This deer season may not be one for the record books, but in Texas that type of prognostication isn't as dire as it may be in other locales.
The Lone Star State still has the largest population of white-tailed deer in the country and a generous overall season in which to hunt them. However, severe drought heading into this fall's frameworks didn't lay the groundwork for as optimistic an outlook as in past years when optimum or even average moisture levels set the stage for spectacular predictions from biologists and land managers.
But we've experienced seasons that set up like that before.
What the 2011 Texas Deer Forecast may lack in deer numbers or antler size is more than made up for in the sheer dimensions of our white-tailed deer range, which extends all the way from the Oklahoma border at the northern peak to the Rio Grande in deep South Texas, and from the eastern border with Louisiana all the way into the eastern edge of the Trans-Pecos.
Simply put, we have millions of deer and millions of acres to hunt them on.
The state also allows us liberal limits on our hunting licenses, which means every fall season is a great opportunity to take animals off the range while filling our freezers with some tasty fare. This season especially is one in which hunters should use as many of the five tags that accompany a hunting license as they can. That advice is according to biologists across the state.
Alan Cain, the whitetail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said looking into the crystal ball ahead of a season (as this was written) isn't easy, but one thing is certain: The old saying about Texas weather and waiting 5 minutes for it change is right on.
"We just can't seem to win (with the Texas weather)," he said. "It goes from one extreme to another with rain and drought. Unfortunately, much of the state has received minimal rainfall since last September and facing tough drought conditions. Although we've received some decent rain (in late spring) it will not be enough to sustain or improve habitat conditions unless the rain continues."
Cain said overall production from this past season should bode well, including having a good fawn crop across much of the state and a good carryover of 1 1/2-year-old bucks and does into this fall.
"Harvest appeared to be average last season and possibly slightly below average in a few areas in East Texas and down in the Oak Prairie Region," he said. "However, much of that was likely due to the great range conditions last fall (lots of acorns and green vegetation). With all that food deer just weren't showing up to feeders. Reports from the Hill Country did indicate an above-average harvest last fall, but that region of Texas is a deer factory and high harvest is good to help keep populations in check with native habitat. With that said, there was probably a decent carryover this past winter and so hunters can expect to have plenty of deer to hunt this fall."
Cain pegged the overall Texas whitetail figure at between 3.7 million and 4.2 million animals, and said that number is sure to have an impact on the range conditions this fall.
"If the drought continues we will see lower fawn recruitment this fall, deer will probably readily come to feeders as a result of less than desirable range conditions, and hunters should have pretty good success," he said. "We always encourage landowners and managers to encourage hunters to meet their harvest goals for the ranch, regardless of drought or wet conditions. Native habitats are key to successful deer management programs and keeping deer populations in check so as not to damage those native habitats is critical to success."
Cain pointed out a key theory to deer management, one that especially will come into focus as a result of the conditions dating all the way back into last fall.
"Biologists often tell folks to manage populations for drought condition, in other words, keep your deer density at a level that you would during tough times (drought) and even during wet years," he said. "Therefore, no matter what the conditions are, plenty of native vegetation will remain to support the deer population. Obviously, with too many deer on the range, especially during poor range conditions, animal performance suffers and antler quality decreases as well as reproductive success (fawn recruitment). If the dry conditions continue this year, I would encourage hunters to try to fill their tags and for those hunting on managed properties, try to meet their harvest recommendations this year."
The Managed Lands Deer Permit program allows landowners more liberal frameworks for harvesting deer in exchange for allowing TPWD personnel to help manage and to keep records on private tracts in an attempt to better manage the overall population. MLDP program participants get more tags and were able to harvest bucks and does from October through the end of February this past season.
If there's one place on the map that always seems to produce lots of deer, it's the Edwards Plateau region that encompasses all of Central Texas and extends into portions of what most hunters consider East and West Texas. This region has boasted the highest deer densities and hunter numbers for at least the past three decades and this fall should see no deviation from those norms.
There are a variety of habitats included in this general region, but one thing is certain: Without good moisture levels, all of the desired vegetation that deer use for forage and cover likely will have a large impact on things this season.
Mike Krueger, the Edwards Plateau district leader for TPWD, said that it's tough to predict how things will shake out, but based solely on moisture levels, the general forecast doesn't look as good as it has previously.
