Possible changes in the works by the TPWD include expansion of antler restrictions, which would let more deer age to maturity
For a buck deer other than a spike to be legal under Texas antler restriction rules, the buck's antlers must have an inside spread of 13 inches or more. For most Texas whitetails, that means the antlers must extend outside the tips of their ears when those ears are held horizontal.
This past week, just a few days into the 2008-09 general white-tailed deer hunting season, state wildlife managers unwrapped a bulging package of potential changes in regulations that would impact a majority of Texas' half-million-plus deer hunters.
The potential changes, three years in development, would place deer hunters in almost half of Texas' 254 counties under restrictions defining legal bucks by the configuration and dimensions of their antlers; expand the bag limit on antlerless deer in dozens of counties; lengthen the late muzzleloader-only season and expand it to an additional three-dozen counties; add more than 60 counties to the list offering a late-season antlerless deer/spike buck; and increase the youth-only deer season from two days to the entire month of October.
The potential proposals, aired this past week during a meeting of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission's regulations committee, are a result of state wildlife managers' refining their focus on deer management to reflect monitoring strategies based on more precise delineations of deer herd and habitat dynamics.
The recommended sweeping changes in deer regulation are intended to improve the health of the deer herd, increase hunting opportunity for the state's nearly 600,000 deer hunters, and allow wildlife managers to better and more precisely monitor effects of hunting regulations on deer populations in the widely diverse habitat niches across the state, said Mitch Lockwood, program leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's white-tailed deer program.
Expansion of "antler restriction" regulations are perhaps the most far-reaching change in the preliminary package of rule changes. Under the draft recommendations, 52 counties, mostly in the Cross Timbers and southern Pineywoods ecological areas, would join the 61 counties currently under TPWD's "antler restriction" rules.
Under these restrictions, only bucks with at least one unforked antler or with antlers where the main beams have an inside spread of at least 13 inches are legal to take.
The regulation is designed to address the problem of the crushingly heavy harvest of young bucks. In many counties, heavy hunting pressure on relatively small acreage or heavy hunting pressure on relatively low populations of deer results in few bucks living to maturity.
In all of the counties under consideration for these restrictions, more than 55 percent of bucks taken by hunters over recent seasons have been 2.5 years old or younger. In some, that figure accounts for as much as 70 percent of the harvest.
Regulations Have Support
Under antler restrictions, 60-80 percent of yearling bucks would be protected, TPWD staff said. Agency studies have shown most whitetail bucks with forked antlers will have an inside antler spread of 13 inches or more at 3.5 years or older.
Gauging a buck with a 13-inch antler spread is made fairly easy because a Texas deer's ears, when the deer holds them horizontally in the "alert" position, measure about 13 inches from tip to tip. If a buck's antlers are "outside the ears," the buck is almost certain to meet the 13-inch requirement.
Antler restrictions have proved amazingly effective at improving age structure in counties where rules have been utilized. Antler restrictions were first used in 2002, when six counties in the Post Oak Savannah were placed under the new regulations.
Before antler restrictions took effect, a little more than 75 percent of the bucks taken in those counties were 2.5 years old or younger, said Clayton Wolf, TPWD big game program director. About 15 percent were 3.5 years old, and only 4 percent were 4.5 years.
During the 2007-08 deer season in those six counties, abut 75 percent of the bucks taken were 3.5 years old or older, and a stunning 40 percent were at least 4.5 years old. About 20 percent were 1.5-year-old bucks - mostly spikes.
Buck harvest in counties that have been placed under antler restrictions have seen a slight decline in harvest in the first year of the new rules, but harvest is back to pre-restriction levels within a couple of seasons, TPWD data indicates.
While some hunters in counties previously placed under antler restrictions initially chaffed at the move, an overwhelming majority of hunters in those counties now support them .
Under the regulations TPWD is considering proposing, almost all counties in the eastern half of the state would fall under antler restrictions. The rules would be in effect in 113 of the 234 counties in which a whitetail hunting season is allowed.
Increasing harvest of antlerless deer is another major component of the prospective deer regulation proposals. In much of the state, the deer herd exceeds carrying capacity of the habitat, leading to severe damage of that habitat, poor health and body condition of deer, and low recruitment of fawns.
TPWD is considering proposing the increase of annual deer bag limit to five deer (from three or four, currently) in much of the state, with hunters in most of those counties allowed to take five antlerless deer but fewer (one to three, depending on the county) bucks.
As with the boost in the bag limit, increasing harvest of antlerless deer and enhancing opportunities for hunters is behind a recommendation to expand "special" deer seasons.
The current muzzleloader-only season, which runs after the close of the general season in 23 counties, would be lengthened from nine to 14 days and expanded to another three-dozen counties.
The antlerless-deer/spike season would be expanded to include most counties in Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers.
The "early" youth-only seasons would be expanded to include the entire month of October, and the "late" youth-only season would be extended to 12 days.
The comprehensive regulations package is being refined, and TPWD is looking for feedback from the public , Wolf told the commission. The agency plans to officially announce its deer regulations proposal in January.
The proposals will be subject to a series of public hearings across the state. The TPW Commission will consider adoption of rules changes at its March public meeting in Austin.
Any changes in deer hunting regulations would take effect Sept. 1, 2009.