Habitat Conditions Bad, Deer Hunting Good?

With the official start of summer almost upon us and whitetail bucks rapidly putting on new antler growth, it is never to early to speculate about the fall white-tailed deer hunting seasons in Texas. Unfortunately for everyone, dry weather has kept a damper on many deer and habitat management practices to date, but poor habitat conditions may help hunters across the state this fall.

Most folks know that dry weather is not good for wildlife. Deer hunters are also aware that low rainfall equates to below average antler sizes for bucks relying on natural forage to get them through the year. That being said, it comes as no surprise that severe drought across the state has dimmed what usually is a bright outlook for white-tailed deer quantity and quality.

Whitetail Deer Hunting in Texas for Habitat Management

Alan Cain, the whitetail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), said looking into the crystal ball months ahead of a season is never easy, but one thing is certain: The old saying about Texas weather and waiting 5 minutes for it to change is right on.

“We just can’t seem to win,” 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 May it will not be enough to sustain or improve habitat conditions throughout the summer unless the rain continues on into June and July.”

TPWD said overall production from this last year should definitely help hunters, including having a good fawn crop across much of the state and a good carryover of 1½ year old bucks and does. With an estimated whitetail deer population between 3.7 million and 4.2 million animals in Texas, that means there are a lot of hungry mouths out there as temperatures increase and soils continue to dry. Deer will be actively searching for food, which will help hunters 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 that offered 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, 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 hunters can expect to have plenty of deer to hunt this fall.

If the drought continues through the rest of the summer 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.”

It is recommended that both hunters and landowners stay on top of the deer populations found on their property. Whitetail can drastically impact the habitat where they are found. There is rarely an average year in Texas, only years of extremes that when put together make some sort of average. With too many deer and/or exotics on the range, particularly during poor range conditions, whitetail deer performance suffers and antler quality decreases as well as fawn production and survival. Landowners that diligently practice good deer management year-in and year-out will always have better, healthier deer.

Alan Cain may have summed it up when he said, “If the dry conditions continue this year, I would encourage hunters to try to fill their tags and for those deer hunting on managed (MLD Permit) properties try to meet their harvest recommendations this year.” It seems as though hunters may benefit in the short-term, but the drought may have long-term impacts on Texas’ whitetail deer herd.

9 Replies to “Habitat Conditions Bad, Deer Hunting Good?”

  1. We received an inch of rain in May and that was the only rain we have received for the past 10 months. It’s been tough…and dusty in the Hill Country. It’s times like this I wish we would have never put exotics on our property. The axis have become extremely elusive. With a herd of approx. 60 axis and 40 fallow (via trail cams), sightings are rare… and a harvested axis or fallow is becoming rarer.

    Do you have any recommendation on how to harvest these elusive axis deer? They are true nomads and are mostly nocturnal. They never come to the same protein feeder or corn feeder with any regularity and we see them scarcely at either to begin with. Even in droughts we may only get a few pics a week of them at protein and they are in a 1000 acre high fenced pasture.

    I know that it’s legal to hunt them at night as they’re not native, but I have some ethical issues with that and we haven’t seen one in a spotlight survey in years anyways. We’ve set up tripods on the edge of brush with limited success. They tend to migrate to heavier brush. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Hunter D, axis deer, especially bucks, tend to “brush up” pretty well. I am surprised that they are not hitting your protein feeders better in this drought situation, so that must mean the habitat is still providing a lot of what they need. Like whitetail, axis prefer browse plants, but they can make it on grass. I suspect that axis do not prefer grass over pellets, meaning they are finding something good out there to eat.

    When I read the first line or two of your comment my first reaction was to recommend night hunting. As you mentioned, it is legal for axis and other exotics. I can understand your ethical dilemma because what is legal and what is ethical are two different things. However, I would offer that these exotic are by no means “sitting ducks” out there. From a whitetail deer and habitat management standpoint, it would be in your best interest to reduce the number of exotics in your pasture.

    It has been dry, so what is the water situation in that pasture? Any chance these animals are funneling into a few watering sites? If so, may be good to put some cameras on those sites to see if you can pattern them.

