Trans-Pecos Mule Deer Population Declines 40 Percent – Mule Deer Hunting Season is Lengthened

Far-West Texas: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has extended the mule deer season through the last Sunday in January for those properties operating under Managed Land Deer Permits (MLDP).

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West Texas mule deer population trends remain alarming. According to the report posted above, the TPWD count “raw data” of actually-seen mule deer, indicated a decline of 40 percent in mule deer numbers from 2009 to 2012. While the estimated 2012 fawn crop was better than that of 2011, it remains well below the long-term average of 40 percent-45 percent.

The effect of longer hunting periods and better hunting equipment, combined with overestimates of mule deer numbers and the inevitable gaming of these vague formulae, means greater pressure on a herd which has already declined 40 percent. On top of that, extrapolating from samples, as many as 30 percent of the survivors in the areas where Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) exists are now infected with a fatal disease, spreading rapidly at an unknown rate towards an unknown level.

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All CWD cases can be traced back to Colorado. All Colorado cases can be traced back to the Front Range Experimental Station, operated by the Colorado Department of Game and Fish. The disease appeared in high-fenced experimental areas where domestic animals infected with this disease were confined with mule deer and elk. The disease is highly contagious, always fatal, and spreads more quickly with high fencing and artificial feeding.

The Managed Land Deer Permit (MLDP) for mule deer was introduced by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department against objections of many old-time Texas ranchers. The ranchers strongly felt the best way to protect these animals was to maintain a short season. Their advice and predictions were dismissed.

We, the Gill family, were early advocates of the MLDP because the proposal offered the fail-safe of a genuine review, and, it gave those of us who do not live on our ranches a fair chance to hunt.

With that said, shorter seasons obviously reduce the deer kill. Even with 32,000 acres at Circle Ranch, it is impossible in a traditional mule deer season for us to locate and harvest more than a handful of animals in 16 days because of the logistics, terrain and physical limitations of our hunters. However, if that 16-day season is extended to 30 days, 60 days, or as now will be the case 90 days, permit utilization and harvest opportunities will increase.

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The report attached above states that the pronghorn permit utilization is 54 percent. In other words, the agency “over-issues” pronghorn permits so that everybody gets a chance to hunt but by keeping the season short we reduce the harvest under those permits.

It is the position of TPWD Mule Deer and Pronghorn Leader, Shawn Gray, the author of the attached report, that extended hunting periods do not produce increased kills. Shawn says mule deer counts give an accurate deer count and it doesn’t matter whether permits are taken in 60 days or 90 days. Even if that is true, the longer the season, the higher the percent of permits harvested.

Also however, the sampling techniques for determining mule deer densities are very suspect. They are based on methodologies that were originally used on whitetails. In general, conducting spotlight surveys in south Texas for whitetails is easier because areas are smaller, roads are more abundant, deer are more numerous and uniformly distributed.

In West Texas, the ranges are vast and in many parts inaccessible. Mule deer densities are sparse in comparison. Unlike whitetails, mule deer are more herd-oriented. Mule deer use terrain to hide, to protect themselves from bad weather in the winter and annoying insects in the summer. Mule deer are nomadic and range over tens of thousands of acres. Consequently, at Circle Ranch, we can go days without seeing a mule deer and then see dozens in a few hours, depending on their travel patterns. Unless everybody counts at the same time, some animals can be double-counted.

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Spotlight survey methods generally extrapolate sample sighting on the assumption that what is seen in the sample area covered is representative of the ranch. When this method is used on mule deer, the numbers are also adjusted according to some very subjective rules of thumb concerning habitat suitability. To say this is unscientific is an understatement. The spotlight survey technique has a tendency to overestimate mule deer numbers. Our surveys at Circle Ranch, conducted by TPWD staff, were wrong and led to over-shooting of a whole age-class of bucks.

Does and Young Bucks in Little Wood Canyon

Does and Young Bucks in Little Wood Canyon

The best way to survey mule deer is to conduct a helicopter survey, count what you see and don’t jigger (“correct”) the raw data. The “corrections” of raw data are easily made, sometimes for self-serving reasons, but often out of wishful thinking. Sticking to actual observations will lead to a more conservative estimate. Helicopter counts for many ranchers are prohibitively expensive because of the size of the property. Also, they are physically impossible on many West Texas ranches because of altitude, wind and terrain. In the absence of an affordable, reliable survey method, we should be conservative.

When the MLDP program began, which coincidentally coincided with mule deer decline, promises were made that the MLDP dates would be adjusted according to mule deer population trends.

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When faced with a 40 percent population decrease (or even “just” half of that) coupled with the emergence of CWD, common sense should prompt decision-makers to limit hunting pressure on mule deer, not increase it, but this would be unpopular among influential groups. Unfortunately, extending the hunting period allowed under the mule deer MLDP program is not a scientific decision, but a political decision reached, in my opinion, a year ago in Austin.

While popular with some, the MLDP extension violates the North American Game Management Model to which TPWD claims to adhere. The Model says that all wildlife decisions will be based on science.

And it breaks the promises made when MLDPs for mule deer was put in place.

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This extension will harm the mule deer resource in West Texas. In combination with multiple wildlife “management” perversities which deeply offend much of the public, including “clean-up” of elk and other species which are often shot from TPWD helicopters and left to rot, it sets hunting up for a political blowback.

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In decisions stretching from the shrimp and snapper grounds 80-miles offshore in the Gulf,

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…to oyster-dredge wreckage of our bays, estuaries and wetlands,

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…to the canyons and peaks of far-West Texas, TPWD has adopted overly liberal harvest recommendations driven by political expediency not sound science. This damages our wildlife and wildlife habitat.

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Currently, in the Panhandle an experimental extension of the pronghorn season has been approved with the following promise: “The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission also approved the experimental pronghorn buck season . . . which would allow landowners to control the harvest . . . the experimental season will be tested for three years and we will closely monitor pronghorn herds to insure populations remain healthy. However, if a negative biological impact is detected . . . the experimental season will be removed.”

These assurances are as familiar as they are hollow.

 

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Posted by Chris Gill

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

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