Biologists Optimistic About Hunting Season

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In Texas, hunting injects about $2.5 billion into the state's economy each year. Perhaps equally significant is Texas' hunting heritage. Last year, almost a million hunters took to the field in pursuit of wild game ranging from squirrel to white-tailed deer.

Thanks to a diverse landscape and abundant natural resources, even an average hunting season by Texas standards would be considered exceptional in most other states. Based on recent field census, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists are suggesting the following general outlook for each of the state's eight ecological regions during the upcoming 2002-03 Texas hunting seasons.

Edwards Plateau (Central Texas)

Deer hunters should see a few more mature bucks this fall, following lower than normal buck harvest during the last two seasons, according to Kerrville-based technical guidance biologist Fielding Harwell.

"We've seen heavy rainfall the last two years heading into the season, which created an abundance of food for deer," he noted. "Deer didn't have to move as much to eat and as a result, hunting became difficult and buck kills went down."

This year's unseasonably wet summer has provided an additional boost for deer, Harwell noted.

"I anticipate the fawn crop to be above average and good body weight gains due to the rains we've received, particularly in the central and eastern part of the Hill Country. I look for it to be a good season overall, but weather conditions are going to play a factor on how successful hunting is going to be."

Acorns are a primary food source for deer and Harwell said this year's mast crop appears to be pretty good throughout the region.

Panhandle (North Texas)

Overall, game and range conditions are good, according to Gene Miller, technical guidance biologist in Canyon. The western half of the Panhandle has been somewhat drier than the eastern half, which is typical in the plains. The country is in a little more of a favorable condition thanks to some recent rainfall, with water in some of the playa lakes, which should bode well for waterfowl season.

Pronghorn production has been average with animals being in a little more stressed condition in the western portion of the region. Mule and white-tailed deer are in good overall condition, with good body weights and antler development.

"The effects of late rains and moderate temperatures on agricultural crops and range conditions should help improve existing (good) body and weight conditions even more as we head into the fall," said Miller. "Observed fawn production in both species is good throughout the district."

Rio Grande turkey production remains strong, better than in many other parts of the state, and as a result of consecutive good production years hunting prospects are good for the fall season.

Quail production is average, up slightly from last year.

"The jury is still out on pheasant, but I would not expect that good of a season because of the drier weather to the north," he noted.

Pineywoods (East Texas)

Wildlife biologists in the Pineywoods have been lauding the Whitetail Class of '97 since this unusually large segment of the deer population began showing up in census surveys.

"Some of those deer are still wandering in the woods," noted Gary Calkins, TPWD's wildlife biologist for the Pineywoods region. "There hasn't been a high harvest in the 1997 age class so they are still going to be on the landscape."

Habitat conditions across East Texas have gotten relief when needed this year, according to Calkins, and as a result hunting season should be above average.

"When conditions got bad we seemed to get some rain and the weedy browse plants kept coming back. We're just starting our mast crop surveys and initially things look pretty good from what I've seen and heard. If that's the case, deer hunting could be tough, but if people will get out and hunt they should see some deer."

Calkins also noted that waterfowl conditions were fantastic for the upcoming season.

"We're seeing some teal coming through and hopefully we'll get some cold fronts to start pushing birds into the region," he offered.

Although turkey hunting in the Pineywoods is limited to spring season only, Calkins said reproduction this year was good and with a good fall mast crop, the birds should be in excellent shape through the winter in those areas where habitat conditions have been improved.

Coastal Prairies and Marshes (Southeast Texas)

July rains provided much needed relief to the region's habitat, according to LaGrange-based TPWD biologist Bob Carroll, particularly for waterfowl.

"Those rains on the coast have filled up a lot of the potholes along the prairies so conditions ought to be good for holding birds," he said.

Deer habitat also got a boost and as a result, fawn survival is looking bright and Carroll anticipates a pretty good hunting season outside the six counties in his district where new conservative experimental buck harvest regulations go into effect.

"The regulations are designed to take some of the harvest pressure off the younger bucks, so hunters will be limited in those counties," he noted.

This year's acorn crop is spotty, Carroll said.

Quail populations in the coastal counties remain relatively decent, but few areas will offer what Carroll considers "huntable" numbers of birds. Rio Grande turkey numbers are also low but stable in the western part of the region and four counties will be opening for the first time next spring for Eastern turkey hunting.

Cross Timbers/Blackland Prairies (North-Central Texas)

This year marks a turnaround from the last couple of years' drought situation that had a detrimental effect on wildlife populations and habitat throughout much of north central Texas, according to technical guidance biologist Jim Dillard in Mineral Wells.

"Seasonable temperatures and above normal rainfall have resulted on a much improved landscape," he said. "There were only been a few days over 100 degrees this year which is a big improvement over the past two summers. Early rains resulted in an abundance of grass and other vegetation, which benefited ground nesting game species such as bobwhites and Rio Grande turkey and forage for white-tailed deer."

Turkey and bobwhites appear to have rebounded with good reproduction this year and numbers are up, he advised. Mourning dove production was also up with excellent hunting during the first week of the season.

"It also looks like there is a good fawn crop this year," said Dillard. "Below normal fawn production two years ago may mean fewer 2½-year-old bucks in the population, so hunters may have to hunt harder for older age-class bucks. Antler growth should also be above average and the region continues to produce a number of good quality bucks each year from most counties."

Acorns are much more abundant this year and should provide deer and other wildlife with that seasonal food source during the fall and early winter months. Livestock numbers are also down which has resulted in less grazing pressure on rangelands in many areas.