  3. We’ve placed cameras on water, of which we have about 8 troughs on 1,000 acres fed by windmills. They have been caught at 6 of them, but 90% of the time it’s at night and they only seem to need water once to maybe twice a week.

    It’s already a standing order to “shoot-on-sight” any axis doe…hoping that will curb the herd numbers. We might get 5 axis a year, not really knowing if that’s keeping up with the yearly offspring of the herd or not. I guess that’s 5 fewer that can breed.

    Despite my ethical concerns, it may come to night hunting… but even that would be difficult considering their nomadic behavior. Thanks for your help, it’s greatly appreciated.

  4. Hot and dry, but our place is in really good condition. The creeks ran a couple of weeks ago so there is water in the deeper holes. The brush, briars and forbs are still looking good. There have been no livestock in 320 acres since April 1. There are places around that have deer that are really beginning to look bad, ribs are showing.

    We have had protein out since January 16th and we are seeing the results. We are northeast of Goldthwaite about 10 miles. We have a 3 acre cowpea plot that the deer have not touched. We enjoy your website.

  5. Our place looks like the dead of winter. No live grass, mesquites stressed, no visible acorn crop and nothing really to eat but cactus and protein from our feeders. West Central Texas is looking pretty bad. Our food plot last year yielded no appreciable growth, and I can’t decide whether to plant this year or not. I hate to drop $500 on seed and have nothing come of it.

  6. Byron, Buck Manager may have their own suggestion, which I would love to hear as well. We have done food plots, but this year we decided it was too risky and it would take a great deal of rain (12 inches) to get us out of the drought. Pending a hurricane comes through, I don’t see that happening.

    We’ve actually invested the money we used for seed and planting into alfalfa hay (very high in protein and nutrients). We get it in the 8’x4′ bales because it’s more economical and you can feed a lot of deer with one charge. I have witnessed it working well on both high and low-fenced properties this year.

    Sometimes it may take a while for the deer to get used to it, but once they take a nibble, they get addicted. Some people will leave the whole 8’x4′ bale out there. Best of luck to you and I hope you find a great solution. Tell us all what it is when you get one.

  7. Byron and Hunter D, unless a hunter plans on irrigating, I don’t think a fall/winter food plot would be a wise investment in Texas this year. I do write about food plots from time to time, but I always reiterate that habitat management should be the primary objective on any property focusing on white-tailed deer management.

    In Texas, like much of the whitetail’s range, fall and winter food plots are usually more successful, but most of the state currently has very little soil moisture. The biggest problem I have with food plots is that when the deer really need them they will not grow.

    If someone is interested in supplementing the deer diets, then begin or continue providing protein pellets or high quality alfalfa hay, as mentioned above, right now. These products can be removed just before the hunting season to aid deer harvest. Once the harvest goals are met (should not take long this season if it stays dry), then return supplemental foods to maintain the remaining deer through winter.

    If ever there was a year not to have left excess deer on the range, it was the 2010 season. Historically over-browsed habitat offered little good forage this year. Another tough winter with an excess number of mouths on the landscape will take a toll on both whitetail (and exotics too, especially if it turns very cold with a little moisture).

  8. We have 76 acres in Livingston, Texas. Our motion camera showed a lot of activity around one feeder. We have diligently kept our feeders full of corn all year. We also have two ponds funneled by underwater springs that are down several feet, but have not dried up. The problem is, we have only seen one young buck on our property, which my 13 year old has claimed for his first kill.

    We also have two pigs that travel together. We have seen them two times, and are lying in wait for the opportunity to shoot them. Now, my cameras are showing no activity. Where are my deer?

  9. The recent rains in your area have likely pulled the deer away from the feeders. Corn is a good bait, but rains bring about high quality forbs (weeds) that are high in protein. In addition, there are still a good number of acorns on the ground in some areas, which are high in carbs and fat. The deer are eating the good stuff that nature has provided. The recent cold front will get deer hungry and moving, so expect more activity until the end of the hunting season.

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