Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Fate of Longhorn Cattle in Texas

Longhorn cattle in Texas.
Photo by KUT News.
Longhorn cattle in Texas.

Texas longhorn cattle descended from cattle brought in by Spanish explorers. Today some make their home at state parks and historic sites. But budget cuts and the drought could send state-owned longhorns off to market.

Talks are under way on the fate of nearly 400 longhorns living on state lands, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials say. The herds may be removed or reduced this fall, a prospect that upsets longhorn enthusiasts.

“There are certainly some discussions going on. It’s not necessarily something that’s going to happen soon, or even at all,” said Kevin Good, special assistant to the state parks director. But because of a tight budget, he said, the agency is “taking a hard and fast look at everything we do.”

The drought and its effect on rangeland is also a problem, he said.

What especially worries some longhorn experts is the future of a herd of about 150 to 175 of the animals at Big Bend Ranch State Park, a 300,000-acre park near Presidio. They consider the herd historic and genetically “pure,” but perhaps the most vulnerable to removal of those on state lands. They have fired off emails to legislators opposing dispersal of the herd.

“One of my big things is let the public decide,” said David Karger, an Alpine area rancher and a founder and director emeritus of the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry. “I just think a handful of people in Austin making a decision like that, it’s not just them, it’s all of Texas. … Don’t do it behind our backs.”

The Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry has worked over the years to document the lineage of the Big Bend Ranch longhorns through physical inspections and blood tests, said Karger. He said the animals have been determined to be a “very pure herd.”

State officials say the question of purity is subjective and that the herd was established in the 1980s by the previous owner of the land, the Diamond A Cattle Company. They say the Big Bend animals’ bloodlines aren’t documented the way those are for the Official State Longhorn Herd, a separate group of longhorns managed at the Fort Griffin State Historic Site near Albany. The state parks department and State Historical Commission together oversee that herd.

The Official State Longhorn Herd includes about 225 cattle. A little more than 100 are at Fort Griffin, about 100 are at San Angelo State Park and a few are at other parks for interpretive exhibits, including Palo Duro Canyon State Park.  

J. Frank Dobie, Sid Richardson and Graves Peeler began gathering the herd in the 1930s and 1940s after the breed had neared extinction. The Texas Legislature recognized the herd in the 1960s.

Will Cradduck, herd manager at Fort Griffin, said the cattle are a big hit with visitors of all ages. He said he has heard that state park officials are discussing what to do with the longhorns, but said for history’s sake the core of the herd must be maintained. While some longhorns at private ranches around the state have been cross-bred and changed genetically, the official herd is the pure longhorn breed that descended from cattle brought over from Europe 400 years ago.

“Our goal is to maintain that genetic base,” Cradduck said. “Once they’re lost or gone, we cannot get them back.”

Those who want to keep the longhorns at state parks and historic sites say that for the public’s sake, the herds shouldn’t be completely removed.

“It’s a big part of the history of the entire country,” said Debbie Davis, a longhorn rancher in Tarpley. “Where better to see them than on state parks in Texas?”

Texas longhorns are able to live in harsh terrain and don’t require much time and attention from park managers at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Karger said.

The cattle reproduce easily, creating the need to thin out a herd from time to time, Good said. Now, with the ongoing drought affecting rangeland on top of state budget cuts, raising longhorns at Texas parks is being scrutinized, he said.

“We may be drawing down those herds even more,” Good said.

A semiannual public cattle drive at the Big Bend Ranch State Park was canceled this month, leading to concerns by some that the longhorns were about to be rounded up to be taken to market. But Barrett Durst, park superintendent, said the cattle drive was called off because only four people signed up instead of the usual 15 to 20.

Instead, park employees will round up the free-roaming herd and, as has been done in the past, move some of the animals to market. About 40 of the cattle at the park, or about 25 percent, will be sold to make the herd a “more manageable number,” Durst said.

Veteran Texas journalist Kelley Shannon is the founder and owner of Shannon has worked for multiple news organizations and spent 22 years with the Associated Press based in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Among the major news stories she covered for the AP were the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco and the ensuing federal trial of surviving sect members; the massacre at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen; the Democratic boycott over congressional redistricting in the 2003 Texas Legislature; and the presidential election of then-Gov. George W. Bush.