Texas is big. 268,596 square miles of big. Our skies are big. Our cattle horns long. Our rivers grand. Also big are our property taxes. Indeed, Texas is among the highest property tax rates in the country. Tax rates here can range anywhere from 1.2% to well over 2% of market value. If you own a chunk of big Texas, the taxes on a property’s market value could be financially crippling. Being a rural landowner in Texas could be an impossible dream for many, leaving the state’s open spaces threatened. But that’s where wildlife exemptions come in. Despite the common moniker, this special tax valuation, also known as a 1-d-1 open space valuation or appraisal is not an exemption from taxes. Rather, it allows landowners to pay taxes on the land’s productive capacity, not market value. What does that mean? Without the special valuation, property taxes based on the market value of land can be as high as $50-$200 per acre. By contrast, property taxes on acreage with an agriculture or wildlife tax valuation are $0.50-$2.00 per acre. And Texas is serious about this special valuation. It’s now baked into the state’s constitution (Article VIII, Section 1-d-1) thanks to an amendment passed by the people of Texas in 1995. To unbake it would be no simple task.
What are the requirements for a Texas wildlife exemption?
To be eligible for a wild exemption, the land must currently have an agriculture (“ag”) exemption or be appraised as timber land. Wildlife exemptions are an alternative form of ag exemptions but with the same favorable tax implications. There are ways for a property to transfer directly from market value to wildlife valuation without being in ag, but they are extremely uncommon. Other eligibility requirements relate to minimum acreage, active use, primary use, and level of intensity. More on those other requirements in a bit.
If your ag property already enjoys the tax savings of an ag exemption, why switch to wildlife? While drought, overgrazing, and their decimating effect on grass production have left some property owners with virtually no choice but to switch to wildlife, many landowners have an active interest in wildlife and improving and preserving the state’s open space. Not managing livestock, hay, or timber production or needing to rely on a neighbor or acquaintance to run livestock or cut hay (a particular burden for non-resident landowners) is certainly a bonus. Further, for tracts of land that have fewer than 300 acres, ag expenses are felt particularly hard because economies of scale cannot be reached.
What does wildlife management mean?
When a property has a wildlife exemption, it is in wildlife management. Ranchers with an ag exemption manage livestock which requires actions to ensure the domesticated animals have what they need to thrive and be productive. Wildlife management requires actions for wildlife, but not just any wildlife. When a property owner applies to the appraisal district for a wildlife tax valuation, the application entails a wildlife management plan where specific native wildlife the property will be managed for are identified. In Texas, wildlife management plans are often for white-tailed deer, turkey, dove, or songbirds, but other target species may be possible; wildlife management plans exist for bats, butterflies, owls, and more. For those considering moving into wildlife this year, applications with plans must be submitted to appraisal boards by April 30. If that deadline is not met, they can be submitted before appraisal rolls are certified, usually in late July, with a financial penalty applied.
Minimum acreage requirement.
The minimum acreage rule for wildlife valuation eligibility is found in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC Title 34, Part 1, Ch. 9, Subch. G, Rule 9.2005). If the prospect of sorting through administrative codes already has your eyes glazing over, you’re not alone. The minimum acreage requirement is perhaps the most misunderstood rule of wildlife exemption but here is the simple takeaway: the only time tracts of land are subject to minimum acreage rules is when the tract was reduced in size the previous year. That’s it. That’s the rule. Moreover, this condition applies to exceedingly few properties. For those atypical instances when tracts that are subject to this rule, minimum acreages are according to ecological region and the appraisal district’s board of directors.
Active use requirement.
Texas wildlife exemption eligibility requires actively using the land. To meet this requirement, landowners must conduct at least three of seven wildlife management practices, also known as activities, each year to keep a wildlife exemption in good standing. These seven activities are habitat control (e.g., cedar clearing, native grass reseeding), erosion control, predator control, supplemental water, supplemental food, providing shelter, and census counts (e.g., deer and songbird surveys). Crucially, the activities engaged in should benefit the target species in your wildlife management plan. For example, installing a turkey feeder as a supplemental food activity would not be appropriate for a wildlife management plan with bats as the target species.
Primary use requirement.
Land that qualifies for a wildlife management exemption should be primarily used for wildlife. Residential, recreational, and commercial uses should not take a priority over management of wildlife. Failure to meet this requirement does not impact most landowners; most tracts with a residence will already have one acre removed from ag or wildlife for the footprint of the structure. But if, say, a small, occasional wedding venue on the property continues to sprawl with buildings and parking lots for use the majority of the year, wildlife is no longer the primary use.
Level of intensity requirement.
Level of intensity depends in large part on the size of the property and the region where it’s located. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the state agency that oversees and protects wildlife and their habitats, created rules defining the level of intensity for each of the wildlife management activities. For example, landowners doing cedar clearing (more aptly described as brush management) for habitat control should annually tackle at least 10% of an area in need of brush management or 10 acres, whichever is smaller. Rules were created for each ecological region and each of the 254 counties in Texas are assigned to one of these regions. Hays County, for example, is subject to rules set up for the Eastern Edwards Plateau.
The purpose of wildlife exemptions.
The number of landowners with wildlife exemptions increases every year; some counties have over 1000 tracts of land with wildlife valuations. Whether wildlife exemptions are “fair” is a subject you may have heard debated. The colloquial term “wildlife exemption” instead of “wildlife tax valuation” plays no small role in “fairness” perception. The purpose of wildlife tax valuations, the reason they’re now part of the state’s constitution, is to help conserve open space in Texas, not put in place unbalanced—unfair—tax breaks. Wildlife exemptions not only make being a rural property owner in Texas financially possible for many families but, because there are specific requirements to quality for and keep this special property tax valuation, they’re good for the state as a whole. Moreover, the wildlife tax valuation applies only to the land, not structures including homes on the property which continue to be appraised at full market value.
Texas—big Texas—is losing open space faster than any other state. Wildlife exemptions help protect the state’s famed open space, nurture the health and abundance of its native flora and fauna, and even help increasingly strained water sources as open land allows rain to filter into aquifers.
About Landmark Wildlife Management
Landmark Wildlife Management, LLC, is a wildlife biologist-owned and operated company whose mission is to provide Texas landowners with land and wildlife management expertise and services designed to enhance the wildlife, recreational, watershed, economic, and enjoyment values of their most cherished asset—their land. With over 1,000 wildlife applications and wildlife management plans completed and approved throughout Texas, Landmark Wildlife has the experience to do the same for you. To be the strongest landowner advocates and to meet state laws, Landmark Wildlife has Senior Property Tax Consultant certification. We also offer comprehensive wildlife services to help ensure you meet wildlife requirements and your property retains its wildlife tax valuation. For more information, visit landmarkwildlife.com.