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Photo © Adan Alvarez

The State of Whitetails

Proper management and disease control have resulted in bumper crops of bucks and does for Texas hunters.

Story by Russell A. Graves

White-tailed deer are the ultimate survivors. Highly adaptable, the charismatic species was nearly eradicated from its historical range across much of the country. A century of western expansion coupled with a free-for-all market hunting ethic almost wiped out the deer and most other game species. Whitetails were all but gone from their historical haunts.

In the early 20th century, a new ethic took hold. Led by men like President Theodore Roosevelt and, later, Aldo Leopold, the concept of “wise use” was applied to the nation’s wildlife resources.

This is when things began to change. Wildlife was viewed as belonging to everyone; with that, a new wildlife ethic was established, sound scientific management took hold, and several game animal species were brought back from the brink of extinction.

Rebounding from an estimated Texas population of 232,000 animals in 1938, white-tailed deer now flourish. Each year, the number of whitetails hovers around 4.5 million animals statewide. Gone are boom-and-bust population trends. Thanks to scientific management principles and a keen interest in habitat and age class management, white-tailed deer remain the state’s pre-eminent game animal.


SCREWWORM ERADICATION

Once scientific management and harvest practices commenced and populations weren’t being exploited as in the 19th century, Texas wildlife managers still had to deal with the scourge of screwworms. Primarily a livestock pest that caused millions in losses each year, the screwworm is the larvae of the blowfly and feeds on living tissue. Until a federal government-sponsored eradication program all but eliminated the pest in the early 1960s, the parasite caused havoc in deer herds as well as cattle.

In Texas alone, more than a million cases of livestock infestation occurred annually before 1962. During that same time, as much as 80 percent of the fawn crop was lost on South Texas ranches. According to reports from that time, whitetail mortality cost the state more than $30 million annually, a number based on lost hunting lease fees and the monetary value of the deer. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of one-quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money.

Screwworm eradication came at breakneck speed and was hailed as a success for both livestock and wildlife in Texas. In 1962, the USDA research facility in Kerrville began irradiating screwworm flies in order to sterilize them. These sterilized flies were released into the wild, mating with females who then produced sterile egg cases.

By 1963, many livestock producers reported no screwworm-infested animals. By 1964, the screwworms were deemed eradicated.

The livestock industry flourished, as did whitetail populations. As trap-and-relocate efforts continued across Texas, the population steadily grew over most of the state.

Photo © Melody Lytle

THE SPREAD OF DEER

“From 1939 until 1990, TPWD was heavily involved in trapping and relocating of whitetails,” says Mitch Lockwood, big-game program director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “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.”

Without the scourge of screwworms, the trap-and-release programs were mostly successful. However, by the 1980s, while deer were dense in places like the Edwards Plateau, they were still scarce in other parts of the state.

I remember it so well: When I began hunting in the early 1980s, nearly all the deer in Fannin County were located in the northeast portion, on the Caddo National Grasslands. Even though the habitat was plentiful throughout the county, the deer stuck to an invisible boundary around the Forest Service land. As such, I hunted deer for five years before I even saw a single deer.

Then, something magical happened. In 1988, I saw a set of deer tracks on our family’s leased ranch land. The next year my dad and I harvested nearly identical eight-point bucks on subsequent days from the same stand. Since then, deer have been abundant across the county.

“In the ’70s and even in the early ’80s, some regulatory authority was at the county level,” says Alan Cain, TPWD white-tailed deer program leader. “Some counties made the regulations for the seasons and even bag limits. But when the regulatory authority over game laws and season limits was shifted from county governments to a singular regulatory agency, deer numbers and their range started to grow.”

Today, whitetails are found in nearly every county in the state. Its triumph as a wildlife species is truly a wildlife management success story. Even with an increase in overall deer hunter numbers and increased hunting pressure, populations remain steady year after year.

Photo © Russell A. Graves

ANTLER RESTRICTIONS

East Texas hunter Brian Strickland believes in antler restrictions. He’s seen the rapid difference in antler quality on his 80-acre Wood County family property.

“Before antler restrictions went into effect, we saw an occasional mature deer, but overall, we saw a lot of small, immature age class deer,” says Strickland. “Being a skeptical person and one who has kids who were beginning to hunt, I thought antler restrictions would limit our opportunities. I was wrong. While my observations are anecdotal, it really seems like the opportunity to harvest a deer in this county has increased. We see more deer — and more mature deer — than we ever have.”

His sentiments are echoed throughout the deer woods where antler restrictions are in place. Now, nearly 20 years after the first antler restrictions were implemented in six Central Texas counties, the practice has proven to be a solid whitetail management strategy.

“We hear success stories from a lot of landowners in regard to antler restrictions,” Cain says. “In the 1990s and before, many hunters would just shoot the first deer they saw. As such, we had a lot of young deer, but very few deer were allowed to live to an older age. With antler restrictions, we saw an immediate response to the age structure and quality of deer in these affected counties, and landowners started becoming more focused on habitat management.”

In short, whitetail antler restrictions work like this …

According to TPWD, a legal whitetail buck in antler-restricted counties is defined as having a hardened antler protruding through the skin and one of the following:

• At least one unbranched antler.

• An inside spread measurement between main beams of 13 inches or greater.

The practice has proven so effective in whitetail-tailed deer that antler restrictions were put in place for mule deer in the Rolling Plains.

