With a population of about 5.4 million and a growth rate of 3.8 percent annually, it is pretty clear that Texas has a vibrant white-tailed deer herd. The only question is: is it too big and is it growing itself out of habitat?
In Texas it is impossible to talk about the deer population in generalities. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recognizes 10 ecological areas across the state, all of which have deer. However, each ecological district is so different and so large it is like managing herds in 10 different states.
“It’s difficult to predict where the statewide deer population is going,” said Alan Cain, TPWD deer program leader. “If I look at our survey estimates I expect the population trend to continue to increase although at a very slow pace.”
Narrow the question down to whether 5.4 million is a high or low number, and the question gets harder to answer.
“In context of too few or too many deer it really depends on the area and scale you are talking about or the region,” Cain explained. “There are certainly areas where the deer population could be reduced, part of the Hill Country for example, but in other areas harvest is acceptable with the deer population. Overall, I’d say we are doing good with the deer population in Texas.”
In this era Texas’ white-tailed deer really have no known predators that make a major impact on population numbers other than man. Cain said he knew of no research involving the impact of wild pigs on deer populations, but while both have been increasing over the last 15 years it would seem there is no impact beyond the pigs chasing deer away from feeders or food plots and out of hunters’ sight.
“Coyotes may have impacts on fawn crops on a localized scale, but not a significant impact at the county or TPWD deer management unit scale,” Cain explained.
Research has shown coyotes will prey on deer fawns, but how much depends on factors like cover, rodent populations, other food sources, coyote densities and more.
That leaves hunters as the primary predator responsible for keeping deer numbers in check. Over the last five seasons hunters have averaged taking 822,000 deer a year, including 883,000 last season.
The problem is harvest recommendations do not come in a one-size-fits-all package statewide or on a local basis.
“I don’t tend to talk in terms of an optimum harvest rates for does or a deer population because it really depends on the landowner’s deer management goals, the current deer density and impacts that populations are having on the native habitat,” Cain said.
The biologist said in some places where deer numbers are so high it is impacting the native food source, hunters may need to remove 50 percent or more of the herd. In other locations with emerging populations, the harvest rate might need to be 10 percent or less.
“If the deer population and habitat were in balance then as a manager you might want to remove a number of bucks and does equivalent to annual recruitment to keep the population stable,” Cain said. “What that harvest rate is depends on recruitment.”
Seldom is the habitat identical even on neighboring properties, nor are they managed the same for livestock, timber, farming or hunted the same. All of these things factor into a harvest strategy.
“From a landscape scale (county or deer management unit) it’s difficult to define a harvest rate because the deer population is not uniformly distributed across the geographic area,” Cain explained. “Areas with better habitat tend to hold more deer and probably can sustain high harvest. Areas with low densities should probably have lower harvest. Thus deer population surveys are important to help determine appropriate harvest rates at localized scales such as a ranch, hunt club, or wildlife cooperative.”
There are areas of the state where populations are expanding for different reasons. Deer are expanding naturally into the Panhandle taking advantage of agricultural production. In the Blackland Prairies, a region sandwiched between the Post Oak and Cross Timbers regions from Waco north, deer numbers are growing as landowners and hunters become more interested in deer management. How much the population continues to expand in the region is going to depend on how landowners get on board with management because of land and habitat fragmentation, along with urban sprawl.
There are other areas, like East Texas, where there is still room for growth.
“Habitat quality and quantity plays a role in how those populations are distributed within the regions, including East Texas,” Cain said. “There’s certainly room to grow deer populations in East Texas or other regions, but landowners have to take an active role in improving deer habitat to support more deer.”
In most cases harvest is limited based on the amount of freezer space hunters have available. However, for those needing to harvest more deer there are options like Hunters for the Hungry to donate venison and help with their deer management. In the Tyler area, Carnes Deer Processing in Whitehouse is a program participant.