The white-tailed deer’s popularity is especially augmented by its adaptability and abundance. This malleable herbivore is not only abundant, but it also can live just about anywhere — from our back yards to the deep, dark forests of Canada, providing sportsmen ample and affordable hunting opportunities.
By Bob Zaiglin
Although the whitetail has always been a highly recognized game animal, its current popularity has been elevated by its most unique attribute — antlers — which, as a result of intensive wildlife management practices, have steadily increased in size, making deer even more attractive to discriminating hunters and economically valuable to landowners.
When the Boone and Crockett scoring system became widely popular in the 1970s, sportsmen and wildlife managers acquired a tool to measure progress based on the thing most hunters were interested in: antler size. For example, the average Boone and Crockett gross score of deer in a particular age class in one area could be compared to another proceeded by the analysis of management practices conducted on the two areas. Nowhere was this more evident than in the brush country of South Texas.
The area renowned for the production of exceptional antlered deer in Texas is within an irregular triangular-shaped area called the “Golden Triangle.” The triangle encompasses a region defined by Eagle Pass, east to Cotulla, and south to Laredo, with the Rio Grande River representing its western boundary. Bucks in this harsh, semi-arid region of thorn-scrub develop large racks for several reasons. One reason is the size of landholdings. Ranches within the triangle have historically been large.
Expansive ranches restricting hunter access afford bucks protection from excessive harvest. A conservative buck harvest relinquished the paramount component to the development of larger antlers — age — to demonstrate its impact. Bucks within this fabled environment are allowed to reach their optimal antler-producing years. This is one of the reasons antler quality remained good.
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Outstanding Native Foods
South Texas deer also benefit from a diet composed of a richly diverse and nutritious plant community.
During a spring of average precipitation, the nutritional value of some forage can exceed 21 percent crude protein. Even the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus, which contains about 7 percent crude protein, is fortified with carbohydrate, representing an important source of energy for deer. This is particularly important for mature bucks during the post-rut period, when they experience substantial weight loss. Prickly pear represents a valuable energy source when deer need it most. I refer to it as the whitetail’s candy bar.
The abundance and diversity of plant species occurring within the triangle is dependent on several factors, none more important than soil type. Within this region is a preponderance of red, sandy loam.
Sandy soils are more efficient in absorbing rain. Sand particles are much larger than clay particles, so they are less compact and more efficient than clays in absorbing moisture. On clay soils, water simply runs off, with little entering the compacted soil. This is the principal reason red, sandy soils produce protein-fortified forbs in abundance. In South Texas, forb production equates to quality antler production.
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Drought is the whitetail’s greatest nemesis. The South Texas Golden Triangle’s average annual precipitation is around 16 inches. That is not too bad if scattered throughout the year, but often as much as 60 percent of annual precipitation occurs at one time.
The evaporation rate is also excessive, but in an average rainfall year, with precipitation occurring periodically throughout the spring and early summer, antler size increases as a result of the resilient brush and the abundance of highly digestible foods.
Drought, although ubiquitous in South Texas, actually benefits the soil, because less leaching occurs, enabling soils to retain the various minerals critical to plant vitality.
Another advantage this area possesses is a natural deer population control mechanism. Although many landowners understand the importance of a balanced harvest, few are successful at harvesting adequate numbers of does to ensure their herds remain within the carrying capacity of the land. This is where predators and periodic droughts play significant roles.
During fawning season, which peaks around mid-July, newborns are subjected to subpar habitat conditions. Doe-fawn survival seldom exceeds 30 percent. With excessive temperatures, accompanied by incessant wind, transpiration saps the life out of the vegetation. Forbs dissipate, and brush growth stagnates. Once this occurs, nutritional quality drops dramatically.
Not only must deer endure intense heat, they must do so on a poor-quality diet. This not only affects antler development, but more importantly, herd health, particularly lactating does, upon which fawns depend. Fawn survival is minimal, particularly during the first three months after parturition, July through September, representing a critical nutritional stress period. The distribution of a high-protein pelleted feed is a common practice to assist deer through such critical periods.
More important, drought reduces standing water and escape cover. During extensive dry periods, deer are forced to concentrate near water, and fawns have fewer places to hide, enhancing the coyote’s efficiency.
Although the Golden Triangle has historically produced many trophy bucks, deer managers continually search for methods to improve deer quality. Modern hunters and managers look at deer herds differently than they did in the 1970s. Today, sportsmen are becoming more discretionary in letting young deer walk so the animals reach the optimum antler-producing years of 6½ years or older.
Landowners, realizing a substantial economic return from deer, are reducing livestock densities and are beginning to take deer into consideration whenever land-clearing practices are conducted, resulting in increased deer quality.
