Ethical Hunter

The Texas Drought and Deer

Texas is in the midst of one of the worst droughts — in depth and expanse — since the early 1900s. The state has only gotten about 6 inches of rain so far this year, compared the 13 inches it should have by now. There’s no relief in sight. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center said La Nina weather patterns could extend the blistering drought into 2012.
The record conditions have left the state’s natural ecosystems in chaos. Wildfires have swept across the landscape and water holes and streams have dried up. Caught in this devastation are Texas whitetails.

These deer are no strangers to dealing with dry periods. Texas deer managers have long recorded and studied the short-term effects of drought on the state’s whitetail herd. Decreased antler size and spotty distribution as deer concentrate during dry years are commonly seen in years with below-average rainfall. However, the current extended drought could hurt deer populations in the state for years — perhaps decades.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, this year’s fawn crop was hit hard. Does already stressed from previous dry seasons abandoned many of their fawns soon after birth. This is a common natural mechanism. Whitetail does innately know when they will fail their newborns nutritional needs. Nature provides them with the ability to abandon the fawns so as to not sacrifice both mother and offspring in a losing effort. However, this can have long-term impacts on the herd by removing a large portion of a single age class from the herd.

“The fawns are not doing real good right now,” Dale Schmidt, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist in Llano, reported to the Austin American Statesman. “I’m getting quite a few calls on fawns down, and it’s probably not over yet.”

Trey Carpenter, another TPWD biologist, said the remaining deer have already exhausted food sources that would help them through winter and are now causing long-term habitat degradation. This habitat degradation is the aspect land stewards will face for years after the drought. It is also why, although the population is being hit hard by the drought, Texas is right to continue its deer season. Removing some deer now will further knock down the population, but preserve habitat, allowing the population to recover more quickly.

abandoned fawn

D&DH Reader Joshua Berckenhoff sent in this photo of a drought-abandoned fawn. It was one of several he found on his Texas property.

For  an in-depth look at Texas deer management and drought effects on whitetail antlers, check out Whitetail Racks by Dr. Dave Samuel and Robert Zaiglin. These biologists and hunters are the leading authorities on southern whitetail management.