When a prolonged drought hits Texas hard, like the record-setting one has done during the past year, questions about its effects on deer, both now and in the future, shoot into the air like splintering flames from ignited bottle rockets.
With just a week left in the 2011-12 deer-hunting season in Central Texas last January, I walked across a mesquite flat in the pre-dawn darkness on a Lampasas County ranch hoping my persistence would pay off. I had hunted the area almost every week since the archery-only season had opened more than three months earlier. I shot a doe with my crossbow on opening day of the archery season there but, more important, I had seen a big 10-point buck crossing the mesquite flat about 100 yards from where the doe went down. From its body size and configuration, I estimated the buck to be about 4Â 1/2 years old, but he just as easily could have been a 5Â 1/2-year-old deer. I havenâ€™t met anyone yet who will say honestly they can tell positively the age of a wild, non-captured deer of any age thatâ€™s on the hoof.
I hunted the mesquite flat that was bordered on one side by a draw and other sides by heavy junipers throughout the remainder of the archery-only season, but that buck always was a no-show. When the general firearms season opened the first week in November, I was right back in the same spot, week after week. He was still a no-show. By the final week of the season, I had almost convinced myself the buck probably had been shot by another hunter on one of the adjoining ranches.
Two does strolled through the flat on my final dayâ€™s hunt. They stopped occasionally to nibble on what little vegetation they could find, but stopped even more often to check out their surroundings. After all, the Texas drought had taken a toll on almost anything that grows here. The ground was as brown and flat as a basketball court. Other than not being blackened by wildfires that had struck so many other areas of the state since last April, the trees, brush and other vegetation that normally provide some protective cover for the deer were like open windows.
Three more does moved out into the open from the draw to the north of the mesquite flat and I picked up my binoculars to study them. They were adult does but of no real interest to me other than the pleasure of watching them.
Suddenly, I spotted another deer standing behind a scrawny mesquite tree about 40 yards from them and about 160 yards from where I had set up. When my binoculars steadied on the deer, I saw antlers. I took a more firm hold on the binoculars and saw more antlers.
The buck wasnâ€™t nervous, just standing there watching the does. The rut was over as far as it went for the does but it appeared the buck was hoping one of them might not have bred earlier and had come back into estrus. Nevertheless, after he had turned his head a few times to check his surroundings, I realized it was the 10-point buck I had seen on opening day of the archery-only season. Distinct markings such as a very dark forehead-to-nose marking, same configuration of height, spread and tine lengths led me to that conclusion.
I steadied my .243 and when he moved to the left of the mesquite, he provided an easy broadside shot.
When I got to the buck that now was lying on the ground next to the mesquite, I realized he was, indeed, the buck I had been hunting during both seasons. He was a very typical 10-pointer when I had first seen him, but that no longer was the case. The end of his left main beam plus one of his tines on that antler had been broken off!
After talking with numerous other hunters, landowners and wildlife biologists since the time last season ended, I learned there had been more deer with broken antlers shot in Texas than at any time they could remember. Did the historical drought that still is under way in some areas contribute to more deer with broken antlers, and do broken antlers on the deer like the 10-pointer I shot make disqualify them as trophy deer?
In those same conversations, I learned the drought doesnâ€™t always make everyoneâ€™s deer season a poor one, but it can have numerous effects on future deer seasons.
Everyone has their own theories, and that includes Texasâ€™ wildlife biologists, landowners and veteran hunters. The reason a drought ignites so many variable ideas about its effects on deer and other wildlife is because there isnâ€™t a simple answer when you are dealing with a statewide drought that has impacted eight ecological regions, many of which entered the drought under different habitat conditions and with white-tailed deer that require, or perhaps more accurately, prefer different food sources.
Deer in South Texas and parts of other areas of the state, for instance, will feed on prickly pear, juniper berries, mesquite beans and other food- and moisture-providing vegetation. Thatâ€™s especially true during a drought. On the other hand, deer in the Pineywoods wonâ€™t find any of those foods in their region, but will seek other food sources that may be more drought-resistant.