Mired in what will undoubtedly be one of the worst droughts on record, white-tailed deer in Texas are facing tough conditions heading into the fall hunting season.
"It doesn't take a biologist to understand that drought has serious impacts on the state's nearly 4 million white-tailed deer," said Alan Cain, deer program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Everything from antler quality, to fawn production and overall survival will be affected by the tough range conditions this year."
Food and water sources for wildlife continue to shrink on a landscape-wide level and to help ensure enough resources are available through the winter months, biologists are encouraging hunters to increase deer harvest early in the hunting season. The Texas deer hunting season opens Saturday, Oct. 1, for bowhunting and Nov. 5 for the general gun season. A special youth-only weekend season is set for Oct. 29-30. The general season runs through Jan. 1, 2012 in North Texas and Jan. 15, 2012 in South Texas. A late youth-only season is also slated for Jan. 2-15, 2012. For additional late season deer hunting opportunities, consult the 2011-12 Outdoor Annual of hunting and fishing regulations.
"By reducing deer numbers early on, hunters can help ensure enough groceries will be available through the winter months," Cain said. "As with many wildlife species the very young and the very old often have much more difficult times dealing with extreme weather events." These stress periods are a way for nature to 'thin the herd,' especially in areas where deer populations are already exceeding the carrying capacity of the native range. As deer become stressed they are more susceptible to infections or other disease. Drought like this can be a contributing factor towards stress."
Cain said that isolated incidents of deer die-offs as a result of the drought are possible, but anything on a large scale isn't likely even if dry conditions continue."Keep in mind deer have survived through some pretty tough times including the drought of the 1950s," he said. The one positive aspect to the drought, Cain noted, is that deer may be more visible to hunters as they seek out water sources and feeders. Last year, Texas hunters harvested a record 688,000 deer and Cain predicted that record could be topped this year if conditions stay the same.
Atop every hunter's mind this year is how antlers will be affected by the drought, said Cain. The 2011 season will pale in comparison to last season when two state record whitetails were harvested. "Hunters can expect antler quality to be below average and much lower than last year," Cain said. "However, that's not to say there aren't some good bucks out in the woods this year. Those ranches managing habitat properly, keeping deer populations in check and maybe providing a little supplemental feed will not see as large a decrease in antler quality as other places not actively managing habitat."
By managing habitat properly, many ranches can moderate some of the effects of drought on antler quality. Any buck with a good set of antlers this year is one that has great potential, Cain added, especially a young buck, and hunters may consider passing up that type of deer. "Just think if a buck can grow a good set of antlers on the native range under these conditions what he could do during a good year," he said.
Hunters should see a good number of 1-year-old bucks, as many areas of the state experienced good fawn production in 2010 and those buck fawns from last year will now be sporting their first set of antlers this fall. In addition, 2005 was a good fawn production year based on surveys conducted by TPWD wildlife biologists, and those 2005 buck fawns are now 6 years old. Hopefully, a number of these mature bucks will show up in the harvest this year. As for recruitment, Cain indicated fawn production doesn't look promising this year.
In many areas it is likely to be below 20 percent and in single digits for some of the most drought-stricken regions of the state. "Fawns are susceptible to heat stress which could greatly impact fawn survival," said Cain. "These young deer can become dehydrated quickly and good milk production from the doe is critical. In addition, a lack of fawn cover has been critical this summer."
Temperatures at the soil surface can be excruciatingly hot, Cain stressed.
"I worked on ranches in South Texas during graduate school, collecting vegetation samples where the soil surface was nearly 140 degrees. These site were severely overgrazed with little cover and sparse shrubs and mesquites providing little shade. In these sorts of environments fawn survival is dismal. This is why good habitat providing shade and cooling areas is critical during summers and has been very important this summer." By taking measures early in the season, hunters can do their part to help deer until relief from the drought comes.