Deer & Bird Season Changing?

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This past week, while hundreds of thousands of Texas hunters were gathering their gear and preparing for the opening of the 2011-12 deer and waterfowl seasons in most of the state, wildlife and fisheries managers were focused on the 2012-13 hunting seasons.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission‘s regulations committee, state wildlife and fisheries staff briefed members on regulation changes they are considering proposing for 2012-13.

The package of potential proposals includes restructuring quail seasons and bag limits, allowing hunting for white-tailed deer in four counties currently having no open deer season and closing pheasant hunting in three coastal counties.

As is the case across the bobwhite quail’s North American range, Texas’ quail population continues on a long-term decline, with the grassland-dependent birds all but vanishing in East Texas and the Edwards Plateau and seeing steadily dropping numbers in most of the state. Texas’ quail population, as gauged by the annual Breeding Bird Survey, has declined an average of almost 3 percent each year over the past 40 years.

The number of quail hunters and quail harvest has similarly declined. A quarter-million Texans hunted quail in the 1970s; that dropped as low as 50,000 in recent seasons. And quail harvest has seen an even more dramatic decline, falling to barely 20 percent what it was 30 years ago.

Texas’ long-term quail decline, which managers blame mostly on fragmentation and loss of the diverse habitat the birds require, has been exacerbated by drought.

To the limit

While regulated hunting is not a cause of Texas’ statewide quail decline, it can be an additive mortality factor, particularly in years of poor quail production.

Texas long has had a liberal statewide quail season and bag limit – a four-month season and a 15-bird daily limit.

While that season length and bag limit may be fine in the state’s best quail country when wet conditions trigger a quail population boom, it’s obviously not smart in areas and in years when quail populations are struggling.

“We’re looking at managing (quail) on a regional basis instead of statewide,” Robert Perez, upland game bird program manger for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told the committee.

To that end, the agency is developing a proposal that would divide the state into regions based on its quail population and habitat status and set season length and bag limit accordingly.

While quail numbers across the state have declined, pheasant populations in three coastal counties are nonexistent. Yet the state continues to list an open hunting season for the birds.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, TPWD released more than 17,000 pheasants on coastal prairie in an effort to establish self-sustaining populations of the Asian game birds.

The stockings failed, as the coastal prairie proved unsuitable habitat for the pheasant, and the program was canceled.

To allow hunters to take the few remaining pheasants before coyotes and other factors finished them off, TPWD set a pheasant season to run concurrent with the quail season and allowed hunters to take as many as three cock birds each day.

In 2003, TPWD canceled the pheasant season in all coastal counties except Jefferson, Chambers and Liberty counties, where a handful of stocked birds remained.

The pheasant populations in those three counties have since “blinked out,” Perez said. And the agency wants to do the same with the pheasant season in those counties.

“It does become a bit of a credibility issue with the agency to have a pheasant season in counties with no pheasants,” Carter Smith, TPWD executive director, told the committee.

Doe a deer

In a move the other direction, the agency is considering proposing opening a hunting season in four counties that have huntable populations of white-tailed deer but no hunting season for the state’s most popular and populous game animal.

Galveston, Rockwall, Dallas and Collin counties hold fair numbers of whitetails on the fragments of habitat remaining in these mostly-urban/suburban counties. But deer hunting hasn’t been allowed in the three North Texas counties in more than 25 years, and longer in Galveston County.

While these deer herds face a daunting future from urbanization and development, they are doing just fine in the remaining pockets of habitat.

“There’s no biological reason not to allow a hunting season in those counties,” Alan Cain, TPWD whitetail deer program leader, told the committee.

The agency is considering an archery-only deer season in Dallas, Collin and Rockwall counties and a standard deer season in Galveston County for 2012-13.

Galveston County’s deer season would mirror the one currently allowed in Harris County, where similar isolated deer herds thrive in fragments of remaining habitat. That season would include an archery-only season during October and a general (firearms and archery) season from the first Saturday in November through the first Sunday in January. Annual bag limit would be four deer, no more than two bucks and two does, with antler restrictions applying to bucks.

A matter of opinion

TPWD plans to hold public meetings across the state over the coming two months to air its potential proposals for changes in hunting and fishing regulations and solicit public input before developing its final set of proposals.

That package of proposed changes will be presented at a Jan. 25 meeting of the TPW Commission and considered for adoption at the group’s March 29 public meeting.

Any adopted regulations will take effect Sept. 1, 2012.