AUSTIN — Killam Duval County Ranch near Freer in South Texas is the recipient of the 2019 Texas Leopold Conservation Award.
The prestigious award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation and management of natural resources by American ranchers, farmers and foresters in 13 states. In Texas, the award is presented by Sand County Foundation in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as part of the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program, which is supported by the nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. Texas sponsors of the Leopold award include Lee & Ramona Bass, Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, Dixon Water Foundation, and McDonald’s.
Killam Duval County Ranch is owned by David Killam and managed by David Kitner. On May 16 in Austin, Killam accepted the crystal award depicting Aldo Leopold, the state’s highest honor for private land conservation, plus $10,000, at the 24th Lone Star Steward Awards dinner.
Vision and hard work have transformed a once-abused rangeland into a profitable cattle ranch with a healthy ecosystem and flourishing wildlife populations.
“In order for the business model to be successful, you have to improve the land, that’s what sustains the business—they work together,” Killam said. “Our highest priority is to manage the land and the habitat, and we want to see that continually improving. We’ll manage all the cattle numbers and the wildlife to make sure we continue to improve the land itself.”
The Killam family purchased the ranch in December 1992. They implemented wildlife management strategies across its 125,000 acres straddling Duval and Webb counties. It’s an area with less-productive soil, sensitive to drought and overgrazing. To recover from decades of heavy, continuous cattle grazing, the land was given a rest.
Killam hired Kitner as the ranch manager in 2001. Bringing nearly three decades of experience, he instituted a detailed plan for the ranch that has benefited the landscape and wildlife, while maximizing economic returns.
As cattle returned to the ranch and business resumed, the health of the land continued to improve. The herd promoted healthy wildlife habitats and better range conditions by stimulating the ground as they grazed.
“You have to have both cattle and wildlife,” Kittner said. “If you don’t graze this country, it just becomes a spot looking to have a wildfire run through it. The grazing enhances any areas of bare dirt. The hoof action of the cattle will break that cap up, let moisture penetrate and put organic matter back into the soil as natural fertilizer. The cattle benefit the land, which in turn benefits the wildlife.”
A rotational grazing system (with long periods of rest for the pastures) coupled with prescribed burns, mechanical treatments, and targeted chemical applications have turned once-bare, non-productive soils into thriving, diverse native plant communities.
The improved ground cover and a diversity of brush species have improved wildlife habitat and water infiltration rates. Additional watering locations across the ranch benefit deer populations. To share these successes with others in the industry, the ranch hosts events for the South Texas Grazing Lands Coalition and other groups.
Deer hunting offers another source of ranch revenue. Harvest guidelines emphasize the taking of mature bucks and proper herd management based on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recommendations. Detailed harvest data is collected and analyzed, with results presented to hunters at an annual wildlife seminar.
“What we’re most proud of is not only the quality of the wildlife, but the fact that our hunting leases are geared to families,” Killam said. “We want them to bring their children out and their grand-children. They have access to it 12 months out of the year.”
Home to many unique habitats, the Bordas Escarpment transects the ranch. Hundreds of miles south of their normal distribution, five-minute grass, yellow stonecrop, evergreen sumac, and redberry juniper have been found there.
Native grasses were successfully planted near the pipelines and oilfields that dot the ranch.
The ranch has turned a profit for 18 years, with revenues derived from wildlife and cattle interests. All improvements to habitat and infrastructure were funded from wildlife and cattle income. All management decisions at Duval County Ranch are made with economics in mind, but the health and quality of the range take precedent over short-term economic gains.
“David Killam and David Kitner have done a lot for wildlife management using traditional techniques in innovative ways, and they’re doing it in an economically sustainable way,” said Daniel Kunz, TPWD technical guidance biologist for South Texas. “In my eyes, that showcases a shining example of what other landowners can accomplish.”
It’s for these efforts and more that Killam Duval County Ranch received the Lone Star Land Steward ecoregion award for South Texas in 2010.
ABOUT THE AWARD
“Leopold Conservation Award recipients are at the forefront of a movement by America’s farmers and ranchers to simultaneously achieve economic and environmental success,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer.
Sand County Foundation, the nation’s leading voice for conservation on private land, created the Leopold Conservation Award to inspire American landowners by recognizing exceptional ranchers, farmers and foresters.
In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac; Aldo Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage. He wrote it was “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”
The Leopold Conservation Award in Texas is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Lee and Ramona Bass, The Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, Dixon Water Foundation, and McDonald’s.
THE LEOPOLD CONSERVATION AWARD
The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. The award consists of a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and $10,000. Sand County Foundation presents Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
SAND COUNTY FOUNDATION
Sand County Foundation inspires and enables a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation. www.sandcountyfoundation.org
TEXAS PARKS & WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT
The mission of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
–Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
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