Are these the Good ol' Days?
How 60 years of game management has enhanced wildlife populations in Texas.
By Russell A. Graves
Creeping along Childress County back roads is how I spend many Saturday mornings. For 13 years, I’ve been traveling the same sandy roads looking for movement in the mixed brushlands of northwest Texas, making note of what I see.
Are there changes?
Yeah, I’ve noticed changes.
From my own observations, I’ve seen wildlife numbers, in general, increase. For example, when I moved to Childress from Fannin County in 1993, white-tailed deer were fairly uncommon here except along the Red River. Now, whitetails are everywhere, and the Texas Rolling Plains is arguably one of the hottest places in which to hunt deer in the state. Mule deer numbers have grown as well; it is not unusual for me to see 20 or more deer scattered across a wheat field during my early morning forays. Rio Grande turkeys continue to expand their range and appear in parts of the county where I’ve never seen them before, and bobwhite quail are still holding strong.
Even in Fannin County, where I was raised, game numbers and opportunities continue to increase. I can remember finding the first deer tracks on a piece of leased land in central Fannin County in 1986. Two years later, my dad and I harvested two eight-point bucks in two days from the same stand. The deer numbers are so strong in the county that last season the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department imposed antler restrictions in an effort to improve the burgeoning deer herd even more. Just two years ago, my brother and I harvested some of the first eastern wild turkeys ever legally taken in the county along the banks of a muddy creek.
From a hunting standpoint, it seems that we are living in the good ol’ days. Never before in the modern history of our state has there existed such an abundance of hunting opportunities. Even in the face of population booms and unprecedented urban growth, Texas game animals seem to be as plentiful as mesquite trees.
Six decades of progress
My thesis is simple: In terms of abundance of game, now is the best time for hunting in the last 100 years. Moreover, the future is bright. I defend my thesis with the help of a book: Principal Game Birds and Mammals of Texas: Their Distribution and Management, published in 1945 by TPWD’s predecessor agency — the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission. The book was the first accurate accounting of Texas game animal population and ranges after the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey released their findings about Texas wildlife in 1905.
The book has an original price of $2 listed inside, but the information contained throughout the book offers a priceless glimpse of where we’ve been and how we came to have outstanding hunting opportunities today.
“Here, for the first time, is presented in full an accurate account of the former and present range of the principal game species of this state, and of more vital interest, the factors controlling their abundance,” read the opening lines of the foreword. “It is here for all to read, and as the foundation on which Texas may build a sounder game program. Perhaps it shall aid in leading us out of our present desperate plight of flagrant land abuse, which if continued and accelerated will lead game — and man to their oblivion.”
Today, the words sound a bit dire. Considering the times in which the book was published, though, the warning was well founded. Fifty years prior, game animals weren’t nearly as abundant and, in fact, many animals like wild turkeys and pronghorns were nearly extirpated from their historic ranges and their population numbers nationwide were dangerously low. In fact, around the turn of the 20th century, white-tailed deer numbers nationwide were only about a half-million.
As the United States trudged through World War I and the Great Depression, interest in wildlife conservation grew steadily. Aldo Leopold had established the nation’s first wildlife management program (at the University of Wisconsin) and penned the first book published on wildlife management by 1933. Eight years prior to the publication of Principal Game Birds and Mammals of Texas: Their Distribution and Management, the federal government passed landmark legislation in the form of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the law places an 11 percent excise tax on guns, archery equipment and ammunition, which is apportioned to each state based on land area and hunting licenses. This pay-as-you-go, hunter-funded system has proven its value as a positive revenue source in the 70 years since its passage.
Make no mistake, though. Modern success in Texas game management hasn’t been the result of a singular entity. Since the publication of the book, private landowners, hunters, conservation groups and TPWD have all worked in concert to provide the incredible game opportunities we enjoy today.
In 1945, Texas big game was already recognized as a significant source of recreation and income for hunters and landowners. Partly due to poor land use practices and screw worm infestations, white-tailed deer were relegated mostly to the Hill Country and South Texas, with pockets of deer in suitable habitats scattered over much of the lower two-thirds of the state. Today, it is no secret that whitetail populations are booming.
“From 1939 until 1990, TPWD was heavily involved in trapping and relocating of whitetails,” says Mitch Lockwood, white-tailed deer program leader for TPWD. “In that time, approximately 34,000 deer were moved from the higher density areas of Texas to those areas with very low numbers of deer.”
