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Why State Parks Offer Hunts

By Larry D. Hodge

Overpopulation of white-tailed deer can destroy habitat in state parks.

Hunting in state parks can be a hot-button issue for some park visitors. But it’s an ecological necessity if state parks are to maintain habitat that supports a variety of animals, both game and nongame.

In Hill Country parks such as Pedernales Falls and South Llano River, where white-tailed deer and various exotics abound and are taking their toll on the habitat, hunting is a regular part of the fall schedule.

“Deer don’t eat grass,” explains Bill McDaniel, manager of Pedernales Falls. “They eat forbs and brush and will eat tree seedlings, so they are very hard on the regeneration of oaks. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Spanish oak seedling here. They get browsed off before they ever get going.”

Wayne Haley reports a similar situation at South Llano River State Park. “The latest survey by wildlife biologists shows we are 300 animals over carrying capacity,” says Haley. “A lot of resource damage is being done. Many forbs that should be here are not found. Plus we have zero replacement of trees. Once a tree gets two inches high, it becomes part of the food supply and never becomes a full-size tree. All the big pecan and oak trees in the river bottom that die will not be replaced unless we manage our wildlife populations.”

Public hunts in state parks help keep wildlife populations within the carrying capacity of the land. TPWD biologists count the herd annually and set harvest goals for each park. Of course, parks are closed during public hunts, which are usually held mid-week to minimize inconvenience to other park users. Still, it’s difficult to schedule enough hunts to keep deer herds in check with their habitat.

“It’s not a one-time thing,” Haley points out. “There are so many animals we have to keep at it. We are trying to improve the habitat by planting trees and other native vegetation, but we can’t be successful, because everything we plant gets hammered. Despite protective fences, deer eat the little trees from the top, and squirrels eat them from the bottom. I’m to a point where I can’t put the land back the way it should be unless I get the deer population in check.”

In addition to improving the health of all the animals in the park by ensuring they get enough to eat, park hunts also furnish excellent public hunting opportunity. Last season seven state parks ranked among the top 10 public hunting areas in terms of percent of hunters who successfully targeted antlerless and spike white-tailed deer. Hunters on those seven parks accounted for 26 percent of the deer taken on antlerless/spike gun deer hunts through the public lands hunting program. In all, state parks included in the program furnished 38 percent of the gun deer hunts offered last season, and those hunts accounted for half the deer killed on public land.

“Hunting in state parks is a cost-effective way to maintain the health of the deer population and at the same time provide a good quality hunting opportunity for the public,” says parks director Walt Dabney. “In addition, the funds that are collected for hunting in each park stay there, providing some revenue for a time when there are few visitors.”

Mike Berger, director of TPWD’s Wildlife Division, points out that deer are the key part of the ecological puzzle. “Deer have the ability to destroy their habitat when their numbers are unchecked,” he says. “They can do severe damage to their habitat, which is also habitat for hundreds of other creatures. If we let deer destroy the habitat, we put hundreds of other species at risk as well. We are protecting the total wildlife community in these parks by offering public hunts.”

How to Apply

You can apply for hunts on state parks and other public lands using information and application forms published each July in Applications for Drawings on Public Hunting Lands. Each adult pays a $3 application fee; drawn adult hunters pay a hunt fee, which is $75 in most cases. All fees are waived for youths age 8 through 16, who must be accompanied by a permitted adult.

For complete results of last season’s special permit hunts on public lands, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hunt/public_hunting/statistics/2002.

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