The Land Report

Spring 2016

The Magazine of the American Landowner is an essential guide for investors, landowners, and those interested in buying or selling land. The award-winning quarterly is known for its annual survey of America's largest landowners, The Land Report 100.

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64 The LandReport | S P R I N G 2 0 1 6 LANDREPORT.COM As his acreage increased and cattle leases expired, Boone realized that his passion lay in w ildlife habitat, not ranching. The few cattle that grazed on the Mesa Vista were strictly management tools, agents of disturbance consistent with Aldo Leopold's tool kit: " The ax, the plow, the match, and the cow." Boone soon added another resource: The Oklahoma State geologist began to drill water wells. Although he knew his land sat on the Ogallala Aquifer, "the well-spring of the High Plains," the easy abundance and quality of the water surprised him. "We knew right away that we were in the fat," he tells me. Having long observed that creek bottoms provide the most consistent hunting, he wondered if man-made creeks might provide better habitat. Here, as he's often done, Boone bucked convention. Quail don't require surface water. They extract water from food. Yet quail chicks require an abun- dance of protein-rich insects to survive those precarious first few weeks prior to fledging. Boone reasoned that since quail chicks require insects, and insects require moisture, new creeks might provide a hedge against drought. Today, some 25 miles of buried drip line creates pools at thousand-foot intervals, ensuring abundant moisture even during dry years. Although some professional wildlife managers remain skeptical, those who've hunted at the Mesa Vista agree that the drip lines attract quail and other wildlife. Furthermore, during droughty spells, coveys are larger and more abundant along Boone's creeks than in good habitat elsewhere. Boone also relies on more than a thousand feeders to supplement the abundant natural food supply. During rough winter stretches, when birds might be too weak to scratch through ice or snow to reach ragweed, sunflower, or croton seeds, the nutritious supplement enhances survival. Biologists worry that feeding concentrates birds, which in turn attracts predators. Research supports those fears. To minimize predation, feeders are placed inconspicuously just inside patches of woody cover that provide overhead protec- tion from avian predators and screening pro- tection from terrestrial predators like raccoons and bobcats. Threatened birds can flush or run into nearly endless cover. Boone no longer frets about professional opinions. He simply points to the results, which Bubba sums up neatly: "There's no question that Boone's feeding and water program makes a huge difference. Mesa Vista beats anyplace I've ever hunted." Most important, Boone has given the mixed prairie at the Mesa Vista time t o heal. Prior to settlement in the late nineteenth century, the grasslands of the Texas Panhandle saw only periodic distur- bance from nomadic bison herds, wildfire, a nd searing drought — all of which set back plant succession and facilitated long periods of natural regeneration. When summertime air temperature reaches 100 degrees, ground temperatures can hit 120 degrees. Without the life-saving shade provided by native grasses, successful nesting is impossible. Over the years, Boone acquired adjacent parcels. Unlike cattlemen, who tend to acquire neat blocks of land, Boone focused on creek drainages, which feature the most valuable wildlife habitat. Today, Mesa Vista Ranch, with the Canadian River along its northern boundary, covers some 65,000 acres, all in Roberts County. What started out as a small patch of overgrazed pasture has grown into a renowned hunting ranch, complete with a world-class lodge capable of hosting dozens of guests in numerous structures, a 12,000-square-foot lake house, and dozens of other amenities — some manicured, others rustic. "I suspect that after this last drought, Mesa Vista Ranch naturally restocked most of Roberts County's quail population," Bubba says. Rick Snipes adds, "What's unique about Boone's ranch is that it's here for the quail. Period. Not cattle. Not cattle and quail. Quail. The first question Boone asks before anything is done on the ranch is, 'How will it affect our quail?'" Thanks to much improved cover, the quail now run about 90 percent bobwhite and 10 percent blue quail — a complete reversal of the hardscrabble 1970s ratio. After lunch, I pile into the back seat of a hunting truck with Rick Pope and Joe Crafton. Our guides, ranch manager Keith Boone and Ryan Hunter, promise to make up for the morning's light shooting. The truck kennel houses a few pointing dogs, a couple Labs, a cagey springer spaniel, and Joe Crafton's excellent young Lab, Lucy. Boone and Keith have refined the Mesa Vista hunting system to maximize efficiency and flexibility. Three hunting rigs carry guides, hunters, water, and equipment afield. Each rig — a one-ton, four-wheel-drive pickup with a Jones dog box — can hold as many as ten dogs. Keith usually runs two pointers at a time and puts down a fresh b race every 20 minutes or so. Frequent rotation ensures snappy dog work and m inimizes mistakes. Labs and spaniels stay on the truck or at heel until sent to retrieve. Keith eases the truck down ranch roads, checking promising cover. He or Ryan often s pot coveys loafing near the road, usually in the vicinity of a feeder. Out come dogs and hunters. The fact that I saw very few staunch points near the feeders should dispel any notions about this being a "turkey shoot." In nearly every case, the birds run, then flush wild. The real dog work and display of shoot- ing ability begins once singles spread about. Keith does the dog handling while Ryan stands atop the truck to mark the singles. Both guides wear radio headsets. Whenever Keith requests extra dog power, Ryan jumps down and unlatches a kennel door. The requested dog blasts off after the crew. Although the pointing dogs are natural big runners out of famous field trial and shooting dog lines, they work closely and handle nicely to Keith's whistle and hand signals. Retrievers, spaniels, and pointing dogs stay out of each other's way even when the shooting gets hot, with several singles flushing at once and multiple dogs retrieving. The system allows Joe to stride out after the dogs and school his new pup, Lucy. On the other hand, Rick Pope, still recovering from a rattlesnake bite, limps along on a sore ankle. After a quick double or two at each stop, he's happy to be picked up and driven down the road a few hundred yards to meet the rest of the crew. Over the next three hours, the team moves at least 20 coveys. Limits are reached in short order, and the dogs get into plenty of birds — much to the benefit of young Lucy and the satisfaction of her master. Speculation about the success of the other two trucks fore- shadows much jawing and good-natured harassment over cocktails at the lodge. Over the years, the Mesa Vista kennel has grown to fit Boone Pickens's ambitions and hospitality. The immaculate facility houses around 25 pointing dogs, a couple spaniels, and 13 Labrador retrievers. The ranch hosts 50 to 60 hunts per year. At times, all three trucks are out at once, so any dog that makes the Mesa Vista team will work thousands of quail over an eight- to ten-year career. Mesa Vista retrievers and spaniels retrieve more downed birds in a couple seasons than most gun dogs retrieve in a lifetime. Nowadays, most Mesa Vista pointing dogs are English pointers out of Miller's Chief and Guardrail

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