Photo © Russell A. Graves

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE KERR

If the concepts of deer management were a state, then the Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Kerrville would be the capital. Historically, the Kerr is the epicenter of deer and deer habitat management principles not only for Texas, but the rest of the nation.

Purchased in 1950, the original 6,493 acres of the management area were severely overgrazed by deer and domestic livestock. Through grazing, prescribed burning and brush management, biologists at Kerr WMA improved the rangelands and proved that livestock and wildlife are compatible. The Kerr’s ecosystem approach to managing the land has influenced countless land managers across the state and nation. With ranchers and land managers implementing the lessons learned at Kerr over the past 70 years, Texas deer lands are currently the most productive in history.

In 1973, TPWD constructed a 16-acre research facility to study white-tailed deer physiology with an emphasis on the roles of genetics and nutrition on antler size.

The research study helped achieve the primary goal of figuring out how to manage and maintain a stable age distribution in the deer population. Some of the first findings remain groundbreaking work 30 years later, and still set the pace for deer research nationwide.

“Early on the research at the Kerr focused on the impact deer were having on ecosystems and the impact that they were having on other species that shared the rangelands with the deer,” says Ryan Reitz, project leader for the Edwards Plateau ecosystems. Reitz says the research to uncover the nuances of deer biology also ended up benefiting other species.

“The white-tailed deer ends up teaching us a lot,” he says. “From the research work we’ve done here to our private landowners taking the lead from what we’ve discovered over time, it adds to our overall knowledge base. We teach folks about healthy populations, productive populations, healthy habitats and then all that couples to benefit overall land health. When you have healthy deer, you have healthy habitats and all other sorts of animals flourish.”

Photo by Leroy Williamson / TPWD

AN EDUCATED POPULACE

“When I was a kid, we didn’t spend any time trying to learn about the deer and their habits,” admits Hemphill County hunter Tonny Hamby as we thumb through a mountain of digital images captured from his game camera over the summer. Hamby uses these images to help him understand the deer and their movements on the property he hunts. With the data collected, he can track deer movement, get an indication of a buck-to-doe ratio and assess the quality of deer he has on his place. His diligent data gathering, scouting and learning all he can about the game are an attempt to gauge the effects of his habitat management practices on the quality and quantity of the deer he hunts.

“Back in the early days, we just wanted to harvest a deer,” he says, reflecting back on his 45 years afield. “So, when hunting season rolled around, we went hunting. When the season was over, we didn’t think about it until the next season.”

Now, he says, hunting (or at least preparation and education on the subject) is a year-round activity.

For his day job, Hamby teaches agriculture science in Canadian. Among his curriculum offerings is a class on wildlife management. He’s not alone; in more than 500 public schools statewide, wildlife-focused curriculum (along with hunter education) is taught. He says that people, including students and their parents, are keenly interested in the game in which they hunt — much more so than when he was younger.

“Hunters want to understand more about the resource,” he says. “Landowners can see the monetary value in learning more about deer management and habitat conservation, rural communities see the economic potential of hunters, and hunters can immerse themselves in the nuances of the game animals they pursue. It’s a positive thing.

“I don’t think there’s any difference in an educated hunter than a baseball fan immersing himself in the statistics of the sport or others playing fantasy football,” he says. “The more you know, the richer the connection to the wild and your experiences become.”

Photo © Larry Ditto

THE BATTLE AGAINST CWD

What’s the next big whitetail management success story? Alan Cain thinks it’s controlling chronic wasting disease, or CWD. CWD is a fatal neurological disease that affects whitetails, mule deer and other members of the deer family such as elk and moose. While the disease was first recognized in the late 1960s in Colorado, it was first discovered in free-ranging mule deer in Texas in 2012, and since then, it has popped up in captive whitetail facilities.

If CWD becomes a widespread problem across the whitetail’s range, the $2.2 billion Texas hunting industry will undoubtedly be seriously affected. Although eradication of the scourge is thought to be impossible, scientists with various Texas state agencies think the disease can be contained.

TPWD is aggressively pursuing containment.

“Hunters who harvest mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, red deer or other CWD-susceptible species within the Trans-Pecos, Panhandle and South-Central Texas CWD Containment and Surveillance Zones are REQUIRED to bring their animals to a TPWD check station within 48 hours of harvest. TPWD urges voluntary sampling of hunter-harvested deer outside of the CWD zones,” according to the TPWD website. The three CWD Containment and Surveillance Zones are located in far West Texas west of Van Horn, the far northwestern Texas Panhandle around Dalhart and around Medina just south and west of San Antonio.

“I think chronic wasting disease is on the mind of all wildlife managers, whether it’s in Texas or across the nation,” says Cain. “I just met with the deer coordinators for the Southeast Deer Study Group, comprising 17 southeastern states. The big topic is CWD and CWD management. Right now, obviously, there’s no cure for the disease and everyone is scrambling to try and control it.”

Cain is optimistic that his agency will be able to provide the leadership to slow the disease expansion, with the help of hunters and landowners. Early detection and containment are the ultimate keys to solving the problem.

“There are lots of people talking about research in terms of disease management risk and how we can mitigate it,” Cain says. “So that’s something I think is going to be on the horizon over the next five to 10 years, for sure.”


Russell A. Graves is a writer and photographer. Find his work at www.russellgraves.com.


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