In the northern part of the Hill Country, Lampasas-based technical guidance biologist Mike Krueger points to an up and down year for habitat conditions.

"Habitat conditions took a downward spiral in late winter and early spring and that hit our turkeys hard," he noted. "The rains we got in late June and early July were too late to help turkey and I hope it wasn't too late to help our fawn crop and antler development."

Recent rains are helping to boost cool season plant growth and should provide good food sources for most wildlife species, he noted.

"What benefited the most was our quail production, they responded well this year and we're seeing more coveys and a lot of young birds on the ground. This is the first rebound we've seen after three years of decline. We're still below the long-term average as far as numbers, but at least we're recovering."

This rain we're getting now is what we need to get those cool season plants to germinate and provide food for a lot of our wildlife species."

Post Oak Savannah (East-Central Texas)

This year's timely rains have produced favorable range conditions throughout the Post Oak Savannah, according to Kevin Herriman, TPWD's district biologist in Tyler.

"The majority of the region received adequate rainfall throughout the spring and early summer months with more than eight inches of rain from late June through mid July," he noted. "This created outstanding habitat conditions that should carry deer and other wildlife in good shape into the fall season. With luck, these summer rains will help to produce a normal or better acorn crop this fall."

Herriman anticipates above average antler growth and body weights for deer this fall due to improved range conditions during the last year.

"Squirrel hunting opportunities for the 2002 season should be better than those experienced in 2001 primarily due to the consistently good acorn crop we saw throughout the Post Oak in the fall of 2001," he said. "Years of good mast production are typically followed by years of good squirrel reproduction so sportsmen desiring some early fall hunting opportunities should be rewarded with success."

As always, an abundance of ducks in East Texas is dependent on having water at the right time with an abundance of preferred foods such as acorns, invertebrates and aquatic plants.

"When winter rains fill our East Texas bottomland forests and wetlands, duck hunting opportunities increase," he offered. "Hunters would certainly be ahead of the game by indulging in some preseason scouting."

South Texas

Rainfall in late winter of 2001 carried soil moisture and range conditions in most of South Texas through only the early part of 2002, said Pleasanton-based TPWD biologist Joe Herrera. However, little to no appreciable rainfall from March through the end of June had a drastic impact on deer habitat and particularly on antler development.

"Grasses were non-existent and plants were defoliating in some of the more severely drought-stricken areas," Herrera noted. "Consequently, the nutritious forbs and protein rich sprouts of woody plants were not available during the first half of the antler-growing period. Antler development obviously suffered during this important period."

Then an unusual event happened -- the rains came -- South Texas had its spring in mid-summer! Rain fell heavily and generally throughout South Texas with some areas receiving more than 20 inches and soaked parched pastures for up to three weeks in July. The Atascosa, Frio, and Nueces rivers and their tributaries flooded and filled every lake, creek, stock tank and pothole in the region.

These timely rains have produced a flush of vegetation and green not normally seen in late July in South Texas, said Herrera.

"This bodes well for the remainder of the deer antler-growing period. Although deer antler frame was already set during the poor early part of the year, there is no doubt that these excellent range conditions during the rest of the summer will be good for adding some inches to tine length, mass, beams and maybe a small point or kicker here and there."

Herrera noted that fawn survival should also improve because of the same range/habitat conditions. He predicted that hunters could expect deer in excellent body condition if normal early fall rains come.

Quail numbers remain fair to good in South Texas. Roadside cruise surveys resulted in 36.3 quail per route in 2001 indicating the best hatch in five years. Although this year's survey indicated a poor hatch, biologists are reporting fair to good numbers and coveys of quail. Hunting prospects, though, will vary from one part of the region to the other, Herrera noted.

"Areas with quality quail habitat and on properly managed sites will offer hunters better opportunity."

Like quail, turkeys are ground nesters and require ground moisture and cover along with rainfall to promote insect production. Turkey production in 2001 was the third best in the last 10 years. Summer 2002 production surveys indicate a poor hatch due to poor range conditions. Turkeys normally live about to 4-5 years of age. South Texas had poor hatches in 1998-2000. Consequently, there will be fewer "boss gobblers" available to hunters in 2002-03. Turkey hunting in South Texas should be good to excellent despite past poor production and continuing drought, Herrera predicted.

Trans Pecos (West Texas)

The central and eastern parts of far West Texas have received decent summer rains and range conditions look good, according to Alpine-based TPWD biologist Mike Hobson, but everything north of Interstate 10 hasn't had much drought relief to date.

"I'm hoping this is a clear sign that we're seeing some drought recovery in parts of the Pecos," he noted.

These rains should be beneficial for mule deer, Hobson said.

"The rains were probably too late to have much effect on antler development but hunters should see improved body conditions this fall nonetheless. What it also means is that mule and whitetail deer don't have to move as far to get a full belly so it might make hunting a little tougher, they might not go across that flat to water because they can feed without moving."

Antelope populations have yet to recover from drought conditions in the region, Hobson noted, and as a result only a minimum number of permits will be issued again this year.

"Our issuance will parallel last year, somewhere between 450 and 500 permits, whereas on the high side there have been years where we issued 1,800 permits. Age-wise, there have always been decent animals to harvest, particularly in Hudspeth County."

Quail hunting should be above average, according to Hobson, considering the late hatches following this past summer's rains.

"Dove hunters were seeing a lot of young quail the first of September. Below I-10 the quail hunting ought to be decent; I'm not saying real good but it could be."