Few people know that just southeast of Dallas, in Athens, lies a 10,000-acre spread where some of the most advanced techniques in wildlife management are being tested to determine how to boost the quality of the state’s declining white-tailed deer population. For many years, it has been the pet project of Texas millionaire Ed Cox Jr., who is also the chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Cox says it’s important to realize that white-tailed deer are deteriorating in body weight and antler size. But he adds that the deer are not declining in number-at least, not to the extent the public believes. He says that the deer population in Texas is so great (3.5 million) that it’s more likely for a deer to die from starvation or thirst than from a hunter’s bullet.
Cox says that there was a marked decline in deer herds throughout the state between 1965 and 1975 due to overpopulation and “underharvesting” (Cox’s term for the killing of deer by hunters with state permits). But there was no clear reason why good herds could not be found in East Texas.
Through study and observation under controlled conditions, Cox and resident biologist David Whitehouse have learned that 20 to 25 acres of land are needed to support a single deer. That ratio is termed the “caring capacity” of the land. Cox found that on many parcels of land in East Texas, only 25 percent of the deer living there could be supported by the land. Overgrazing of the land naturally leads to poor nutrition, which explains the reduction in the deer’s weight and antler size.
Whitehouse says that by controlling the number of deer, doing supplemental plantings and adding vitamins to special feeds, deer weights can be significantly improved. He says that mature bucks in the controlled area weigh between 150 and 160 pounds, which is about 20 pounds more than the typical weight for bucks in other parts of the state.
Some of the poorest wildlife management can be found in the Hill Country, says Cox. “With overpopulation, there is a deterioration in the quality of the animals. They are more subject to disease and drought,” Cox says. “When you destroy their habitat, it does not renew itself. There’s a delicate balance there. For example, in Kerr County, there are 80,000 head of deer, cattle, sheep, goats and exotics. The caring capacity of the land is just 30,000. If you take all that into account, in a few years the caring capacity will be 28,000, and in a few more it will be just 24,000.”
Another method of improving deer herds, Whitehouse explains, is through artificial insemination. He and Cox have been working in conjunction with Mississippi State University researchers to artificially inseminate does with semen taken from dead but genetically desirable bucks. The first fawn was born in the summer of 1983, and several more were born last year.
Cox concedes that a major problem with properly managing the state’s deer population is confronting what hunters call the “Bambi syndrome”: People feel empathy for the animals and don’t want to shoot them. “But deer are a renewable resource,” he says. “They can be harvested like a crop, and nature will replace them. If they are not harvested properly, then they can overpopulate themselves right out of existence.”