BEN BOLT -- For more than a century, a sturdy, low fence defined part of the northern boundary of the Santa Gertrudis Division of the enormous King Ranch, serving also as the line between Jim Wells and Kleberg counties.
Last year, apparently to avoid having prized whitetail bucks from being bagged by hunters on adjacent properties, operators of the 825,000-acre ranch decided to replace several miles of the fence with a much taller one.
And when a new survey indicated the existing fence line was as much as 40 feet south of the true boundary line, the ranch took corrective action. The result was a South Texas legal fight cast by one party as "David vs. Goliath," the San Antonio Express-News reported.
"On or about Nov. 8, 2012, the King Ranch, through its employees or fencing crews it had hired, came onto Dr. Garza's property with a bulldozer, vehicles, people and fencing equipment," reads a lawsuit filed late last year by Roel Garza, a dentist who owns 400 acres adjacent to the King Ranch.
Garza had to call a local sheriff's deputy to force the King Ranch to stop bulldozing his fence, cutting a new trench north of the old fence line and removing trees, fence posts and a gate on his property, according to the suit.
Another landowner also called in the law when the fence crews arrived.
District Judge Richard Terrell in Alice quickly granted temporary restraining orders to Garza and the other King Ranch neighbors, halting the fence project.
Ultimately, six landowners in Jim Wells County sued King Ranch, asking the court to affirm the longstanding property line and reject the ranch's claims to a slice of their land.
In his court pleadings, King Ranch lawyer Michael Krueger of Kingsville defended the accuracy of the recent survey, which moved the line north, and also asserted that the century-old fence was never meant to be the definitive property line.
"King Ranch has established its legal title in the area of dispute," he said in a closing brief.
But lawyers for the unhappy landowners, who commissioned their own survey that produced different results, said that not only was the original fence line correctly placed, even if it wasn't, the disputed land belongs to them by way of adverse possession.
"The land in the strip was farmed, cultivated, grazed by cattle, hunted, fenced, crossed with roads and otherwise utilized by the plaintiffs to the exclusion of the King Ranch," asserted lawyer Mike Hummell, who owns land on the fence line.
Among the other plaintiffs was Juan Antonio Garcia, 70, who said the long-recognized boundary resulted from a 19th-century swap between one of his great uncles and the widow of Richard King, the ranch founder.
"In 1891, a land exchange between Henrietta King and Luciano Garcia was agreed upon. A fence was erected by the King Ranch and was considered the boundary line. It has been in the same place for the last 122 years," he said.
Garcia, who cast the legal battle as an Old Testament confrontation between mere mortals and a powerful giant, suspects the whitetail bucks that hunters pay thousands to shoot are the driving issue.
"They are just being greedy. They just want to keep the state of Texas wild game from roaming freely," he said last fall of the King Ranch.
"We do our fair share of feeding animals. We feed 'em protein pellets and corn and supplements."
A tour of his 112-acre spread revealed a deer feeder and blinds near the disputed fence line. Each fall, hunters pay Garcia to kill bucks on his land, and he readily acknowledged some of the deer likely were familiar with the King Ranch.
But, he said, deer are free to go both north and south over the fence, and that problems only arise when a trophy buck is killed on his side of the line.
"Some of our guys on our side get overzealous. They shoot a pretty buck and then put it on the Internet and Facebook. That upsets people who pay thousands of dollars to hunt them on the King Ranch," he said.
"They didn't go onto the King Ranch to hunt it, but (the buck) probably came from the King Ranch, no question about it," he added.
What the King Ranch thinks about the matter, beyond what is revealed in its court filings, is unknown. Its lawyer, Krueger, did not return repeated calls seeking comment, nor did ranch president Robert Underbrink or Justin Feild, its wildlife manager.
Wild game is a big part of the ranch's diverse business plan, and commercial hunts are available for everything from deer to quail to nilgai, an odd-looking Asian antelope.
From its website, it's clear the ranch takes great pride in the trophy bucks that have been "harvested" there in recent years, highlighting those that ranked very high in the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system.
As the ranch's online pricing chart makes clear, a lot of money can go over the fence when a trophy buck decides to roam.
The base cost for a successful King Ranch whitetail hunt begins about $6,000. A hunter who bags a monster buck could be charged up to $25,000, depending on how the rack scores in Boone and Crockett Club system, according to the price chart.
But footloose whitetail bucks apparently were not considered by Judge Terrell in resolving the fence line dispute. After two short bench trials last month, he ruled in favor of the King Ranch neighbors. He recently signed both judgments, ordering the King Ranch to respect the existing property line and pay the plaintiff's attorneys fees.
Looking back, Garza said the whole matter might have been resolved more easily.
"Our feeling is that this could have been handled over a cup of coffee, but they chose to do things in a more confrontational way," he said, recalling how he watched a bulldozer take down his fence and King Ranch employees encroach on his land.
"There was not much property involved, maybe two or three acres, but at that point it was a matter of principle. I felt my rights as a landowner were being violated," he said.
• Distributed by The Associated Press.