S eptember has most Texas hunters thinking doves, but it’s also prime time to talk deer. Thanks to conservation efforts, ongoing scientific research in setting frameworks and a little help from Mother Nature, this should be another season for the books.
Alan Cain, the whitetail program leader for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, noted that most of the state’s millions of deer came through the winter and early spring in good shape, despite dry conditions in many places.
“As far as the age structure goes, there’s going to be a gap in the 6 ½-year-old age class,” Cain said. “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 ½-year-old deer, and we should see a good crop of those four- and five-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 hot spots,” 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. “They’ll tell you that not in the real 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 added.
“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 well. 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’s perspective, I know it can be frustrating,” he said “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,” Cain continued. “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.”
This year will feature a change to one popular program that allows for longer deer 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,” Alan Cain of TPWD 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, according to TPWD figures. 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.”
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—BY Will Leschpe
Private lands conservation partnership celebrates 25 years
Texas Prairie Wetlands Project enhances wetlands, provides habitat
For 25 years, private landowners in coastal Texas have been working with Ducks Unlimited and partners to restore wetlands and provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. More than 80,000 acres have been enrolled in the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (TPWP) since its inception in 1991.
“Habitat provided by the TPWP occurs along the entire Texas coast and provides up to 15 percent of all available waterfowl habitat in the Texas Mid-Coast, according to Gulf Coast Joint Venture research,” said DU Manager of Conservation Programs for Texas Dr. Todd Merendino. “This is some of the most significant habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds in Texas because it’s where they need it, when they need it.”
Originally developed to deliver the habitat goals of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, the TPWP is a partnership of private landowners, Ducks Unlimited, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s important to recognize the conservation investments of private landowners,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Deputy Executive Director Ross Melinchuk. “They not only enroll their property in the program, but they also contribute at least 35 percent of the cost of the project, often more. Without their engagement, the program simply would not exist.”
Other project costs are offset by TPWP cost-share, which comes from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Futch Foundation, Trull Foundation, ConocoPhillips, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants.
“The TPWP is successful because of the unique blend of private, state, and federal partners sharing a vision for the conservation of privately owned wetlands and grasslands along the Texas Gulf Coast,” said USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program Regional Coordinator Don Wilhelm. “We greatly appreciate that Ducks Unlimited has served as the consistent and unifying influence on this conservation partnership for this first 25 years.”
“Partnerships like the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project highlight the valuable outcomes realized when partners and landowners join together to share knowledge and expertise, funding opportunities and long range resource conservation goals,” said Salvador Salinas, NRCS Texas state conservationist. “Wildlife habitats across Texas’ vast coastal region face big challenges such as population growth. Through programs like TPWP, conservation planning and financial assistance, NRCS continues its legacy of helping private landowners help the land in these essential wetland ecosystems.”
“One of the most impressive aspects of this program is the scale,” Merendino said. “We’re providing waterfowl habitat across the Texas coast, which is one of the areas where waterfowl are facing dramatic habitat deficits. Research is revealing that certain species, such as northern pintails, are really struggling along the Texas coast. Programs like TPWP provide critical, reliable habitat in one of the most important and most threatened landscapes on the continent.”
Delivering habitat across a 30-county area, the cost-share program focuses on reconstructing wetlands and providing water and infrastructure for managing wetland units. In addition to critical wildlife habitat, these wetlands provide important flood control and groundwater recharge functions for local communities.
—BY Andi Cooper