Balancing sustainability and profit in Texas
Managed by the Mission-Aransas Reserve, the Fennessey Ranch is leading the way for Texas ranchers interested in building sustainability into their operations.
In 1991, the late Brien O’Connor Dunn made an unusual decision. A sixth generation Texan and descendant of the state’s largest land owner, Dunn chose Fennessey Ranch as his inheritance. With its 1,000+ acres of freshwater wetlands, the site was considered an unprofitable choice for ranching. Then in 2006, he made another. He sold a conservation easement to the Mission-Aransas Reserve. Around those decisions have been decades of work to make Fennessey a showcase for how a modern working ranch can balance profit and sustainability.
“In Texas, 95% of land is privately owned and easements are rare,” says Sally Crofutt, who helped establish the easement and managed the ranch for 26 years. “Brien could have sold the Fennessey for millions, but he wanted it to be part of the Reserve to leave a legacy that was bigger than himself. We both felt you could do the right thing and make a profit.”
Crofutt joined the Reserve’s Advisory Board, and over time, a relationship has grown between the Reserve and ranching operations. In 2020, the Reserve took over ranch management, with a goal of honoring Crofutt and Dunn’s work by advancing Fennessey as a model for other ranchers interested in adding sustainability practices into their practices.
A cattle eagle helps out a friend. Alongside traditional ranching and oil and gas drilling, Fennessey’s 3,261-acres is home to many species of birds, plants, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and mammals.
“I’ve learned so much from Sally,” says Katie Swanson, stewardship coordinator at the Mission-Aransas Reserve. “Working with her has allowed me to better understand how ranchers are running their businesses and what works for them and what doesn’t. That opens the door to conversations about things like conservation grazing in coastal habitats.”
Education for the public and students, ingenuity, and a willingness to try out-of-the-box ideas that sometimes contradict conventional ranching practices have been key to the ranch’s success. For example, Fennessey doesn’t allow shooting predators, such as coyotes, which used to be unheard of in the ranching community.
“One of the things we did was open our gates for photography and entered several photo contests,” says Crofutt. “After seeing how popular the photos of wildlife are, other ranchers started coming around to the idea. Attitudes toward predators are changing.”
They also opened up the ranch for birdwatching, creating wetlands for migratory birds, and starting programs like hawk-watching hay rides. As a part of the Central Flyway, Texas is already popular for birding, but this put Fennessey on the map. Again, other ranchers took notice of how they profited from providing habitat for birds and were inspired to do the same.
Roseate spoonbills are among the many migratory birds that stop at Fennessey each year.
Ecosystem trends became the source of other ideas. When Crofutt and Dunn saw honey bee populations declining, they hired beekeepers, selling hundreds of pounds of honey each year. “People ran after my truck for it,” says Crofutt. (When they got wind of the Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) using honey to rehabilitate turtles, they started donating it to them instead.) When alligators became a nuisance, they sold their eggs to a leather producer, controlling the population around the ranch, while turning a profit. They also sold wetland plants to be replanted to mitigate wetland loss in other places.
Not everything they tried was an instant success. Solar panels were damaged by vultures and raptors, though they found adding perches helped. Many planned trails were scuttled for the same reason; it can be difficult to predict what wildlife is going to do.
Win or lose, Crofutt believes in complete transparency about their ideas, business plans, and pricing. “We wanted everybody to try these things,” says Crofutt. “We don’t care about competing.”
Crofutt (middle) was awarded the Coastal Champion Award for dedicating time and passion to the Reserve’s mission, while balancing both economic and environmental concerns.