Biologists Forecast Hunting Prospects
Timely rainfall coupled with adequate habitat conditions earlier this year should make for above-average hunting across much of Texas this fall, state wildlife biologists are predicting.
"Even in an average year, hunting in Texas is better than just about any place in the country," said Dr. Gary Graham, Texas Parks and Wildlife's director of wildlife. Perhaps that's why more than 900,000 hunters take to the field in Texas each fall.
Based on recent field census, TPW biologists suggest the following general outlook for the state's eight ecological regions during 2001-2002 hunting seasons in Texas.
Panhandle (North Texas)
Late winter and spring moisture provided great habitat conditions for many wildlife species during the first half of 2001, but the Panhandle also recorded its hottest July since 1934. "Generally speaking, most species appear to be looking good," reports Canyon-based biologist Danny Swepston. "We have had several reports of sightings of quail and turkey broods, and our staff in the southern part of the district (south of Lubbock) have reported a good scaled quail hatch. Turkeys in the northeast counties appear to have had a fair to good first hatch, but renesting by birds that lost their first clutch appears near zero."
Deer appear to be in good shape, Swepston says from personal observations. "I sighted several mule and white-tailed bucks during the aerial pronghorn surveys (mid-June), and body conditions looked good, and horns were at or just past the ear tips." In counties north of Amarillo, both mule deer and whitetails may have been stressed by a lack of early winter wheat and extended periods of snow and ice. However, herd densities should remain about the same throughout the region in 2001.
Pronghorn populations should remain about the same as in 2001. Horn production in 2000 was average, Swepston says, but the additional moisture this winter should improve prospects for the coming season.
Waterfowl conditions had been very poor prior to recent rains, however, playa lakes are filling up and should provide adequate holding areas, Swepston offers.
The forecast for pheasants is not as bright. Lack of nesting cover over large areas is a problem. The major populations will continue to occur in those High Plains counties north of Plainview. An average hunting season for 2001 is the best that can be anticipated at this time. "I am not very hopeful on pheasants," Swpeston says. "Last year was poor and conditions have not changed much. We have heard of a few broods, but really won't know much until we conduct our annual surveys in October and November."
Cross Timbers/Blackland Prairies (North-Central Texas)
The western portion of the Possum Kingdom has suffered from almost continuous drought over the last nine years, and the rebound will not be as quick. Deer cut deeply into the browse resource over much of 1999 and 2000. The rains played out pretty early in the summer in this region, says Stephen Jester, TPW biologist in Brownwood. But, overall, he says, conditions are pretty good. "Antler development, deer body conditions and this year's fawn crop should still be average to slightly above for white-tailed deer. Deer on leases managed for a limited harvest of older age class bucks should see better antler production this year than last. The downside to this scenario is hunter success. If native forage remains in good supply throughout the fall, hunting will likely be much harder around feeders or food plots.
"Conditions are not ideal for turkey and quail reproduction, but we should still see an improvement in numbers over last year ," reports Jester. Drier than normal conditions have kept Rio Grande turkey reproduction well below average in much of the district since 1997. During the last three hunting seasons, hunters have seen good numbers of mature birds, but hunters should expect to see fewer birds during the fall and winter of 2001-2002.
Pineywoods (North/East Texas)
The woods look good this year, according to Jasper-based biologist Clayton Wolf. "I don't see any big changes in our deer population. There's plenty of forage out there, so we should have a decent fawn crop and good antler production," Wolf offers. "We're set up for a good mast crop if we can hold onto our moisture, which may not bode well for those who hunt over a food plot or corn bucket, but it should be good for the critters."
While East Texas has garnered some attention for production of trophy deer in recent years, squirrel hunting is still king in the Pineywoods. For those dedicated hunters who pursue the bushytail instead of the whitetail, this year may not live up to standards. "I suspect our squirrel harvest will be off some because we lost our mast crop last year so recruitment will be off," Wolf explains. "After populations recover, things should rebound next year."
Just when you think range conditions in South Texas have reached a critical point because of the dry, hot summer months, tropical storms come to the rescue. This year is a prime example. "South Texas did not receive late spring and early summer rains, and until recently we were in the middle of a brown out," says Pleasanton biologist Joe Herrera. "The only saving grace was the wet fall and winter last year that set up spring range conditions and that has carried us over until now."
Hunters should not be surprised if their feeders remain full for a while, according to Herrera. Because of recent new plant growth, deer may not be relying on unnatural food supplies.
Herrera notes that habitat conditions in the spring have provided excellent screening and nesting conditions for quail and turkey. These conditions also provided a good forage base for all wildlife species in the form of seed production and insects. Soft mast produced by woody plants may carry us through the summer stress period (now through mid-September). Wildlife biologists have reported good numbers of both turkey poults and quail coveys in South Texas. All things point to a fair to good production year despite earlier drought conditions.
