The deer hunting forecast in Texas is always good. Even in what the whitetail prognosticators term as "down" or "average" years, we've still got the largest population estimate in the country.
This year again has been one that may go down as average, but according to the Lone Star State's resident deer expert, that's still actually great.
Alan Cain, the whitetail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, again said that the overall harvest last year was on par with previous average years, noting that the total number of deer taken again will be well above a half-million.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior.
(Via North American Whitetail)
"Hunters should be expecting another good year," he said. "That being said, it's really been a weird year (for range conditions). We had good rainfall and good conditions through the winter in most places, and then this spring started off good in some parts of the state. But then it's been getting dry (heading into early summer) in a lot of spots. You look at the traditional hotspots like South Texas and the Hill Country, and you've got some places that are nice and green, and others that are dry. And then I've heard the same across most of the state, so it's going to be somewhat hit or miss when it comes to having good, quality, nutritional forage."
Cain noted that most of the state's millions of deer came through the winter and early spring in good shape, despite the dry conditions in many places.
"As far as the age structure goes, there's going to be a gap in the 6 1/2-year-old age-class. We had a pretty low fawn crop back in 2011 statewide, which was one of the drier years we've had in recent memory. You should see a bump with those 7 1/2-year-old deer, and we should see a good crop of those 4- and 5-year-old deer in looking back at the fawn crops from 2012 and 2013, which were above average.
"That means you'll have a good mature age-class of bucks in most of the hotspots," Cain said. "Last year's fawn crop was about average so it will help with that good distribution of age-class that's always good to see in Texas.
In looking at trends, Cain said that one thing has stood out, even in dry years.
"I talk with a lot of these ranchers that have been managing deer for a long time," he said, "and they'll tell you that not in the really bad years, but the years it's been a little drier — kind of like one of these — that they see antler quality go up. It may be that it just forces the deer onto the feed and they're simply seeing better antler size, but then I've also got other places that are just managing numbers and keeping habitat in shape, and they're also growing good deer consistently year in and year out."
The overall population trend remains stable in most areas of Texas, if not increasing on a regular basis, Cain said.
"Our deer population estimate statewide was about 4.2 million in 2016 and that figure has been growing slightly every year. The trend is going up and has been going up for a while," he said. "Places like the Hill Country obviously have a pile of deer, but you're also seeing the population start to grow in that Blackland Prairie range, that I-35 corridor area, where traditionally there hasn't been a lot of deer. We're also starting to see signs of deer and populations growing where we've got this fragmented habitat. The deer have been surviving in there and the hunting pressure has been relatively light. In fact, in some of these areas east of I-35 we're getting complaints from farmers about deer depredation, which is a healthy indicator that populations are going up."
Cain pointed to other regions of Texas that traditionally harbor the most deer, noting that the trend will continue, which may not necessarily be a great thing for some hunters.
"You look at the other areas of the state and things are looking good, as usual," he said. "South Texas has a stable population; in the Cross Timbers up in North Texas things are looking good; East Texas has a stable population to slightly growing.
"In East Texas, there's a lot of deer but there's also a lot of hunters. From a hunter perspective, I know it can be frustrating because the density may be a deer for every 30 or 35 acres over there, but if you've got a hunter for every 50 or 75 acres in that neck of the woods, that's increasing the pressure. Deer can change their behavior and go nocturnal, or simply when hunting season opens up, you just don't see them. That being said, there are still lots of good deer over there. Antler restrictions in East Texas and the rest of that area east of I-35 are helping to maintain a good age structure when it comes to bucks."
The overall outlook typically doesn't vary widely from year to year when discussing the deer population figures, Cain noted, but this year will feature a change to one popular program that allows for longer hunting frameworks on some tracts of land.
"We do have new changes this year to the operation of our MLDP (Managed Lands Deer Permit) program," Cain said. "Phenomenal growth in the program over the last 20 years has presented significant challenges for staff to meet the increasing number of requests from landowners for technical assistance and simply administer the program."
TPWD issues more than 300,000 tags annually each year through the MLDP, which began in the mid-1990s and has ballooned. More than 10,000 farms and ranches covering about 26 million acres are enrolled. This spring the program was simplified to two options — Harvest or Conservation — from the previous three levels of white-tailed deer MLD, mule deer MLD, and the Landowner Assisted Management Permit (LAMPS).
"The Harvest option is meant to take a lot of the administrative work off our staff," Cain noted. "It's self-serve and you sign up online. There's even a tag estimator that you can utilize for your tract of land before you enroll. The Conservation option (similar in scope to the previous Level 3 MLDP) comes with customized recommendations based on data you collect from your land, along with assistance from a biologist in accordance with your management plan.
"Taking some of that administrative burden off our plate allows us to put in more time in the field and provide conservation practices on the ground. That involves making recommendations and talking to people about habitat and management practices, and how to make things right on their property to enhance it for wildlife or their hunting operation."
Cain said that while annual prognostications can vary somewhat, there remain two certainties in Texas deer hunting: There will be no shortage of animals this fall and winter, and hunters should plan to fill as many tags as they deem fit, which helps control a population that continues to trend up, regardless of where you're hunting.
"We're expecting another outstanding year for having a huntable population of whitetails," Cain said. "I would advise hunters to plan ahead and make the most of their time in the field. This will be another year that will call for keeping populations in check, which is a good thing for all of our hunters in Texas."