For some areas of South Texas, larger bucks occur in abundance because of high fences. But this is not always the case. The construction of game-deterrent fences has escalated during the past 20 years, but much of South Texas remains conventionally fenced. Remember, quality-racked bucks occurred in South Texas long before high fences. Game-deterrent fences represent an effective management tool, but a high fence does not ensure the production of trophy-class deer. It is simply another tool managers employ to control deer numbers, but without quality habitat or the ability of bucks to reach maturity, exceptional antlers will fail to materialize.
Although South Texas is often heralded as a natural big-buck mecca, it would be challenging to find another region where deer receive as much professional attention.
Investigations in Texas deer management, for the most part, can be attributed to landowners, the ultimate land stewards and decision makers. These are individuals dependent on the land for a livelihood, exhibiting an insatiable desire to improve their deer herds. They are characterized as aggressive overachievers continually searching for more efficient management strategies to augment the value of their land. As a result of their efforts, strategies are beginning to involve nonconventional management strategies.
Some managers have used a culling strategy in an attempt to reduce bucks exhibiting less than desirable antler traits, allowing bucks developing exceptional antlers to survive to propagate these traits. However, research has provided evidence that individual bucks, regardless of antler size, might only breed two or three does per year, and some don’t breed at all.
One study conducted by Dr. Randy DeYoung and his associates at Texas A&M-Kingsville actually genotyped 439 individual deer to examine just who does the breeding.
Twenty-three percent of those genotyped were 1½ years old, 19 percent were 2½ and 57 percent were 3½ or older. What these researchers discovered was that 70 percent of the offspring were fathered by 3½-plus-year-old males, but 1½- to 2½-year-olds fathered 30 percent of the offspring. No buck sired more than five offspring during a year, and bucks sired an average of 1.6 offspring per year.
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Improving Individual Properties
To capitalize on individual bucks exhibiting desirable antler traits, high-fenced managers in Texas can now obtain a state-sanctioned deer management permit, which allows them to capture and temporarily confine a buck along with a maximum of 20 does in a 5-plus-acre pen on a particular ranch. By selectively capturing the largest-racked buck on the property and confining it with 20 does, it ensures that all does will be bred by one desirable buck, increasing the probability of augmenting the highly desirable phenotypic traits exhibited by the sire.
One study by Hellickson and Hewitt, also from Texas A&M-Kingsville, provides evidence that DMP strategies work. According to these researchers, the gross Boone and Crockett scores for DMP pasture yearlings is 37.4 inches compared to 31.3 inches in non-DMP pastures. The gross B&C scores for DMP pasture 2-year-old bucks was 88.8 inches, compared to 74.3 inches in non-DMP pastures. The gross B&C scores for DMP pasture 3-year-old bucks was 121.4 inches, compared to 102.3 inches in non-DMP pastures.
Based on this study, the application of DMP activity on a particular landholding has merit, but it requires much more research to more fully understand its genetic ramifications.
An alternative concept is to obtain a buck of known superior lineage from a licensed deer breeding facility and place it in the DMP pen along with native or pen-raised does of known lineages to capitalize on highly desirable yet proven genotypic traits.
Another application is to live-capture bred does, using a trap-transport-transplant permit from ranches containing surplus numbers of does yet recognized for bucks exhibiting desirable antler traits. The does are then transferred to a ranch attempting to establish an increase in antler size, much like the attempt to augment the size of bass.
Many of these nonconventional practices have been conducted during a brief period, thus little research has been conducted to determine results. More importantly, they remain extremely costly. It is also important to understand that a hunting experience cannot be measured in length of antler, and as managers of this valuable renewable resource, we must recognize that the quality of a hunting experience is inversely proportional to the amount of artificiality it takes to create it.
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The End Result
Never in the history of hunting has buck quality been as good as it is currently, but it comes at a price. Deer management is expensive, and someone has to pay for it. As a result of advanced management, antler size continues to increase, making those once expensive bucks now affordable, particularly for those now entering the sport.
The techniques now being investigated on some Texas high-fence ranches are not well accepted by sportsmen inside and outside its boundaries. But the transplantation of deer throughout the Southeast after the massive die-offs as a result of epizootic hemorrhagic disease during the late 1940s and early ’50s was heralded as a huge success.
In reality, Texas can be viewed as a large test tube from which new and innovative management strategies could benefit deer herds outside its boundaries.
Then again, based on future results, maybe not.
— D&DH Field Editor Bob Zaiglin is a certified wildlife biologist from Uvalde, Texas. He works as a wildlife consultant and the lead instructor of the wildlife management program at Southwest Texas Junior College.