"There are very few places in the state of Texas that weren't under drought conditions from this past fall into the summer," he said. "Most of the western side of the Edwards Plateau was under what's termed exceptional drought. It looks maybe a little bit better over on the eastern side of the district because they got some of those heavier rains when tropical storms came through. You're talking Bell, Coryell, Lampasas counties and those over there. They had a little bit of deep moisture relative to Kerr County and some other areas that didn't get those rains."
During the spring and heading into the summer, habitat didn't look all that good, Krueger said.
"This time of year there should be a lot of herbaceous plants and a lot of cool-season forbs finishing up growth," he said. "And then the warm-season forbs should be in good production, but we weren't seeing that. Deer were utilizing a lot of woody browse plants, which is OK. They're nutritious, too, but the concern is they're utilizing those woody browse plants when those should be available to them late in the summer when the herbaceous plants are gone. They're essentially dipping into their savings account by eating their summer foods right now."
Looking ahead, Krueger said the effects of below-average range conditions only get exacerbated as it gets hotter.
"The prognosis for deer reproduction is not good because there's not a lot of cover out there and just not a lot of vegetation that can provide cover for fawns. There's also not likely to be a lot of milk-producing forbs for mama deer so it just doesn't look good for reproduction of deer and other non-game species, too.
"I've even heard concern that fawns born last year approaching their first birthday they're not even out of the woods yet. They're still developing muscle and developing bone and they're under stressful conditions, so it's very conceivable that we could lose two back-to-back fawn crops. Last year's fawn crops we could still see some mortality and this year's crop could be very low just because of bad conditions."
Krueger said looking at past seasons, including last fall's figures, show there is an impetus this season in reducing carrying capacity for a variety of reasons.
"The 2009 hunting season harvests were some of the lowest on record in the past 10 years in the Edwards Plateau, he said. "Last year, from what we heard from hunters, landowners and locker plants was that the harvest was average to above-average. That should help but there's still a lot of carryover of deer, and that is not good. Crystal ball, if we'd known what the conditions were going to be like, we'd have issued a double set of permits because you don't want those deer carrying over to next year."
Another Texas whitetail hotspot is the huge swath of land that encompasses the Pineywoods region, an area that is much different than the Edwards Plateau but also features high deer densities.
Gary Calkins, the Pineywoods district leader for TPWD, said East Texas generally is wetter and reaps the benefits of more annual rain than other parts of the state, but heading into this fall, things still aren't where they should be.
"I always feel funny saying that we're in a drought when I really think about South Texas and the Trans-Pecos, but yeah we're in a drought," he said. "Our district is kind of split in half. The southern half of the district is really bad and the northern half is just bad. A lot of the storms have come across and hit the north end and so the north end has had some moisture, but it's still significantly behind what a two-year average should be. The south end has just missed out on every rain storm that's come through this country in the past couple of years."
Calkins said that lack of moisture isn't typically as large an issue for a few reasons in his neck of the woods, but there's almost a wait-and-see approach when forecasting this new season.
"We don't get hit as bad if we have a large carryover," he said. "We don't suffer as bad as other places just because we have a lot of groceries on the ground and there are some parts of the district that are well over carrying capacity or pushing that level, but for the most part we're not bumping that carrying capacity. So we kind of have a little bit of a buffer on a year like this to where I don't think it will be a good year because of the conditions and there's not the kind of good food out there that we usually see. But I don't think we're going to suffer greatly."
Calkins said the region, which has many counties under antler restrictions, has seen the benefits of that change in management strategy by TPWD.
"We're definitely seeing some shifts in our age structure and seeing better quality deer," he said. "Even last year was a dry summer and wasn't that good of a year, and we had several fantastic deer killed. Even though the conditions have been pretty cruddy, we've been reaping the benefits of the antler restrictions. We've carried over a lot of animals into a dry year so you think to yourself 'is this good or bad,' but ultimately the antler restrictions are doing what we wanted them to do biologically. I'm extremely happy from what I'm seeing from antler restrictions as far as our age structure and some of the shifts in buck-to-doe ratios."
This fall is likely to feature a landscape that is anything but lush for hunters across Texas. However, the common use of feeders and other attractants are sure to bring in whatever deer are in a particular area and provide hunters with plenty of chances to use their tags. This certainly is going to be a good year to help keep populations in check, while reaping the benefits of those efforts with plenty of good table fare for you and your family.