Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 16 News List

A fabled pastime for the upper crust

As public gamelands in the US shrink, the cost of hunting is going up

By Bryan Bender  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KENEDY COUNTY, TEXAS

Blue-collar workeers are being priced out of blood sports in the US.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Having long been a way for politicians to burnish their bonafides with rural voters, hunting is steadily morphing into a high-class pursuit for the wealthiest and well-connected, say local officials in this rugged brush land of South Texas where US Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot one of his hunting companions.

As the availability of public gamelands has shrunk, private outings to special preserves like the Armstrong Ranch, where Cheney accidentally fired his 28-gauge shotgun at Texas lawyer Harry Whittington earlier this month, are fast becoming the only way to share in one of the state's most fabled pastimes, many here complain.

So when local residents hear outsiders describe how big ranch hunts are typical for those who live in this part of Texas, many respond with a roll of the eyes. "If you don't know somebody who owns a big ranch or unless you're quite well off you don't get invited on these special hunts," said Chuck Shipley, 65, who runs the state's visitor center in Kingsville, 80km north on Route 77 of the Armstrong Ranch. "It's not like it used to be. It's pretty expensive to hunt in Texas."

But the cost means little to outside luminaries who gather at local ranches. Cheney was merely the latest in a stream of high rollers to hunt on one of the several massive ranches in the county, officials said.

"The big oil men, the chemical companies, all the bigwigs come down here to hunt," said Shipley. It's a far cry, he said, from the days when anyone with a rifle or shotgun could set out across the railroad tracks into the vast open spaces and hunt for deer, birds, and other varied wildlife found here.

Deep in the windswept plains of Kenedy County -- population about 400, with no restaurant or gas station in 2,253 square kilometers -- the Armstrong Ranch, like the nearby Kenedy and King ranches, has been host to presidents and princes.

Britain's Prince Charles once played a polo match on the 20,234 hectare spread in the Lower Rio Grande Valley between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican border. Both presidents Bush have been to the ranches here several times, according to locals.

Settled in 1882 by John Armstrong III, a lawman famed for capturing the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, it became the homestead for a powerful family that mixed rugged ranch life with Harvard and Yale educations and has been a fixture in Texas Republican politics for generations.

The founder's son, Tom, became one of the first executives for the Standard Oil Company in the early part of the 20th century. The late Tobin Armstrong, who died last fall, was a top fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, collecting more than US$100,000 in 2004.

There are an estimated 20 million active hunters in the US, according to industry groups. More than one million Texans alone apply for hunting licenses each year, according state wildlife figures.

And politics and hunting have long been inextricably linked here, as politicians have sought to embody the rugged individualism of the only state in the union that was once an independent republic.

"Hunting is deeply ingrained in our folklore and heritage," said Thomas Myers, a political science professor who teaches state government at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and who grew up on a ranch. "Just like [former US president] Richard Nixon watched the Washington Redskins play football, here you go kill Bambi or some birds and you're part of one of the boys."

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