Mourning and white-winged doves have also benefited from the good forb and grass seed production year. Doves will be attracted to waterholes if dry conditions persist, Herrera says.
White-tailed deer production should be fair to good even with fading cover at this stage of the summer. Wildlife field staff continues to report deer in fairly good body condition despite the drought, Herrera says. Good nutrition from spring forbs and woody plants during the first half of the antler growing season should produce fair to good antler development for buck deer. "This has been an excellent year for prickly pear tunas (fruits) and mesquite beans," he notes. "Conditions have improved tremendously and there should be less movement by deer foraging for food."
Edwards Plateau (Central Texas)
Nearly half of all white-tailed deer harvested in the state each year come from this region and there's no reason to expect that stat to change this fall.
Whitetail antler quality and body condition should be average to above average this fall in the Hill Country, according to Kerrville biologist Max Traweek. The wet winter and early spring laid the foundation for better-than-average antler quality in the white-tailed buck segment. "Some areas have reported losing a few deer due to the drought, but such reports have been well outpaced by the complaints of too many deer in the backyards and subdivisions, which always crop up during dry summers," he offers. "The recent rainfall will go a long way in improving range conditions throughout the hill country region. This should result in improved body condition observed in deer for the next several months. Of course, additional moisture will be required to maintain normal body condition through the upcoming winter months. It's too early to call the acorn crop, but a good mast crop, or a lot of new growth on native vegetation, generally results in tough deer hunting during November."
Rio Grande turkey production in the Hill Country has been good this summer despite the terribly dry July and first part of August period, according to Traweek, and poult survival remains high going into the fall. There should be a good supply of young birds in the flocks during the upcoming hunting season.
"We saw limited production on our survey transects in the better quail areas occurring in the Hill Country -- the north central counties, mainly," Traweek notes. "I suspect that we actually had better production than our surveys indicated, given the good range conditions present during the first part of the summer."
Post Oak Savannah (East-Central Texas)
The Post Oak Savannah deer herd came out of the 2000 deer season in fairly good shape and should provide good hunting opportunities in the 2001 season, says Tyler-based biologist Kevin Herriman. "Abundant rains this winter and early spring with periodic rainfall into June provided favorable habitat conditions for wildlife throughout most of the year. After a brief dry spell in July and early August, summer rains have fallen over most of the District. Such late summer moisture will enhance habitat quality through forb production and the growth of other fall vegetation. In addition, early observations indicate that the Post Oak will probably have an average mast crop (acorns and hickory nuts) this year to further enhance wildlife forage conditions."
Squirrel hunting conditions in the Post Oak region will be about average to slightly below average this season, Herriman says. "The mast crop throughout the Post Oak Savannah was spotty in the fall of 2000. Years of good mast production are typically followed by years of good squirrel reproduction. Therefore, your best squirrel hunting opportunities this season will be in localities where you saw fair to moderate or better mast production last year."
Waterfowl hunting should be about average. As always, an abundance of ducks in East Texas is dependent on having water and having the water at the right time. "When winter rains fill our bottomland forests and other wetlands, duck hunting improves," he says. "Of course, it doesn't hurt if you have a good mast crop and other favored plant foods to go with that water to really give the ducks a reason to hang around and enjoy beautiful East Texas."
Coastal Prairies and Marshes (Southeast Texas)
In a region that supports several varieties of hardwood trees, the good news, according to LaGrange-based biologist Bob Carroll, is that something is going to produce a mast crop. Wildlife will have something to eat.
"It looks like a better than average fawn crop this year, ranging from 40 to 65 percent survival, which for this country is good," Carroll says, noting that in a normal year, fawn survival rates range from 25 to 40 percent. "The high survival rate is a result of good spring and early summer rains. I also think we'll have a better than average antler production year on ranches that are managing and have mature deer."
The late fall and winter rains last year also produced an abundance of winter forbs, which set the stage for a good wildlife reproductive year, Carroll says. "Winter forbs are a critical component in the reproductive cycles of deer."
The hunting season of 2001-2002 could be very good, predicts Carroll.
Trans Pecos (West Texas)
As for the hunting prospects, Alpine-based biologist Mike Hobson noted, "It's just going to be a deer hunt in the Trans Pecos, not above average in any form or fashion. It looks like whoever got the rain will have a better deal." Hobson noted that deer numbers are down overall this year, but body conditions could be improved thanks to recent new growth of winter forbs.
Turkey poult production has been quite low the last three years. Limited recruitment into the population means hunters will most likely be harvesting mature birds. If moisture continues through the spring period, we expect poult production to improve significantly, Hobson explains.