As bad as the long-developing, two-year drought has been for Texas farm and livestock production, some say it has been as bad or worse for Texas wildlife, including the largest whitetail deer herd of any state in the United States.
Last whitetail deer season (2012), hunter harvest was down compared to recent years, largely as a result of acorn drop and other forage failures in much of the state. With just over 3.6 million deer in Texas, hunters had plenty of deer for a fair harvest last year, though some suffered in quality. Around 309,000 bucks and nearly 266,000 does were taken by an estimated 636,000 hunters; the number of hunters was down slightly, and that means fewer deer leases awarded on the average.
The drop was not significant overall, but a number of rural farm, ranch and private property owners statewide who have developed supplemental revenue sources off the healthy Texas hunting industry felt the pinch. They say fewer deer and fewer hunters over the last two years hurt overall economic conditions, especially for those who have relied more and more in recent years on hunting-related revenues as the drought cut into traditional farm and ranch profits.
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With daily deer hunting fees averaging between $150 to $2,000, and season leases starting at $1,000 a gun and topping out around $15,000 or more for a 100-acre year- round lease, hunting is big business in Texas. In fact, at $1.7 billion in hunting-related retail spending in Texas each year, the state leads the nation in the most money spent for hunting sales, and when the multiplier for lease revenues, hotels, fuel and food are included, the overall impact grows to over $3.6 billion a year.
Obviously, wildlife management and health are critically important not only to the state and every taxpayer who benefits from the economic support offered by the state's hunting and fishing industry, but especially to rural property owners who provide deer hunting services and facilities.
A complicated formula for determining the total number of hunting day opportunities in the state (number of hunters times the number of seasonal hunting days for deer and waterfowl), shows that Texas offers the largest number of days to hunters of any state in the nation with just over 14 million each year.
Anyone who owns rural property suitable for hunting operations and manages the wildlife of that property well has a good chance of capitalizing on the abundant revenues generated by the industry. But the amount of revenue and the success of a hunting lease operation depends each year on a good hunting season, which is determined by a number of factors including animal health, abundant natural food production to support wildlife, weather considerations such as famine and drought, and the over-all state of the economy any given season, all of which can result in more or fewer hunters.
Hunter, revenue prospects for 2013 season
While a clear dozen or more respectable hunting forecasts are published each year, each with quality information about prospects broken down by regions and in a few instances by counties, an overview of several of them seem to agree on a number of points about the upcoming 2013-2014 Texas whitetail open deer season, which starts in both north and south zones on Nov. 2.
Widespread rainfall across much of the state helped to bring relief to troubling drought conditions in most areas of the state, especially in the east and southeast regions of Texas, along the coast into south Texas and into the Texas Hill Country. Even out west, biologists say rainfall in late summer helped restore some natural growth that will benefit wildlife this year.
A few hunting forecasts project a better-than-average harvest with deer running larger and more abundant than last year—perhaps the best in 2 to 3 years. In addition, at least two Texas outdoor magazines and recent information circulated through a newspaper syndication service point to one of the best whitetail deer seasons in recent years with high lease-revenue expectations and a good chance for a bumper harvest.
Last year Texas hunters achieved a deer-per-hunter ratio of 0.91 deer per hunter, not bad for what many consider an off year. Estimates this year average just over one deer per hunter, in spite of more hunters predicted for the season. If this prediction holds, and the weather cooperates in the spring and again next fall, analysts say that could greatly enhance the chances of an even better 2014-2015 hunting year, along with a healthier and positive economic impact for rural Texas.
By the regions
Overall, forecasters say dry conditions push whitetail to food and water and decrease the distances they will travel and frequent. Last year the drought's worst impact may have been not only on the quality of the deer as a result of food shortages but also the limitations on movement caused by dry conditions. With substantial fall rain so far, movement should improve in heavy whitetail hunting areas across the Hill Country and in South Texas.
Forecasters say better habitat awareness and management over the last two years of drought, regardless in what corner of the state one might hunt, harvest opportunities are going to be better and as importantly, most deer should be healthier than over the last two years.
Texan Outdoors magazine is predicting whether a hunter goes to the Pineywoods thicket, a South Texas sendero, a Panhandle shelter belt or a Hill Country blind this fall, "the odds of seeing the best buck ever are as high as they’ve ever been on any given fall afternoon."
While the numbers may be slow to come in until after the season, there is at least optimism by some who believe the season may be a greater benefit to rural lease operators than in recent years, a positive development for thousands of farmers and ranchers who benefit from the Texas hunting season each year.
Most agree the state is still far away from returning to the milk and honey hunting days of times past, at least until average or better rains fall over multiple years. But they also agree that any improvement in the positive economic impact created by a healthy Texas whitetail deer season this year will be a good one for property owners and hunters alike.