Service Rangers traveled over 5,000 miles and inspected more than thirty thousand head of cattle, looking for purebred Texas Longhorns. They found only twenty cows, three bulls and four calves.

These animals were shipped to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Preserve near Cache, Oklahoma to be the seed stock for a heritage herd of Texas Longhorns, which remains the primary herd today. By 1964 there were 2,500 Texas Longhorns. Animals culled from the Wichita Reserve are branded WR and represent the seven old Texas families who are credited with rescuing this endearing breed of cattle from extinction."

A biscuit for my flying Oklahoma blogmonkey.

Your questions are all good ones, but moot, I think. We are so overrun by non-native and/or invasive species, be they birds or plants or bugs or bulls, that it hardly seems worth the effort to even ask the question. I spend an inordinate amount of my time removing invasive species from my property and trying to reestablish native ones and to what end? To try to recreate an environment that couldn't exist without my manipulating it in some way, because it has already been so badly degraded it cannot exist on its own? It seems silly sometimes but I push on anyway.

I think that many of us who are close to nature have a utopian vision of life before us, how the world is "supposed to be". Nature in balance, with us in balance right along with it. Those days are long gone, and the best we can do is try to preserve what's left.

The longhorn are beautiful and naturalized (well, except for the fences). They seem like less of an environmental threat than things like kudzu, chestnut blight or Asian carp. Attractive and benign, the best kind of non-native species to be.

I sure hope that those of us who love the world we are privileged to live in don't stop asking the questions that need to be asked, even if they appear moot. No, we won't ever repair what we've done to the bison or the elk, but by asking the question of just what should be on that preserve perhaps we are doing something to prevent the next extinction of a plant or creature we feel is an impediment to our progress, or worse, of no significance.

There is a Native American tradition of looking (or thinking) seven generations ahead before you do something -- what will the impact of my action be seven generations on? I try to think of this (don't always succeed!) when I contemplate something's relative environmental impact. We don't really know, and so we have to be careful. And ask questions.

I think the longhorns are beautiful, and like Marie, I think they're a benign introduced species. Not like Kudzu or English House Sparrows.

But they're not native because they're not native. They still won't be native 10,000 years from now.

I didn't know the historical significance of the Wichita Refuge longhorn herd; I'm not sure about this, but doesn't the Wichita Refuge bison herd have a similar tale? TR, I hand that one over to you; you have some serious research chops. Great discussion here, and the blue bull family photos are gorgeous. What handsome animals, all of them. I enjoy them hugely, whatever their status.

The fences you keep seeing are to keep YOU out of the wilderness areas, referred to as back country, where there is NO public access. The animals are managed & the herds culled every year, both bison & longhorns. The reason for the management is that there is a carrying capacity for the land that must be maintained and kept at numbers that could survive drought. Yes, they are managed, as are many plant species on the refuge, prescribed burns, removal of invasive species like cedars.... Most of the lakes are artificial, beginning with the creation of Lost Lake by the CCC in 1926 & many more by the WPA. The longhorns were introduced due to their historical & cultural importance. Originally a game preserve, In the legislation that created the Refuge it is actually stated that a certain number of longhorns will be maintained. For the most part the Refuge management would be happy not to have the longhorns there for a number of reasons but also because then the numbers in the bison herd could be increased. I noticed you didn't comment on the Holy City & the annual Passion Play held there, on refuge land. More people have problems with that- separation of church & state and all- than with the longhorns roaming around. It's easy too complain & debate the truth about how pristine it, or anything, is anymore. I, for one, am happy it's there, that there is public use allowed & that The Wichita Wildlife Refuge is THE most visited refuge in the United States. -remember it is a Refuge, not a state or national park. Did you appreciate the opportunity to see the bison, prairie dogs, elk, deer, dozen of bird species, the grasses & wildflowers...... ???

Posted by Lisa Roberts June 1, 2010 at 6:40 PM

Dear Ms. Roberts,

Thanks for your comments. You seem angry. I'm sorry if I've offended you by mulling over the presence of longhorns on a wildlife refuge. I'm sorry that you got the impression that I didn't appreciate the longhorns; I certainly do and apparently failed to adequately convey that. And I didn't mean to offend anyone in raising these questions, especially someone who clearly has great pride in a beautiful, vital place that has preserved a great deal of terrific wildlife and habitat. If I seem ignorant of just how the refuge is managed, I am--it's hard to get an adequate picture in a day's visit. Thank you for clarifying a bit of how the herds are managed. Am I correct in guessing that you work for Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? In your spirited (but unnecessary) defense of it, you didn't reveal your association.

How you could read this post, the vireo quest post, and the subsequent ones on prairie dogs, then characterize what I've written as a complaint, or question whether I appreciated the chance to visit this splendid place is puzzling to me. Perhaps you only read this one post. Perhaps you have never read my blog before. In my writing, I try to move a level or two beyond mere appreciation to a more thoughtful view of a creature's place in the world--including our place. The human/animal interface is where I live as a writer, whether I'm looking at wildlife management, hunting, rehabilitation, or observation. I always try to smoke out the hidden issues of how and why we relate to animals the way we do. And then, the harder issue: whether we *should* relate to them that way. Often, there are no clear answers, but I think it's a valid exercise to raise the questions, and encourage people to think about issues they might otherwise not consider.

