Texas, we have a problem: too many white-tailed deer. The overpopulation has gotten so bad, in fact, that the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is considering changes to its white-tailed deer hunting regulations in hopes that hunters will help cull the herd and add more venison to their freezers and plates.
While the statewide deer population isn't considered out of control, there are areas where density is above the desired capacity for the native habitat, says Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, via email.
Several factors have contributed to the population increase. Historically, large predators like wolves and mountain lions kept the numbers in check, but their habitats have dwindled due to urban development.
And deer hunting has simply changed over time. When deer hunting was once meant as a purpose for survival, doe weren't hunted as much so the species would survive. Even after doe days became legal, it was the big bucks — with trophy antlers — that hunters went after. And overpopulation finally caught up.
Now more than ever, hunting is central to controlling the deer. "Hunters play a key role in helping the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department manage deer populations by removing a portion of that population annually," Cain says. "After a hunter harvests one or two deer, their freezers are full, and they may not harvest additional deer that need to be removed to reduce the deer population."
But the new regulations, which will expand doe days in 23 counties and open a muzzleloader season in 32 counties, will provide more hunting opportunities — and more venison to fill up more freezers.
"We encourage hunters to utilize all their tags on their hunting license when and where appropriate, and to introduce new hunters or take others with limited access to hunting areas to the field in hopes of harvesting a deer," Cain says.
Cain did say Texas hunters are already either eating what they harvest or donating to charitable organizations like Hunters for the Hungry, so he's not sure harvesting more doe will encourage hunters to eat more venison. "I hope the changes will increase doe harvest in that region of the state, which would ultimately end up with more venison being consumed, whether by the hunter or whomever receives the venison."
In general, Cain says, Texas hunters are well-educated in deer management and strive to help regulate the population. "Our message to hunters, landowners and the public is that deer populations can and do have dramatic impacts on the native plant communities and habitats if left unchecked," Cain says. "Excessive deer densities have the potential to damage habitats that affect many other species that also rely on those native plants for survival."