The drought in Texas, Kansas and other states have prompted hunters to ask whether they should hold off hunting this year so they don't stress an already stressed deer herd. The answer from wildlife biologists: an emphatic no.
"With the drought we're in, we're getting calls from people who say they don't want to kill deer this year," said Alan Cain, Texas' deer program leader. "They're worried that if we shoot deer this year, the population will crash. We even have folks writing to outdoor magazines saying the same thing -- they want us to suspend hunting.
"But the fact is, we have so many deer -- 4 million whitetails in the state -- that we have to have hunters hunting every year to keep the population maintained, so it doesn't grow.
"We had 688,000 whitetails killed last year," he said. "If you eliminate that [harvest for a year], then the deer population grows tremendously. Then you'll have too many deer out there for what the habitat can sustain, and then you'll have a population crash."
So the best way to sustain a deer herd in the long term is to harvest deer, and that's particularly true in Texas' current drought conditions.
"We need to get the population down to a level that can be maintained during drought conditions, so [hunters should] try to make those harvest quotas," Cain said. "Maintaining deer populations in balance with the available native habitat helps to sustain not only the deer population itself but also the habitat.
"Our state’s 700,000 deer hunters play a key role in habitat management. Keep in mind that the same native plant communities that support our game species also support a plethora of non-game wildlife. During droughts, as plant communities become stressed and aren't capable of handling excess browsing by deer, harvest management becomes a necessity."
He recommended that hunters focus on antlerless deer, and harvest deer early in the season to get their "mouths off the range" as soon as possible, rather than prolonging a deer's impact on habitat.
Cain noted that deer numbers can "recover quickly as rainfall conditions return back to normal," especially since does produce single fawns and twins "even in marginal conditions. So say next spring we have a decent rainfall. That means probably a decent fall crop next year, so the deer population builds up."
Antler Growth Questions
Lloyd Fox, big game coordinator for Kansas, also has gotten questions about harvesting in a drought, and agrees that deer should continue to be harvested during drought conditions. Another common question he's received this year is whether deer antlers are affected by drought.
"People are questioning whether deer will have as large antlers this year as result of the drought," he said. "There may be a small effect -- no one has ever proven it, but there's a possibility something like that could occur.
"We'll try to measure that this year. We're going to measure the antlers on deer that are two to three years old and compare [those measurements] to antlers from previous years on same-age deer from that area."
While Kansas is dealing with a drought in part of its state, Texas is enduring a record drought this year that has come on the heels of near-record low rainfall in 2009 and just a little precipitation in 2010. So Cain's answer to the antler-growth question is different.
"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 -- won't see as large a decrease in antler quality as other places.
"Any buck with a good set of antlers this year is one that has great potential, especially a young buck, and hunters may consider passing that type of deer up," he added. "Just think if a buck can grow a good set of antlers on native range under these conditions what he could do on a good year."