I'd encourage you to read Little Orange Guy's comment, take a deep breath, and rest assured that I deeply appreciate Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and all the animals, birds, wildflowers, insects, annelids, bacteria and viruses that live there...shall I go on?

And thank you for airing your views.

Oh, sorry if my tone came off so haughty. I didn't mean it like that. It is a common discussion among refuge folks about the presence of the longhorns & I think I've sat in on way too many heated discussions about the longhorns. Most are not in favor of them. In the legislation that set aside the refuge, in the very last paragraph, it states that longhorns are to be kept on the refuge & even gives a number to be brought into the refuge & kept. This is now considered the minimal # that must be kept & from refuge director to director it can go up or be culled to this minimum, depending on current policy & management goals.

In my younger days I was a more idealist & a purest and felt, as many do, they should be removed & left to privatization or, well, be Texas' problem. And concentration should be on preserving what we have, what's native, & re-creating the mixed grass prairie of the 1700's. Now days I've softened to the longhorns & see both sides equally. Whether they are appropriate or not, I kinda like them & enjoy seeing them.

The public areas are fenced. But the majority of the 59,020 is not all sectioned up with tons of fencing.. That big area across from the prairie dogs with all the fencing used to be called the "viewing area" and animals were loosely rotated in there for the public & to rest certain areas from grazing. (Although it is a refuge, people get quite grumpy if they can't just drive up and see the animals.) The current refuge manager did away with that, although the fencing remains, & the animals, esp. elk choose to go there on their own.

For coming off all defensive & angry, I definitely apologize. Long Memorial Day weekend w/ some frustrating moments & sleep deprivation is my only excuse. Your blog has come highly recommended & I look forward to following it. Sorry for miss-reading your take on things & I am new to your blog, just went shooting my mouth off.

Posted by Lisa Roberts June 1, 2010 at 10:21 PM

Dear Lisa,

Well, you come highly recommended, too, and I am very happy to find a follow-up comment this morning. I'm glad to know what all the fencing is about and whining, "What's with all the fences?" does sound like a complaint, and it was...a complaint from a single-minded photographer who wanted the durn things out of her compositions! Figures that the fencing was installed to get some animals up close and personal for people like me. The tall stuff across from the prairie dog town was particularly impressive, and we enjoyed watching a pair of coyotes duck under it in a number of places. How funny to think it was put in for our convenience, to make a viewing area. Wildlife will do its thing whatever we wish.

I think the deeper point that I was scratching at, and that you brought out so well, is that a refuge, by its very nature, demands manipulation and heavy management, because there is only so much habitat to go around, and once a particular species reaches and exceeds carrying capacity, something has to be done about it. This came home to me on a trip to South Africa, where ALL the habitat outside refuge fences has been obliterated by people cutting firewood. So every year refuge management is forced to cull the gorgeous impala and many others, and they sell the hides right in the refuge gift shops. Don't know how that would go over in the PETA-influenced U.S.--but I bought a couple of hides to bring home to remind me of that sad but inescapable truth. I think about it every time I stroke the smooth coffee-brown hair on those hides.

I also thought about the Chiricahuas of Arizona,a federal refuge and a national treasure, a self-proclaimed "Land of Many Uses," where fragile watercourses are trampled into mudpots by branded, privately owned Hereford cross cattle. That seems so wrong to me, to have somebody's cattle staring back at you, knee deep in the manurey mud of the highly sensitive watercourses they've utterly destroyed.Why should that be allowed here, of all places? It seems unneccesary and frankly, pretty stupid to have some rancher's cattle in the refuge at all. Why not bring sheep and goats in, too? They could eat the orchids. Why not start a feral cat colony there? They could eat the trogons. ;-)

And so I wondered aloud whether bison, elk and deer space should go to domestic (wild? feral?) cattle. Undeniably glorious animals, but still cattle. I don't pretend that there's a right answer, and I fully acknowledge that longhorns are worth saving. I dig 'em. I just wondered, and still wonder, whether this is the place to do it.

Many a good friendship has started with a disagreement. Namaste!

The cattle on the refuge debate will continue on for now, I'm afraid. You know, I, too, am frustrated when it is impossible to escape the inclusion of fencing that I feel distracts from my capturing an awesome moment in a photo -distracting from my subject or denying my fantasy that it truly IS the pristine wild we would all like it to be. And then there's the fence. Just like in college wildlife management days when the overwhelming disappointment hit me when I realized there isn't really any "wild." Wild is now mostly a managed concept. Strange, isn't it. But nature doesn't care & is gloriously beautiful anyway, in spite of our interference, well intended or not. Namaste!

Posted by lisa roberts June 2, 2010 at 7:52 AM

Hi there! I came across your blog and I just found it so beautiful that I had to give you a comment. I love the pics you have... so interesting! Ill start following.

Come by, if you want to :)

Longhorn came from Spain 5 centuries ago..Today in Spain we may find some breeds very similar to them, like ganaderĂ­a Mihura, the oldest type of "ganado bravo", compare hair,horn...Look for them in googles images and compare...

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