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How to Get (and Not Get) a Texas Wildlife Exemption

A Landmark Wildlife Management Valuation Client Case Study

In 1995, Texas voters made wildlife management valuation, more informally known as a wildlife exemption, part of the state’s constitution as an agricultural valuation. But the loftiness of being part of the state’s highest law can be a far cry from the nitty gritty of actually qualifying for a wildlife exemption, and the fact that it exists is no guarantee a county appraisal district will approve a landowner’s application.

Wildlife management valuations play a key role in preserving Texas open space. Their importance is reflected in how seriously they must be taken, and how closely the steps to achieving that valuation must be followed and understood. Even those steeped in procedural and administrative experience can find the county appraisal process a wild and wooly ride, which is why Landmark Wildlife Management is dedicated to bringing wildlife management experience and help to Texas landowners, like our client “Laurel” whose appraisal process ride was headed for disaster before Landmark took the wheel.

In the spring of 2014, Laurel purchased just over 20 “ag exempt” acres. She loved the beauty of her new property, but, in researching land issues, she quickly realized that unless she was prepared to devote herself to farming and ranching full-time, she would need to consider the wildlife management option. About one month before she purchased the land, Laurel contacted Landmark. She had found our website in her research and we discussed converting the property to wildlife management. We would put together her wildlife plan and walk it and her application through the approval process. Her application would be due about a year from when we first spoke, but we advised she begin right away on the process.

Like many of us, Laurel works very hard for all that she has, and she also happens to be incredibly smart and experienced in administrative matters. On her own, she did “extensive research” and even met with AgriLife Extension and Texas Parks and Wildlife on her property to discuss converting to wildlife management. In short, if anyone should feel confident going through the application process on their own it would be someone like Laurel, which is why she chose to handle putting together her wildlife plan and going through the application process herself. And although she felt prepared enough, having waited until close to the application deadline, in her words, she also now felt “too embarrassed” to call Landmark for help.

Given her research, and doing “a great many things that cost time and money,” Laurel felt like she at least had the basics done for the application paperwork. She even submitted an application supplement to provide more details. The county conducted an inspection in early summer of 2015. To her pleasant surprise, the appraisal district employee complimented her on how much she seemed to know about the land as they walked the property and Laurel described the improvements she had made and planned to implement. Laurel did not have representation during the visit, and while she showed the appraiser the work she had done, and despite the flattering words she received, it apparently failed to impress the powers that be. Her growing fear of losing her ag valuation, and not only owing years of back taxes, but facing a multifold tax increase in the future, ended in utter shock when her application to appraisal district came back: DENIED.

The ripple effect of the denial was felt almost immediately, as her water bill skyrocketed from $45 to $450 a month because the property was no longer ag exempt, and now considered commercial by the water authority. Laurel knew she needed a specialist and fast, so she reached out to Landmark for help and we were happy to do so. We immediately completed and filed a protest form on her behalf as her state registered property tax agent. Our approach to the denial was three-pronged:

1. Create a detailed wildlife plan with maps, photos, habitat descriptions, and thorough descriptions of wildlife management practices.

2. Conduct additional practices on the property. In this case, that included huisache control, non-native tree (Chinaberry and Chinese tallow) control, creating brush piles, erosion control along a pond edge, adding a wildlife feeder, and installing nesting boxes.

3. Generate a thorough, demonstrative annual report to present along with the wildlife plan.

In June of 2015, we scheduled an informal meeting with her county’s appraisal district. Both Landmark’s Senior Biologist and Founder Keith Olenick and our client met with the appraiser. We told her story and, particularly important, we presented a solid wildlife plan and annual report. The county agreed with us. Laurel’s wildlife exemption was APPROVED.

We can’t emphasize enough how incredibly smart and capable Laurel is and few would believe this could happen to someone like her, which really drives home the point of exactly how tough and specialized this process can be. She needed someone with experience for representation during the site inspection, as well as to create the right plan and application from the very start. We are so pleased Laurel chose to reach out to Landmark again when the going got (very) tough and she can now truly enjoy what is once again her dream property. In her words:

“I now have the wildlife exemption, a five year plan, and a great resource in Landmark and Keith Olenick. Even after our appraisal district hearing, he explained things that I could do to improve the soil and made suggestions in answer to my questions about numerous issues. I had been reading Landmark’s newsletters and I knew they were knowledgeable, but they fit their expertise to fit the specific needs of my land, with emphasis on repairing soil depletion and water management. I realize if I had called Landmark first, I would have been much farther along in implementing what I want to do with the acreage. On the other hand, I would not appreciate them so much if I had not gone through such a miserable experience, trying to do it on my own. I am recommending Landmark Wildlife to anyone who wants the best help in deciding how to protect an open space valuation and in being a good steward of the land. They are devoted to making the dreams of landowners become reality.”