Wildlife

Coming off one of the wettest falls and winters in 2018, much of Texas is currently experiencing below normal rainfalls. That could impact things like antler development, fawn survival and upland game bird nesting.

The Texas deer season is not completely done for everyone, but for those who have already put up their rifle or bow it is time to start looking to next fall.

The season is still going for some with Managed Lands Deer permits, and that points to a potential problem. For many hunters, this was a tough year. Yes, there were some good deer put on the ground, but it was not an easy year and there is a good chance harvest numbers could be down when the final counts are made. The problem statewide was mild weather throughout the season and an abundance of acorns across much of the range that kept deer from having to move.

While a hindrance this season, both of those negatives could be positives as bucks drop their antlers and begin to grow new ones and soon-to-be nursing does should be in good shape as their life cycle changes.

However, there is a looming problem. This time a year ago, much of the range across Texas was flush with fresh growth following one of the wettest falls and winters in some time. That came to a screeching halt last summer and now about 40 percent of the state is in moderate drought conditions and just over 10 percent is already facing severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The areas impacted by drought begin in south and southwest Texas and extend all the way to East and Northeast Texas.

The current status is a long way from October 2011 when 88 percent of the state was in an exceptional drought, a period of extended drought that almost completely took out a year-class of deer, quail and turkey.

The concern is that much of spring green-up that wildlife depends on normally gets its start in the fall in Texas. That is when the rains traditionally come and saturate the soil. Using Tyler as an example, in 2018 the city received 29.7 inches of rain from September through December. This year only 5.68 inches were recorded. The average is 16.53.

The good news is that for now the long-range forecast through February is calling for mild temperatures. If that is the case, deer should be able to make it through the winter, but this is one of those years that it would be good if hunters could leave feeders running until March if they don’t normally switch to protein after the season.

The next concern statewide is going to be the quality of natural food sources available this spring. While it is normally not as big an issue in East Texas and areas where warm weather food plots are planted, both bucks and does need as much high protein as possible leading into summer.

Almost as soon as bucks drop their antlers, the growing process begins again, and where they end in November depends greatly on the quality of food available during the six-month or so growing period.

Just as important to fawn survival this year is the quality of forage available to the doe. It not only impacts the quality and amount of milk available to this spring’s fawns, but also helps her be in better shape during the next breeding cycle.

Of course, it is not just deer that are weather dependent. Game birds like quail and turkey also need the rainfall for successful nesting and survival of their young. Like deer, the quail and especially Rio Grande turkey hens need the protein of the fresh green grass for egg structure. It is also important for nesting cover, and the bugs that come with the green-up are a key food source for the hatchlings.

Lake levels across much of the state are down. Some to the west and south have never rebounded since the last drought. In East Texas, there is a checkerboard of lake levels with one being full and another 30 miles away being down 2 feet or more. A year ago, those lakes that are now down were so full that water was running over the spillway.

Fishing is not as impacted by the lack of rain, but a fishery can be hurt by low water levels depending on when it occurs. Fish will still spawn, they will just move farther away from the normal shoreline to build nest. The problem is if the normal vegetation line is out of the water, fingerlings will not have places to hide, making them more susceptible to predation. That could result in a reduced year class.

In recent years, it seems as if seasonal weather in Texas has shifted about a month on the beginning and end, so conditions are not a lost cause yet. It is something to keep an eye on with warmer temperatures approaching.

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