Cen­sus cru­cial to man­ag­ing deer pop­u­la­tion

An ac­cu­rate tally, kept year to year, is vi­tal tool in ranches’ per­mit process.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - Mike Leggett Com­men­tary

CAMP VERDE — “I’ve got a buck over here, but he’s ly­ing down,” spouts Steve Knight.

He swings the mil­lion-can­dle­power spot­light in a small arc, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the eyes of a bed­ded deer about 50 yards off the caliche road.

“That could be High Rack,” he says, us­ing the name I’ve given to a qual­ity buck that’s been hang­ing in this area since late sum­mer. The name is de­rived from the fact that the deer has as many as 20 points sprout­ing off a tall set of antlers that’s no more than 14 inches at its widest spread. Some­where out there in the dark­ness is the deer we’re look­ing for. This could be him, or it could be just an­other nice buck that lives on the ranch. The spot­light is part of the tool­box on this hot, muggy night in early Septem­ber. The deer is one of more than 130 we’ll see tonight, all lit up by the burn­ing lights as they swing back and forth over the brush.

But we’re not get­ting a head start on the night hunt­ing busi­ness. We’re look­ing for every deer we

can see on Bobby Parker’s Camp Verde Ranch, 1,300 acres of pris­tine Hill Coun­try moun­tains and canyons, as we con­duct the an­nual pop­u­la­tion sur­veys.

The in­for­ma­tion will go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife De­part­ment’s Wildlife Di­vi­sion to be use to cal­cu­late the over­all pop­u­la­tion and the num­ber of Man­aged Lands Deer Per­mits that Parker will re­ceive for the com­ing sea­son.

A con­tro­ver­sial topic since they were con­ceived as a way to al­low landown­ers more flex­i­bil­ity in con­trol­ling deer num­bers across the state, MLDPs have be­come a pop­u­lar way to ex­tend hunt­ing sea­sons and al­low landown­ers room to take deer when they see them, with­out hav­ing to bring in hun­ters to do the culling.

Parker still con­ducts a num­ber of hunts each year to help young­sters and other folks with­out an­other place to hunt. And the per­mits have helped him be­gin to get a han­dle on a deer pop­u­la­tion that had sky­rock­eted al­most out of con­trol in the past few years.

“We would be lost with­out MLDPs,” Parker says. “We wouldn’t be able to keep work­ing on our num­bers and still be able to pro­duce qual­ity deer that we want on the ranch.”

Parker and his fam­ily and friends have har­vested more than 600 deer off the ranch in the past three years, with bucks and does in al­most equal num­bers.

“Our buck-doe ra­tio has stayed pretty much 1-1,” he says, “and we want to keep it that way. Plus we want to re­duce our num­bers to try to get our pop­u­la­tion closer to a deer to 6-7 acres.”

That takes lots of work and lots of hun­ters, but the MLDP pro­gram has helped with the process.

Ba­si­cally, qual­i­fy­ing ranches are al­lowed to be­gin hunt­ing at the ear­li­est open­ing date in their county and con­tinue hunt­ing pretty much through Fe­bru­ary. Landown­ers are given a spe­cific num­ber of per­mits for bucks and does, and any sin­gle hunter can fill as many of those per­mits as pos­si­ble.

In ex­change, ranches keep in­for­ma­tion about body weights, sex, age and hun­ters that is turned over to TPWD at the end of the sea­son. That al­lows the state to keep track of the progress each ranch makes in meet­ing its har­vest goals.

Long­time ranch man­ager Steve Ashen­fel­ter re­tired ear­lier this year, and Parker asked that I help him with his man­age­ment on the ranch. We had to con­duct three night­time cen­sus counts, record­ing each an­i­mal we saw as a buck, a doe, a fawn or un­known in the case of an­i­mals that showed only their eyes and noth­ing else about their sex.

Parker and I also met with lo­cal TPWD bi­ol­o­gist Johnny Arredondo to dis­cuss man­age­ment plans for the ranch and be­gin the process of qual­i­fy­ing for the per­mits this year. Arredondo is a young man who knows Hill Coun­try deer and has been work­ing with ranches in the area for years.

We talked about our plans for pop­u­la­tion and har­vest, and we took a tour of the ranch. Arredondo had driven the ranch ear­lier to set up the cen­sus lines ac­cord­ing to de­part­ment stan­dards for vis­i­bil­ity and the size of the ranch.

Dur­ing the course of the three nights, we saw lots of deer, though very few of the tro­phy deer we’ve been see­ing on game cam­eras. Those trail cam­eras can also play an im­por­tant part in the har­vest plan­ning on Texas ranches. They give ranch­ers the chance to iden­tify cer­tain bucks as har­vest can­di­dates and to de­ter­mine ages, as well as a rea­son­able buck-doe ra­tio for the ranch.

Each night, Knight and I drove half of the cen­sus line, with Parker join­ing us for the fi­nal half later in the evening. We counted dozens of feral hogs and more than 100 deer per night, most of them does, which means there’s still lots of work to do on the pop­u­la­tion. The counts were in line with pre­vi­ous years but in­di­cate a bet­ter over­all num­ber due to the har­vest over the past few years.

But the counts aren’t there for ex­act num­bers. The de­part­ment uses a sta­tis­ti­cal pro­to­col that ar­rives at an es­ti­mated num­ber for the ranch. That’s based on pre­vi­ous counts, which is why the counts are so im­por­tant. They are just one part of the equa­tion that helps each ranch keep pop­u­la­tions within the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of the habi­tat.

“We’ve made lots of progress, but we still have a way to go to get where we want,” Parker said. “We’ve still got to work on our hogs and keep get­ting our pop­u­la­tion lower than it is.”

CON­TRIB­UTED

This big white­tail buck, cap­tured in a game cam­era photo from Bobby Parker’s Camp Verde Ranch, could be a can­di­date for hunt­ing this fall as Parker con­tin­ues pop­u­la­tion con­trol on the ranch.

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