Lockwood explains that the combination of relocation efforts, white-tailed deer research conducted on wildlife management areas such as the Kerr, and working with private landowners has been key to species population growth from 238,000 in 1939 to more than 4 million today.
“The contributions of private landowners to the success of Texas white-tailed deer are huge,” emphasizes Lockwood. “Almost all of the management takes place on private lands. Private landowners and hunters are the ones doing habitat and population management on virtually all of the Texas deer range. They are setting prescribed burns, removing noxious brush species, and promoting a healthy habitat through their actions.”
Because of landowner interest and involvement, other species with smaller statewide ranges are also showing signs of growth. For example, both the mule deer and the pronghorn antelope ranges have expanded in the time since the book’s publication. Mule deer, according to the book, were only found in a single pocket in the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle with the majority of the population found in the Trans-Pecos region. Today, mule deer are still found in abundant numbers in the Trans-Pecos and have expanded their ranges over much of the Caprock Escarpment area of the Panhandle and South Plains, as well as in the Red, Canadian and Pease River basins.
Pronghorn antelope, with a range specific to the wide open country of western Texas, nearly doubled in numbers from 1941 until 1990, when a prolonged drought affected their populations over much of their Trans-Pecos range.
“For desert animals like the mule deer, I would have to say that the good ol’ days will come and go with the rain,” explains Clayton Wolf, big game program director for TPWD. “Landowners can do things to mitigate circumstances during a drought, but history has shown us that prolonged droughts will have a negative impact on overall numbers. It appears that West Texas is currently in a recovery mode, and mule deer are doing well and have been for several years.”
Wolf agrees with Lockwood on the role of private citizens in game animal successes. “The private citizens’ role is critical. Most deer were stocked on private lands, and it is private landowners who provided the habitat and the protection during the restoration years. Hunters also played an important role, because without the revenue from the sale of hunting licenses, we wouldn’t have had the resources to trap and relocate deer and enforce game laws.”
Upland game birds — namely turkeys and bobwhite quail — have generally done better since 1945, due largely to restocking efforts and habitat management. Steve DeMaso, upland game bird program leader for TPWD, thinks that the marriage between private landowners and TPWD has been positive for upland game birds, just as it has been for large game.
At first, restocking was an inexact science — Rio Grande turkeys were often introduced in unsuitable habitat. But that was then …
Learning and adapting from lessons of the past, now Rio Grande turkeys are widespread over much of the western two-thirds of the state, where suitable habitat components like tall roost trees exist. That’s a far cry from the Hill Country concentration of turkeys back in the 1940s. Perhaps the most impressive upland bird comeback is the eastern wild turkey. Once all but extirpated from the state, now hunters can pursue Eastern wild turkeys in 43 East Texas counties.
Although the outlook for bobwhite quail isn’t as glowing over the past half-century as it has been for turkeys, there are some good reasons to be optimistic about the future of bobwhite quail in Texas.
“For quail, the largest contribution that TPWD has made is through research. We have collaborated on numerous studies with Dr. Fred Guthery to gain a better understanding of the effect of weather on quail populations, harvest regulations at a statewide scale, and the long-term population viability of quail populations,” he says. DeMaso explains that on a departmental level, TPWD is a stalwart participant in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. NBCI is a multi-state conservation effort that is primarily focused on habitat restoration and the ultimate range-wide recovery of bobwhite quail and other grassland wildlife species. Texas was the first state in the nation to introduce a statewide plan to restore and maintain quail habitat and quail populations.
“I think the future for bobwhites is bright,” says DeMaso. “There are conservation opportunities everywhere, but we must position ourselves to take advantage of these opportunities. Bobwhites, for instance, now have a national presence in Washington D.C. due to the bird’s plight. Will we ever have the great bird hunting of the past? Probably not. Do we have opportunities to stop habitat loss and deterioration in areas that still have strong bird populations? Yes.”
A culture of change
One of the reasons for the increased emphasis on game and habitat is due to a simple shift in demographics. A lot of landowners in Texas now buy property for its recreational (rather than agricultural) value. As a result, interest in managing land for wildlife has exploded. Increases in the statewide population and the ongoing demand for developing the state’s water supply will undoubtedly put pressure on habitat and wildlife resources.
However, most of the people I talk to agree that the best is yet to come for Texas hunters and game animals alike. Small game, big game, upland birds and migratory bird populations are strong; conservation, research and management interest in them is strong as well.
“The more we know of our wildlife,” reads the book, “the better we will appreciate its cultural and material value. The greater security we provide for it, the more security wildlife will contribute to our nation and the happiness and vigor of its people.”